“Smoketown” revisits Pittsburgh’s 30-year black renaissance of athletes, entrepreneurs, crusading journalists and famous jazz musicians
While researching a family memoir, journalist Mark Whitaker discovered pictures of his Pittsburgh grandparents he had never seen.
One image shows his paternal grandmother, Edith McColes Whitaker, wearing a hat and pearls at a ladies luncheon in 1941. In the other, his grandfather, funeral director C.S. Whitaker Sr., presides at the burial of a black war veteran during the 1950s.
Mr. Whitaker, whose father grew up in Pittsburgh, visited his grandparents every summer. By then, his grandmother, who had a mortician’s license, had moved the Whitaker Funeral Home from the Hill District to Climax Street in Beltzhoover.
As Mr. Whitaker clicked through an array of Charles “Teenie” Harris pictures, he was astonished by the many famous faces of athletes, entrepreneurs, journalists and jazz giants who figured in Pittsburgh’s black renaissance from the 1930s to the 1960s.
There was boxer Joe Louis and baseball players Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige and Jackie Robinson. There was businessman Gus Greenlee, the Crawford Grill nightclub owner who bankrolled the Pittsburgh Crawfords baseball team. Composers Mary Lou Williams and Billy Strayhorn as well as Billy Eckstine, an influential band leader and vocalist, were among 50 musicians who honed their major league talents here. The Pittsburgh Courier, the nation’s most influential black newspaper, included columns by sportswriter Wendell Smith, who advocated successfully for the integration of baseball. Finally, there was playwright August Wilson, who set nine of his 10 plays in the Hill District.
“As extraordinary as all those people were, a lot of their success had to do with the fact that they came out of this extraordinary culture. I decided I wanted to tell that story,” the 60-year-old author said in a telephone interview. A New York City resident, he was the first African-American to serve as editor of Newsweek magazine.
His new book, “Smoketown:The Untold Story Of The Other Great Black Renaissance” revisits a time when thriving businesses, churches, clubs and theaters made the Hill District a cohesive, vibrant community.
A key influence among black readers was The Pittsburgh Courier, a weekly newspaper so influential that its circulation, for a few decades, exceeded The Chicago Defender. The Courier’s savvy editor, Robert Lee Vann, was the son of a slave and grew up sleeping in a North Carolina home’s kitchen while his mother cooked for a white family. Vann came north to Pittsburgh, attended the University of Pittsburgh on a scholarship and also earned a law degree there.
“He was a fiercely independent guy. He didn’t play ball with the black establishment. He knew a lot of them. He corresponded with them. But he also feuded with them,” Mr. Whitaker said.
Vann succeeded in urging African-Americans, who usually supported Republican candidates, to turn Abraham Lincoln’s face to the wall and vote for Franklin Roosevelt.
“There is probably no black national leader in 1932 who FDR owed more to when he was first elected,” Mr. Whitaker said.
Another influential journalist, Wendell Smith, was a Pittsburgh Courier sports columnist. He was a genial, persistent man with a positive attitude.
“He was crusading for the integration of black baseball week in and week out for a decade before Jackie Robinson comes on the scene. I think you can make a case that the ground would not have been ready for Branch Rickey’s great experiment if not for a lot of the work that Wendell Smith and the Courier had done,” Mr. Whitaker said.
Smith introduced Branch Rickey, general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, to second baseman Jackie Robinson. While Robinson broke the color barrier in major league baseball, Smith served as Robinson’s driver, ghost writer, spokesman and travel companion.
Black students benefited from learning to play classical music at Pittsburgh’s public high schools, especially Schenley and Westinghouse.
“Black folks would go out of their way to send their kids to those schools,” the author said, adding that pianist Earl “Fatha” Hines was sent to live with an aunt in East Liberty so he could attend Schenley.
“Billy Strayhorn‘s mother moved the family to a back alley in Homewood so that she could send Billy to Westinghouse,” the author said.
Strayhorn saved money from a drugstore job to pay for private piano lessons with Charlotte Catlin, an elegant black pianist who performed for Pittsburgh’s white society parties.
“She was an extraordinary pianist in her own right and taught all of these people. She came from this incredibly accomplished musical family. She had befriended Lena Horne and invited her to perform with her. She helped Lena develop the musical style for which she became known. If nothing else, I feel good about the fact that there is now in this book an acknowledgement of how extraordinary she was,” Mr. Whitaker said.
The author hopes his book will instill pride in Pittsburgh’s black renaissance.
“We live in an era now that there’s just so much attention paid to racism, to the history of oppression of blacks. What gets lost is the record of black achievement and black ambition and black contribution to our culture. That’s what’s great about the “Teenie” Harris photographs as well. They testify to the vibrancy and the joy that went along with all the hardship,” he said.
Marylynne Pitz at email@example.com, 412-263-1648 or on Twitter:@mpitzpg
Here’s the preface of “Smoketown: The Untold Story Of The Other Great Black Renaissance.”
By Mark Whitaker
TOWARD THE NORTHERN REACHES of the Appalachian Mountains, at the point where the East Coast ends and the great American Midwest begins, three rivers meet. The Allegheny flows from the north, gathering the tributaries of western New York State. The Monongahela cascades from the south, through the hills and hollers of West Virginia. Together, they form the headwaters of the Ohio, which meanders west all the way to Illinois, where it connects to the mighty Mississippi and its tentacles reach from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico.
