'Smoketown' Traces The Rise And Fall Of The Other Great Black Renaissance In Pittsburgh

Feb 9, 2018

Cities like Harlem and Chicago are often associated with “The Great Black Renaissance,” but for a brief  time in the 20th century, Pittsburgh was an epicenter for black art, sports, business and political influence.

90.5 WESA’s Virginia Alvino Young spoke with author Mark Whitaker about his new book, “The Untold Story of Smoketown, the Other Great Black Renaissance,” which follows the origins and decline of Pittsburgh’s vibrant black community from the 1920s to 1950s.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

VIRGINIA ALVINO YOUNG: What was the special confluence of circumstances that led to all of the cultural wealth from the black community in Pittsburgh?

MARK WHITAKER: There were three things that were sort of different about the black community than in other cities like Harlem, which is associated with “The Great Black Renaissance,” or Chicago. One was where the migrants came from.

They came heavily from the northern and eastern parts of the Old South. So from states like Maryland, Delaware, Virginia, North Carolina, and so if they had been slaves or their parents or grandparents had been slaves, they were just as likely to have been house slaves than field slaves, and some of them came from freed families. So a lot of them arrived in Pittsburgh knowing how to read, playing instruments, reading music, so they arrived with a great deal of sophistication. If you were coming all the way from the South, it took a lot of initiative to get all the way to Pittsburgh. And so I think it was also kind of a self-selection process that perhaps people who were particularly motivated and particularly ambitious ended up here.

Then there were educational opportunities available in Pittsburgh that were quite rare for black folks in that era. What's now the University of Pittsburgh started admitting black students under a scholarship funded by a white abolitionist named Charles Avery right after the Civil War. And the high schools in Pittsburgh at the turn of the century were better funded than any public high schools in the country, thanks to all of the Gilded Age money that was around at that time.

And then I think the third factor was that Pittsburgh was really a city built around business. In the 19th century, white immigrants, some of them quite poor, arrived here and created the steel industry, and created the foodstuffs industry with Heinz. They made Pittsburgh a center for banking with the Mellon empire, and those industries attracted black folks from the South. And often when they arrived here, it turned out that it was hard to get jobs in the steel mills and so forth. However, a lot of them then started businesses of their own.

Credit Simon & Schuster

ALVINO YOUNG: What was the impact of the newspaper The Pittsburgh Courier on American politics during that era?

WHITAKER: The Courier has not gotten enough historical attention in my opinion in terms of sheer numbers that were sold, but also in influence. I have a whole chapter about the role that The Courier played in the rise of Joe Louis.

But I think what people don't appreciate is that in addition to all that cultural influence, The Courier also had a tremendous amount of political influence. So until the early 30s, black voters in America overwhelmingly voted Republican, essentially out of loyalty to the memory of Abraham Lincoln, the Great Emancipator. But then, the paper’s editor Robert L. Vann, who himself was a loyal Republican, decided that the Republican Party was not doing enough for black folks. They were taking them for granted.  So he gave a speech, reprinted it in The Courier and distributed it around the country, in which he said that it was time for black voters to turn Lincoln's picture to the wall and vote for the Democrats. There was a sort of political migration that changed American politics in the 1930s. It all started with Robert L. Vann and The Courier here in the Pittsburgh area.

Then Vann went on to crusade relentlessly for opportunities for black soldiers. So as World War II started to loom, Vann was lobbying Roosevelt in Washington -- basically demanding  blacks had to be given more opportunity, and The Courier was on a lot of legislation that was proposed in those days. When America did enter the war after Pearl Harbor, there were more opportunities. The Courier continued to crusade on behalf of black soldiers and sent more war correspondents to cover black soldiers at the front than any other newspaper in America.

ALVINO YOUNG: In your book, you take stock of this amazing period, but you trace it back nearly a century before, to some of the city's first Negro settlers before the Civil War. What was the lasting impact of the figure Cap Posey?

WHITAKER: Cumberland Posey Sr. was born a slave. After the war, his father, who became a minister, moved the family to Ohio and Cumberland got a job on a riverboat. His job was to clean the decks, but he looked around and said, "Well, the guys who actually run this boat, the engineers, what do they do?" So he started studying them. He convinced a white steamboat owner to give him a shot at being an assistant engineer. He did a good enough job at that that he then got a job as a chief engineer, and so he was the first black chief engineer.

