The Second City of Black America
By Greg BarnhiselJuly 8, 2018
Smoketown by Mark Whitaker
And then there’s the Hill, Pittsburgh’s best-known African-American neighborhood, the setting for most of August Wilson’s 10 Pittsburgh Cycle plays. (The recent motion picture of Wilson’s Fences  was largely filmed in the Hill.) Swollen with Southern refugees from the Great Migration and beset by the legal and economic and social racism of the time, northern African-American neighborhoods like the Hill became vibrant centers of culture after World War I, and remained so through the late 1950s, when “urban renewal,” crime and violence, and continuing segregation began to decimate them. Most of the greatest black American artists, intellectuals, and businesspeople of the midcentury came from places like the Hill, Watts in Los Angeles, Bronzeville in Chicago, and, above all, New York City’s Harlem.
No one would dispute that the so-called “Harlem Renaissance” remains the most famous and most important gathering of black intellectual and artistic talent in American history. But in Smoketown: The Untold Story of the Other Great Black Renaissance, journalist Mark Whitaker argues that another “great Black Renaissance” took place at the same time, and lasted even longer, in a less likely spot: Pittsburgh, the Steel City, Hell with the Lid Off, “Smoketown.”
At least in terms of boldface names, Pittsburgh certainly had an impressive roster. Negro League baseball greats Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, Judy Johnson, and “Cool Papa” Bell played here (not to mention the Duchess of Sussex’s great-great uncle Bill “Happy” Evans). The Pittsburgh Courier’s staff, most notably publisher Robert Vann, columnist George Schuyler, and photographer “Teenie” Harris, made it the most important and widely circulated black newspaper in the nation. But it was the musicians that really put Pittsburgh’s stamp on the 20th century. Lena Horne, Billy Strayhorn, heartthrob crooner Billy Eckstine (whose career tanked in 1950 after Life ran a photo of a white woman nuzzling him), bassist Ray Brown, and guitarist George Benson all came from the city, and played with each other in the Hill of the 1930s and 1940s. Pittsburgh was the home of jazz piano, nurturing Erroll Garner, Earl “Fatha” Hines, Mary Lou Williams, and Ahmad Jamal.
It was an unlikely Medicean Florence. Located at about the halfway point on the train line between Chicago and New York, Pittsburgh was significantly smaller than either, its population topping out in 1950 at about 675,000 (making it the 12th largest city in the country at the time) with about 100,000 of them African American. Its universities were merely adequate; its art scene, conservative. Unlike New York, it had few outlets for promising writers until the Courier came around. And while some blacks worked in the city’s steel industry, racist factory rules or union policies — or a combination of both — tended to shut them out of the best jobs, and thus many ended up working the same low-skill, low-status jobs they would have had in any other city. So it wasn’t great cultural or economic opportunity that quickened this Renaissance. And while there was certainly money — in the early part of the century, Pittsburgh’s East End had more millionaires than any other neighborhood in the United States — very little of it reached the black population: the kind of white patronage that sustained so many of the Harlem writers was virtually unknown. Nor was there a tradition of culture and intellectual exchange like in Boston. So why did Pittsburgh become the second city of black America?
Whitaker proposes that the institutions that sprang up within Pittsburgh’s small black community did it: they brought the people with money together with the people with talent. These institutions then incubated the local scene while drawing in remarkable people from outside Pittsburgh. And while some of these institutions were entirely respectable — the music programs at Schenley and Westinghouse High Schools, for instance, or the Courier — others sprung from illicit sources. Gus “Big Red” Greenlee, for instance, ran the numbers racket in the Hill from the Crystal Barber Shop on Wylie Avenue, and his control of the black voting bloc in western Pennsylvania made him a power broker in state Republican politics, as well as the unquestioned big man of the Hill. Greenlee then invested the profits from the numbers game in two of the institutions that would define midcentury black Pittsburgh: the Crawford Grill nightclub and the Pittsburgh Crawfords baseball team, which eventually counted Gibson and Paige on its roster. Greenlee covered the Crawfords’ salaries and even built them a stadium on the Hill (a public-housing project, the Bedford Dwellings, now occupies the site of Greenlee Field).
