Episode 50 Historic Black Neighborhoods
Black Community Formation and Development
Good Old days!
Show Notes by John Brewer
PP 7. African Americans in Pittsburgh( my first book)
• The first Africans accompanied military armies controlled by French, English and Colonial interest.
• British General John Forbes in 1758 aid effort to capture Fort Duquesne
1788, four African freedmen were among the 742 citizens who petitioned Pennsylvania legislature to create Allegheny County, with Pittsburgh as the principal city.
• Harsh fugitive slave laws which reversed racial progress forced families of freedmen to form critical links to the Underground Railroad system helping runaway slaves to seek a new life out of bondage. Way Stations and conductors with the help of abolitionist both influenced the negative attitude Pittsburgh whites (many from the south) had about the Slavery. They formed a strong link which became the heart of the Underground Railroad.
• Arthursville (Called Little Hayti) before they became known as “The Hill” constituted the lower part of Wylie Avenue. Thirty five black families were freemen. They built shops, pool halls, grocery stores, Barber shops. Many of the early blacks were from the south or west. They were men who sought to establish recreational and necessities for the working class of blacks. ( 1907)
• Lower Fifth Avenue district was primarily occupied by Jewish merchants.
An Italian, German, Croatian Irish group of immigrants also settled in the Hill.
The “Hill” became the staging area for Pittsburgh’s Harlem Renaissance supported by Pittsburgh’s largest and best known clubs, theaters, and venues which launched a new movement called Bebop into the heart of modern Jazz. The world famous Pittsburgh Crawford’s Negro league team with the number one rated hitter Josh Gibson still has its place in sports history.
Black Business enterprise support came from exceptional investors like Gus Greenlee and Woogie Harris. Main stream funds were not available to new black business owners. Booker T. Washington’s famous quote of “put down your buckets where you are” inspired many to progress using limited resources with natural creativity.
• Herron Hill District by 1911 became a business center in the Hill. There were grocery stores, two dentist, seven doctors, two drug stores, one Undertaker (J.B. Davis) along with restaurants which were black owned and operated.
• Minesville (later called Sugartop or Schenley Heights) 5th ward escape from the lower Hill. Primarily a residential community in the Hill with middle and upper class blacks who were professional or independently well off.
• First public school for blacks on Miller street ( 1868)
• Formation of AME Bethel church, Mystery News paper, Pittsburgh Courier helped shape the strong base of the black community. Very strong messages send to the community to support black businesses within the community reassured growth and prosperity.
• Building a society within a society became the rule not the exception…
• Homewood Brushton community, similar to the Hill had a diverse community with Black living in Homewood Brushton with Italians and Irish people. Blacks were in much smaller numbers than the Hill however, they managed to receive an education in integrated schools decades before Brown vs. Board of Education decision. Homewood was both a residential and business community. Few blacks, however, owned a business in Homewood. The well build Tudor, Queen Ann brick structures had been originally build for the rich and powerful families like the Fricks, Mellons, and others during the late part of the 19th century.
• Well built hardwood floors, stain glass windows, two and one half story homes which frequently supported two families were dream homes to the new comers. There were three theaters, a large Chinese restaurant, clothing stores, Woolworths, Isaly’s, plumbing shops, cleaners, record shops which made this community almost self sufficient.
• East Liberty was a principal shopping area in Pittsburgh. Major stores like Sears and Roebuck, Jewelers, Post Office, Train station, schools, huge churches of every denomination along with four theaters, a skating rink, restaurants, Farmers market, dozens of medical doctors, dentist, law firms, YMCA, packed in broad streets from boundary to boundary. Parking was free. The residential side to East Liberty, like the Hill, was diverse consisting of Blacks, Jews, Italians, Greeks etc...
• Northside development in Manchester, Fineview, Perrysville, was aided by the coalition African abolitionist made with Charles Avery and his educational institution as well as Joe Swisshelm. The Rooney family, from Northside, became the owners of the Pittsburgh Steelers were the first to give an African American a chance to play professional football ( 1938).
• South side communities like Beltzhoover, Allentown, Mount Oliver, were also residential communities with pockets of blacks in sections of the larger population of whites.
• Lincoln Larimer district of Pittsburgh is spread out over a very wide area. The Lincoln border ends at what was called Penn Hills on the east and East Liberty on the west. Many generations of black and Italian families were raised in this large section of Pittsburgh. There was fierce sports competition at the High school and semi- pro football level. Despite an early issue over segregation of swimming pools in both Paulson Pool and Highland Park the aggression transformed into respect and eventually faded the borderline (Larimer at Meadow streets. Kingsley Association, which formerly moved from the “Hill”, was a community based organization which promoted good health, sports, community service and culture helped to reduce ‘racial tensions’.
• Highland Park and Point Breeze. Two very similar communities in terms of prominence in Pittsburgh. Upper class homes with strong variances that keep property values up. Prominent blacks permitted to purchase the mid part of the 20th century. Very few public stores or businesses permitted. Homes typically, like North side Mexican War streets and Manchester, have high ceilings, decorative fireplaces( often functional) two and half to three stories with finished attic’s, game rooms and oak and cherry wood paneling, staircases etc..
• Bloomfield and Squirrel Hill supported one primary ethnic group for the majority of the 20th century. Bloomfield was Italian. Squirrel Hill was built with two houses over eighty years ago into an intensely Jewish Community complete with all shops, synagogues, businesses and schools committed to Jewish people.
• Lawrenceville, home of Steven Foster, known as ‘blue collar’ community has recently seen many blacks move into this district.
• Belmar Gardens (within Lincoln Larimer district) was the first black owned cooperative in the country.
Outside City limits of Pittsburgh before the 1920’s is where the majority of the black population in Western Pennsylvania migrated from. Places blacks lived at were in many cases rural farming regions, small towns and second class cities. They worked in the Coal mines, small manufacturing companies that supported the glass, coal and tobacco industry in Pittsburgh. Many were freedmen during the slavery era. Some had been purchased by area farmers to help work the land and build the roads and small cities. Many settled along the river cities during the long pilgrimage toward Canada. They settled as far north as Erie, Pennsylvania, as far south as Cumberland, Maryland, as far East as central Pa. Countless generations of blacks can trace roots back to:
Black communities have experienced many ups and downs as well as shocking movements which have forced many to leave their homes and lose business opportunities. However, they have managed to survive with the closing of what many would say are “Big Doors”. Every time one big door slams two equally large doors open.” Those who look beyond the obvious ills of the times are better prepared to meet future needs and fulfill the hopes of this society.
Every era is plagued by some social or political ill which threatens to reduce life as we know it today. Those who emerge from this generation will be stronger and wiser than the last generation. We now live in a world which has shrunk in size and dimension. Our neighbors can sit in a loft thousands of miles away and experience what we do everyday. They can look like us, act like us or show us how to live a stress free life if they chose. Race, like the black plague, Polio and even some forms of cancer will be extinct and not in the world wide program by the end of this century.