Then he was hired to run a whole fleet of steamboats for a white owner, and he decided to relocate to the Pittsburgh area, to Homestead. From his base in Homestead, he basically built a business first as a ship builder, and then he invested in a coal mine, and by the turn of the 20th century he was the wealthiest black man in Pittsburgh. I have a picture in the book of this huge mansion he had in Homestead. You look at it, and you can't imagine that a black man could live in a home like that. He did business with Carnegie and with Frick.

Clifford Williams and Selma Thornton on left, and Earl Blair Palmer and Robert Thornton on right, in front of Thornton's Fruit Market, 610 Herron Avenue, Hill District.
Credit "Teenie" Harris / Carnegie Museum of Art Heinz Family Fund

Cap goes on to become a huge part of the legacy of 20th century Pittsburgh. He was the first big investor in The Courier. And his youngest child, who was his namesake, Cum Posey Jr., ended up running and then owning the Homestead Grays, and becoming a giant in the Negro Leagues.

ALVINO YOUNG: How did it all disappear? Like lots of other northern cities, Pittsburgh faced industry decline, a white population fleeing to the suburbs, and urban renewal, but also black brain-drain.

WHITAKER: It was a sad story, and there was a perfect storm of three factors that hit the black community in Pittsburgh all at once starting in the late 50s and through the 60s. One was the decline of the steel industry, which hit the whole city very hard. But the difference with the black population is that that was precisely the era where a lot of white folks were already leaving the city to move to the suburbs. It was easy for them to get loans, much more difficult for black folks.

The second was urban renewal efforts, which were well-meaning, but as part of that they decided that they wanted to build a big civic arena. They picked the Lower Hill District. It was also convenient, because they could get a lot of slum clearance money from the federal government to fund it all. And so starting in the late 50s, they tore down the entire Lower Hill. Now it is true that there was housing with essentially substandard slum-like conditions there, but also in the Lower Hill were the nightclubs, the churches, the social clubs, the barber shops. It was the center of black business. So it eliminated the center of black life in the city. It cut off the Hill from Downtown with disastrous results, and it forced the displacement of 80,000 residents of the Lower Hill.

Most of them had to move into surrounding neighborhoods. Those had previously been mixed neighborhoods, but once the black population reached a certain level, all the remaining white folks left and those neighborhoods and their schools went in decline, the city didn't support them anymore, there wasn't the tax base.

The third factor is black middle class brain-drain. People like my father. His parents were fairly prosperous business people; they ran a funeral home. He grew up in Homewood. He went to Westinghouse High School. In a previous era, he would have stayed. He would have become a business leader or a journalist or maybe a political leader. Instead, he goes away to Swarthmore College outside of Philadelphia, becomes a professor, he never comes back. And there is a whole generation like that. Neighborhoods like the Hill but also other urban neighborhoods across America were left without the kind of leadership they would have otherwise had, at precisely the moment they really needed it.

ALVINO YOUNG: What is going to be the role of African Americans now in Pittsburgh's newest renaissance, which is rooted in technology? Folks are noticing already, it's really an industry struggling with diversity.

WHITAKER: It's an unfinished story; it remains to be seen. Here's what I think: it's going to take not only an investment by the city, and maybe federal dollars if you can get them. But also I would hope that these new industries that are moving into Pittsburgh and expanding would look around and say maybe we have a stake in trying to help these neighborhoods. And I think particularly the schools. I spent a day at Westinghouse High School. I just wanted to see what had become of this great school where Billy Strayhorn went and Mary Lou Williams and Ahmad Jamal and my father graduated. I kept thinking these tech companies like Google, Facebook, Uber, they should really be doing something with these schools.

But I think that if Pittsburgh just generally wants to continue to fulfill its promise in terms of what it could be and what it could be brought back to, it can’t have these neighborhoods sticking out like sore thumbs right in the middle. On the one hand, it was remarkable that this small community accomplished everything that it did. On the other hand, there was never a critical mass in terms of numbers to really influence city government.

So one big difference between Pittsburgh, and say Chicago or even Philadelphia or Newark, where there was a strong enough black political base that eventually you had black mayors, you had black city councilmen, that didn't happen to the same degree in Pittsburgh. But you know at the very least, I will say this: if you grew up in Pittsburgh, and you're a good student and you can go to a good college, there's actually a reason to stay in Pittsburgh now, or to come back, which there wasn't before. So I don't know the kind of numbers you're talking about, but that in and of itself, I think, is a change.