Greenlee’s sponsorship of the Crawfords was in part motivated by his rivalry with another local luminary, Cumberland “Cum” Posey. Posey’s father, Cap, had made his fortune in the riverboat business, where he became “the only black man to ever receive a chief engineer’s license,” and built himself a mansion in Homestead, just up the Monongahela River from the city. Cum was much more interested in sports, and in 1912 he organized the semipro Homestead Grays. By 1930 the Crawfords and the Grays were the best teams in black baseball, their competition fueled by the personal tension between the gangster Greenlee and the respectable Posey.
Posey’s money had also provided the seed for the most important institution of the Pittsburgh black renaissance, the Pittsburgh Courier. In 1910, Cap Posey recruited a board of prominent black citizens to found a paper to serve the black community, selecting lawyer Robert Vann to be its editor and publisher. It’s almost impossible to overstate the importance of the Courier, not just to Pittsburgh’s African-American community but to black history in the United States. The Courier, Whitaker shows throughout his book, knit together Pittsburgh’s dispersed black inhabitants, who were by no means all living in the Hill. It defined the most important national causes that black leaders pushed for in the 1930s: color-blind hiring in factories, Roosevelt’s candidacy, greater opportunity for black soldiers. After World War II began, the Courier modified Winston Churchill’s famed V gesture into its so-called “Double Victory Campaign”: “the first V for victory over our enemies from without, the second V for victory over our [internal] enemies […] who perpetrate these ugly prejudices.” Courier stories closed with a double-V dingbat through the rest of the war.
Vann was a crusading journalist but he was also a businessman, and he resolved to take on the biggest black newspaper in the nation, the Chicago Defender. Stoking interest in issues that fired up his readers was one strategy, but Vann also cannily understood that celebrity juiced circulation. So in the 1930s the Courier gave saturation coverage to boxer Joe Louis, then the most popular figure in black America, as he fought for his race’s honor against Max Schmeling. The paper went national. Pullman porters — members of the largely black Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, who stopped in Pittsburgh on the busy Chicago–New York route — distributed the Courier to black readers throughout the American rail network from the 1920s on, giving the paper its national influence. (Claude McKay’s 1928 novel Home to Harlem documents the life of a Pullman porter, with a memorable set-piece about the protagonist’s Pittsburgh layover.) By 1938, the Courier’s circulation had reached almost 250,000 — with less than a 10th of its readers in Pittsburgh. It was “the most widely read black publication in the land, well ahead of […] the Defender.” The Courier’s influence increased as it agitated for the integration of baseball, and sports columnist Wendell Smith appointed himself Jackie Robinson’s “Boswell” and documented Robinson’s 1946–’47 rise from spring training to Montreal to, ultimately, Ebbets Field.
Whitaker also underscores how nightspots, particularly the Loendi Club and the Crawford Grill, also brought Pittsburgh’s creatives together. At the Crawford Grill, touring artists met local players and recruited them into their bands (as Duke Ellington did with Billy Strayhorn) or even married them (as Ella Fitzgerald did with Ray Brown). Scholars have long pointed to the importance of informal institutions in fostering cultural revivals — London coffeehouses in the 1700s, the Shakespeare and Company bookstore in 1920s Paris — and Whitaker’s book is a valuable if perhaps inadvertent contribution to this literature. It has the additional virtue of detailing how illicit enterprises (such as the numbers racket) can work symbiotically with legitimate institutions such as newspapers and public schools to build cultural capital among a marginalized population.
Just as so many of the causes it had energized started to succeed, Pittsburgh’s “Black Renaissance” collided with an even more powerful force: urban renewal. Starting in 1946, Mayor David L. Lawrence, banker Richard King Mellon, and other business and civic leaders resolved to transform the city, cleaning up its apocalyptic pollution and remaking the downtown core. In the 1950s the houses and light industry crowded around the Point were razed to create “Gateway Center” and Point State Park, reflecting Le Corbusierian “tower in a park” urban planning. But in 1955, the city announced that the Lower Hill — the crowded and sometimes ramshackle neighborhood that housed many of the Hill’s lower-income residents — would be condemned and cleared in order to build a Civic Arena for the municipal opera on the 100-acre plot. (In 1967, the expansion Pittsburgh Penguins NHL team moved in.) Eight thousand people, or a fifth of the Hill’s total population, were displaced and forced to find housing in such areas such as Homewood, East Liberty, Lincoln-Larimer, Beltzhoover, and the North Side. Further urban renewal then targeted some of those areas, with pedestrian malls replacing the busy streets of East Liberty and Allegheny City. Adding an exclamation mark to this dispiriting sentence, an expressway cut off the Hill from downtown, following a plan developed by none other than Robert Moses. The resentment about the destruction of the lower Hill has yet to subside, particularly among Pittsburgh’s black citizens, even after the Arena itself was torn down in 2012. And although the city has floated optimistic plans for resurrecting the neighborhood and connecting it again with downtown now that the arena is gone, the Penguins, who own development rights for the lot, have yet to fulfill the promises they made when they were granted control over this valuable central tract.