Because of its strategic value, the intersection of these three rivers had generals named Braddock and Forbes and Washington fighting to control the surrounding patch of Western Pennsylvania two decades before the War for Independence. Because it allowed steamboats to reach the coal deposits in the nearby hills, the watery nexus made the city that grew up around it the nation’s largest producer of steel and created the vast wealth of businessmen and financiers named Carnegie, Frick, Westinghouse and Mellon whose legacies live on in the renowned libraries, foundations, and art collections funded by their fortunes.
That story of Pittsburgh is well documented. Far less chronicled, but just as extraordinary, is the confluence of forces that made the black population of the city, for a brief but glorious stretch of the 20th century, one of the most vibrant and consequential communities of color in U.S. history.
Like millions of other blacks, they came north before and during the Great Migration, many of them from the upper parts of the Old South, from states such as Maryland, Delaware, Virginia and North Carolina. As likely as not to have been descendants of house slaves or “free men of color,” these migrants arrived with high degrees of literacy, musical fluency and religious discipline (as well as a tendency toward light skin that betrayed their history of mixing with white masters, and with one another).
Once they settled in Pittsburgh, they had educational opportunities that were rare for blacks of the era, thanks to abolitionist-sponsored university scholarships and integrated public high schools with lavish Gilded Age funding. Whether or not they succeeded in finding jobs in Pittsburgh’s steel mills (and often they did not), they inhaled a spirit of commerce that hung, quite literally, in the dark, sulfurous air.
The result was a black version of the story of 15th-century Florence and early-20th-century Vienna: a miraculous flowering of social and cultural achievement all at once, in one small city. In its heyday, from the 1920s until the late 1950s, Pittsburgh’s black population was less than a quarter the size of New York City’s, and a third the size of Chicago’s — those two much larger metropolises that have been associated with the phenomenon of a black Renaissance.
Yet during those decades, it was Pittsburgh that produced the best-written, widest-selling and most influential black newspaper in America: The Pittsburgh Courier. From a four-page pamphlet of poetry and local oddities, its leader, Robert L. Vann, built the Courier into a publication with 14 regional editions, a circulation of almost half a million at its zenith, and an avid following in black homes, barbershops and beauty salons across the country.
In the 1930s, Vann used the Courier as a soapbox to urge black voters to abandon the Republican Party of Lincoln and embrace the Democratic Party of FDR, beginning a great political migration that transformed the electoral landscape and that reverberates to this day. In the 1940s, the Courier led crusades to rally blacks to support World War II, to win combat roles for Negro soldiers, and to demand greater equality at home in exchange for that patriotism and sacrifice. In the 1950s, its reporters — led by several intrepid female journalists — exposed the betrayal of the promise of a “Double Victory” and chronicled the first great battles of the civil rights movement.
In the world of sports, two Courier reporters, Chester Washington and Bill Nunn, helped make Joe Louis a hero to black America and a sympathetic heavyweight champion to white boxing fans. Two ruthless businessmen, racketeer Gus Greenlee and Cum Posey, the son of a Gilded Age shipping tycoon, turned the city’s black baseball teams, the Pittsburgh Crawfords and the Homestead Grays, into the most fearsome squads in the annals of the Negro Leagues, uniting such future Hall of Famers as Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, slugger Buck Leonard, and base-stealing demon “Cool Papa” Bell.
Another Courier sportswriter, Wendell Smith, led a campaign to integrate the big leagues, and was the first person to call the attention of Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Rickey to a young Negro League shortstop named Jackie Robinson. While covering Robinson’s first seasons in the white minor and major leagues, Smith served as Jackie’s roommate, chauffeur, counselor and mouthpiece, helping to soothe the historic rookie’s private temper and fashion the public image of dignity that was as crucial to his success as power at the plate and speed around the bases.
In the realm of the arts, Pittsburgh produced three of the most electrifying and influential jazz pianists of the era: Earl “Fatha” Hines, Mary Lou Williams and the dazzling Erroll Garner. It was in Pittsburgh that Billy Strayhorn grew up and met Duke Ellington, beginning a partnership that would yield the finest orchestral jazz of all time. Another Pittsburgh native, Billy Eckstine, became the most popular black singer of the 1940s and early 1950s, and played a less remembered but equally groundbreaking role in uniting Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Sarah Vaughan on the swing era bandstands that helped give rise to bebop. Then, in the mid 1940s, in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, a black maid born in North Carolina who had taken up with a white German baker gave birth to a boy who grew up to become America’s greatest black playwright.
Today, black Pittsburgh is best known as the setting of August Wilson’s sweeping Century Cycle: Fences, The Piano Lesson, and seven more of the 10 plays he wrote depicting black life in each decade of the 20th century. Wilson conjured it as a world full of tormented, struggling strivers held back by white racism and their own personal demons. It was a portrait that reflected the playwright’s affection for the black working class, as well as the harsh reality of what became of the Hill District and the city’s other black enclaves after the 1950s, when they were hit by a perfect storm of industrial decline, disastrous urban renewal policies, and black middle-class brain drain. So powerful was Wilson’s imaginary universe, and so thorough the destruction of those neighborhoods, that few in the thousands of audiences that have seen his plays or flocked to the movies that are now being made from them would know that there was once more to the actual place that the Courier writers liked to call Smoketown.
But there was more. A great deal more. Under the dusky skies of Smoketown, there was a glittering saga.
Mark Whitaker is the author of the memoir My Long Trip Home. The former managing editor of CNN Worldwide, he was previously the Washington bureau chief for NBC News and a reporter at Newsweek, where he became the first African American leader of a national newsweekly.
Copyright © 2018 by Mark Whitaker. From the book Smoketown: The Untold Story of the Other Great Black Renaissance, by Mark Whitaker. Printed with permission of Simon & Schuster.