Pittsburgh is home to over 200 years of the African-American experience in Southwestern Pennsylvania. There is extensive history and significance in the role that Pittsburgh has played throughout time in the journey and experience of African Americans in this region. With this blog we are attempting to draw attention to just three of note: Pittsburgh's jazz legacy, The Pittsburgh Courier, and 4 famous black Pittsburgers that you should know.
Pittsburgh’s Jazz Legacy
Because Pittsburgh is located between New York and Chicago, it has had a unique history as a stopover location for jazz greats back in the day. From 1920s to the 1960s, Pittsburgh’s Hill District was known as the “Crossroads of the World." Jazz artists from around the country would perform with Pittsburgh's many acclaimed musicians in the Hill District's jazz venues. Many jazz artists have called Pittsburgh home, such as Walt Harper, George Benson, Roger Humphries, among others. Many of today's performers have jazz genes passed from father to son and daughter, brother to sister, brother to brother, uncle to nephew, grandfather to grandson. That's how jazz is in Pittsburgh, family, a way of life. To learn more about Pittsburgh's jazz history, check out our website and blog post.
The Pittsburgh Courier
The Pittsburgh Courier was an African-American newspaper published in Pittsburgh from 1907 until 1966. The paper was begun by Edwin Nathaniel Harleston, a guard at the H. J. Heinz Company food packing plant in Pittsburgh. Harleston, a self-published poet, started printing the paper at his own expense in 1907. Generally about two pages, it was primarily a vehicle for Harleston's work, and he printed around ten copies which he sold for five cents apiece. In 1909, Edward Penman, Hepburn Carter, Scott Wood, Jr., and Harvey Tanner joined Harleston to run the paper, and they named it Pittsburgh Courier after the Post and Courier of Charleston, South Carolina, Harleston's hometown. The five men sold most of the copies throughout the Hill District. On May 10, 1910, the Pittsburgh Courier was formally incorporated. By the 1930s, the Courier was one of the top black newspapers in the United States. The tradition continues with the advent of the New Pittsburgh Courier, a weekly newspaper catering to African-Americans in Pittsburgh.
4 Famous Black Pittsburghers
Pittsburgh native, Frank Bolden, was best known as a war correspondent during World War II, one of only two accredited African American war correspondents. He attended the University of Pittsburgh where he was the first African American member of the marching band. After graduation, he accepted a job with New Pittsburgh Courier.
In 1964, Bolden returned to Pittsburgh to be the assistant director of information and community relations for the Pittsburgh Board of Education. He held that position until he retired in 1981. Bolden was also an unofficial historian of the African American community of Pittsburgh, leaving behind many interviews and research. Learn more about Frank Bolden.
Charles “Teenie” Harris
A photographer for the Pittsburgh Courier, Teenie traveled the alleys, workplaces, nightclubs, and ballparks of Pittsburgh, documenting black Pittsburgh life through photographs from 1931-1975. He has shot backstage with Dizzy Gillespie and Lena Horne, in the dugout with Josh Gibson and Satchel Paige, and on the streets of the Hill District and Homewood-Brushton.
He died at the house where he had lived for most of his life at 89, two weeks shy of his 90th birthday. Both the Westmoreland Museum of American Art and the Carnegie Museum of Art have held exhibitions of his photographs, with the Carnegie creating a special archive for his work.
Born in the Homewood neighborhood of Pittsburgh, Ms. Staton attended George Westinghouse High School and studied music at the Filion School of Music in Pittsburgh. Later she performed regularly in the Hill District, a jazz hotspot, as a vocalist with the Joe Westray Orchestra, a popular Pittsburgh orchestra.
She next spent several years in the nightclub circuit in such cities as Detroit, Indianapolis, Cleveland and St. Louis. While in New York, she was noticed singing at a Harlem nightclub and signed by Capitol Records. She released several critically acclaimed albums in the late 1950s and early 1960s, including The Late, Late Show.
By no means strictly a jazz act, Dakota was also a bold, brassy R&B singer and performed alongside Big Joe Turner and Fats Domino at legendary disc jockey Alan Freed's Rock 'n' Roll Party showcases. Learn more about Dakota Staton.
August Wilson (1945-2005)
August Wilson was the co-founder of Pittsburgh's Black Horizon Theater and the author of a cycle of ten plays that have been hailed as a unique triumph in American literature. The plays cover each decade of the 20th century and most focus on African American life in the Hill District, a neighborhood of Pittsburgh. Two of the plays, 'Fences' and 'The Piano Lesson', won Pulitzer prizes for best drama in 1987 and 1990; 'Fences' also won Broadway's Tony Award. In fact, in the heart of the Cultural District sits the building erected to Mr. Wilson's honor - the sleekly modern August Wilson Center. The center offers multiple exhibition galleries, a 472-seat theater for performances in all genres, an education center for classes, lectures and hands-on learning, and spaces for community programs and events. Learn more about August Wilson.
Visit Pittsburgh-Area African American Historic Sites
Pittsburgh Post Gazette recently partnered with VisitPITTSBURGH to develop an interactive listing of African-American historic sites in Pittsburgh. This interactive map was created to highlight local, regional and national sites of significance. It can be used as a tour guide for exploring African-American history throughout the Southwestern Pa area. The sites were determined based on whether the location fit into at least one of 10 historical themes and met at least one of five criteria. Historical themes included: Patterns of Settlement and Housing; Sports and Recreation; Social Clubs; Arts and Entertainment; Places of Work/Businesses; Famous People; Religious Properties; Underground Railroad; Education & Politics; and Civil Rights or Military.