Today, Pittsburgh is undergoing another kind of “Renaissance.” The industrial city is largely gone, replaced by an economy based on “eds and meds”; kayakers now skim along the once-toxic rivers and the old smoke-spewing factories now hold loft apartments. An abandoned Nabisco factory on Penn Avenue that only 10 years ago boasted an intractable rat infestation is now “Bakery Square,” home to a Google office and a Panera. Much of the new development that now hosts these young, upscale companies and their young, upscale employees is taking place in East Liberty, the large, busy neighborhood whose population had since the 1950s become largely African American. Three large public-housing high-rises in the neighborhood were demolished in the late 2000s and property values for its row houses and Hulley houses have risen quickly. Recently, a large apartment complex in the neighborhood was torn down amid fierce protest from displaced residents who, remembering the city’s failure to honor its commitments when it obliterated the Lower Hill, don’t believe the developer’s pledges to develop low-income housing in this rapidly gentrifying area. (Local filmmaker Chris Ivey has been documenting the changes in East Liberty for a number of years now.)
Even as the city is rapidly developing, Pittsburgh’s racial disparities persist. In fact, even as grimy old Pittsburgh starts to look more like Portland or Austin, they seem to be getting worse. The black poverty rate here is the highest among any of the 40 largest metro areas, and as of 2008 nearly two-thirds of African American children in the Pittsburgh region lived in poverty —again, the highest rate in the nation. The unemployment rate for working-age African Americans in Pittsburgh is the second highest of the nation’s major metro areas. As the city transforms itself into a well-educated, high-tech center, those who have traditionally been shut out of economic and educational opportunities are finding that some of Pittsburgh’s advantages — plentiful (if modest) housing and a low cost of living — are disappearing. Pittsburgh is a finalist for Amazon’s “HQ2,” and while the company promises 50,000 jobs to the city that wins its contrived competition, it’s not only black Pittsburghers who doubt that living in the next Seattle or San Jose will make life better for the city’s lower-income residents.
Given the city’s recent history, Whitaker’s last chapter, on playwright August Wilson, is particularly pointed. Born at the tail end of the “Black Renaissance,” Wilson grew up in the Hill and in Hazelwood (a racially mixed neighborhood shadowed by the smokestacks of the Jones & Laughlin works) just as the city was tearing down the Lower Hill. Influenced more by the radical Black Arts Movement of the 1960s than by the Harlem Renaissance, Wilson’s plays reflect the anger and embitterment of his generation. At the same time, they channel the specific rage of midcentury black Pittsburghers who saw their thriving home destroyed by a white mayoral administration that used urban-renewal laws passed by a white Congress to build a concert hall intended to serve the city’s white elite, and then were left to fend for themselves. Many characters in Wilson’s plays — among them Troy Maxson in Fences (1985), Berniece in The Piano Lesson (1987), and of course the ancient recurring character Aunt Ester — carry memories of the racial terrorism of the South, but also the disillusionment of those who hoped the North would be different from what it turned out to be. Most readers and critics can see that the plays deal with the persistent, poisonous legacy of American racism, but Whitaker makes clear that Wilson was also expressing the fury and mourning of his neighbors and elders in Pittsburgh, who had witnessed their own Renaissance disappear not in a Savonarolaesque bonfire but at the business end of a bulldozer and wrecking ball. It’s not hard to understand why today’s residents of East Liberty and the Hill see history repeating itself — this time directed not by Alcoa and US Steel and Mellon National Bank, but by Uber, Google, Whole Foods, and the National Hockey League.
Greg Barnhisel chairs the department of English at Duquesne University. He is the author of Cold War Modernists: Art, Literature, and American Cultural Diplomacy.
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