Pittsburgh’s Black Renaissance Started in Its Schools

When historians analyze the causes of the Great Migration, the exodus of millions of African Americans from the rural South in the early 20th century, they stress the urgency of escaping the vicious Jim Crow backlash against Reconstruction and the dream of finding factory jobs in Northern cities. Yet a less studied factor—worth noting in this era of crude stereotypes about black attitudes toward education—was the lure of better schools in the North. And surprisingly, nowhere was that attraction greater than in the gritty steel town of Pittsburgh.

In Pittsburgh’s Hill District in the 1940s, Herron Avenue marked the boundary between the elite Sugartop neighborhood and the working-class Middle Hill. (Courtesy of Getty Images/Teenie Harris Archive/Carnegie Museum of Art)

In the 19th century, what is now the University of Pittsburgh was called the Western University of Pennsylvania and considered a sister school to Penn in Philadelphia. Before his death in 1858, Charles Avery, a white Pittsburgh cotton trader whose travels through the South had awoken him to the horrors of slavery and turned him into an ardent abolitionist, endowed a fund for 12 scholarships a year at Western University for “males of the colored people in the United States of America or the British Province of Canada.”

Forty years later, Robert Lee Vann, the teenage son of a former slave cook from North Carolina, traveled by himself to Pittsburgh to claim one of those scholarships. It was the start of a remarkable success story. In 1910, after earning undergraduate and law degrees from Western University, Vann accepted a job as the editor of the Pittsburgh Courier, a four-page chronicle of local events. Eventually becoming publisher and owner as well, Vann transformed the Courier into America’s best-selling black newspaper, with 14 regional editions and an avid readership in black homes, barber shops, and beauty salons across the nation.

Ever since the Civil War, blacks had voted overwhelmingly Republican out of loyalty to the Great Emancipator. But in 1932, Vann used the Courier as a soapbox to urge blacks to turn “the picture of Abraham Lincoln to the wall” and vote for FDR, beginning a migration to the Democratic Party that transformed American politics. As World War II loomed, Vann pressed for a greater role for black soldiers. After his death in 1940, his successors led a “Double Victory” campaign to rally black support at home while demanding an end to racial injustice once the war was over. (Sadly, that second victory never materialized—a betrayal that the Courier exposed as dashed hopes helped fuel the Civil Rights Movement.)

The Washington edition of the Pittsburgh Courier on April 19, 1947, a few days after Jackie Robinson broke the color line in Major League Baseball. Courier columnist Wendell Smith had introduced Robinson to the Dodgers’ Branch Rickey. (Library of Congress)

Vann took pride in hiring young college grads, and his recruits played a major part in some of the biggest cultural stories of the age. Chester Washington, a Pittsburgh native whom Vann helped send to Virginia Union University, used his behind-the-scenes access to boxer Joe Louis to turn the “Brown Bomber” into a hero to blacks and a sympathetic champ to whites. Sports columnist Wendell Smith, an alumnus of Wayne State University, crusaded for the integration of pro baseball, then introduced Brooklyn Dodgers President Branch Rickey to a promising Negro League rookie named Jackie Robinson.

After hiring Julia Bumry Jones, a West Virginian with a degree from Wilberforce University, as his stenographer, Vann put Jones in charge of a four-page weekly women’s section and gave her a gossip column that she used to encourage black women across America to master political as well as party-giving skills.

History hasn’t always been kind to the rapacious capitalists who turned Pittsburgh into an industrial engine of the Gilded Age, but their philanthropy helped finance some of the best integrated public high schools of the time. In 1912, Mary Schenley, the heir to a railroad fortune, donated land and money for Schenley High School, a three-sided limestone behemoth that was the first high school to cost more than $1 million. A decade later, Westinghouse High School, named after electricity tycoon George Westinghouse, was built for $2.5 million.

Admitting black students from their earliest days, Schenley and Westinghouse attracted many who went on to become giants in their fields. Earl Hines, a piano prodigy from a steel town south of Pittsburgh, was sent by his parents to live with an aunt in the city so he could attend Schenley. Later, Hines moved to Chicago and recorded groundbreaking early jazz with Louis Armstrong.

Although married to an abusive drinker who had trouble holding jobs, Lillian Strayhorn insisted that her family move to a back-alley shanty in the neighborhood of Homewood so her young son Billy could attend Westinghouse High. After becoming the star of the school’s music program, Billy Strayhorn met Duke Ellington at a downtown theater, beginning one of the greatest collaborations in jazz history.

Dancer Charles “Honi” Coles (left), Billy Strayhorn (center), and Duke Ellington (right) at the Stanley Theatre, the show palace where Ellington and Strayhorn first met. (Courtesy of Getty Images/Teenie Harris Archive/Carnegie Museum of Art)

In the ’30s, ’40s, and ‘50s, Westinghouse graduated so many black luminaries that a Hall of Fame display of their photographs covered the walls of its front lobby. They included piano virtuosos Erroll Garner, Ahmad Jamal, and Mary Lou Williams, and journalists Bill Nunn Sr. and Jr., the longtime managing editor of the Pittsburgh Courier and his son, later a football scout who recruited key members of the 1970s Steelers dynasty.

Meanwhile, Bill Nunn III, the actor who starred in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, graduated from Schenley High, as did guitarist George Benson and Harvard’s first black law professor, Derrick Bell. (Peabody High School, in Pittsburgh’s Hillside neighborhood, educated two other legends, singer Billy Eckstine and artist Romare Bearden.) In the movie version of the play Fences by August Wilson—the Pittsburgh-born playwright who set most of his dramas in the city’s Hill District—director and star Denzel Washington pays homage to Schenley High by having Cory, the son of garbage worker Troy Maxson, wear a red varsity jacket emblazoned with an “S.”

In his unique way, Wilson was also a product of black Pittsburgh’s devotion to education. Although Wilson’s mother was a maid who went on welfare to raise her children after their white German father all but abandoned them, she insisted on sending August to Catholic schools on the Hill. Later, when Wilson dropped out of high school as a rebellious teen, he educated himself by roaming the stacks of Carnegie Library, funded by the most famous Pittsburgh robber baron of them all, Andrew Carnegie.

Yet if these pioneering schools were cornerstones of black Pittsburgh in its heyday, their decline has been part of the sad narrative of that community’s descent over the past 60 years. In the late 1950s, white downtown business and political leaders joined forces to push through an early experiment in urban renewal that resulted in the razing of the Lower Hill, long the center of black business and social life.

Despite big talk, the city never made good on promises of new housing construction. As displaced Hill residents sought refuge in surrounding neighborhoods, white residents of those previously mixed enclaves fled, gradually eroding the tax and political bases that had supported schools like Westinghouse.  

The Bethel AME Church, the last building to be destroyed on the Lower Hill in 1957. (Courtesy of Getty Images/Teenie Harris Archive/Carnegie Museum of Art)

Today Westinghouse is a shell of its former self, looming forlornly over an entire block in the now downtrodden neighborhood of Homewood. Metal bars stripe the windows. A magnetometer guards the lobby. The virtually all-black student body numbers a scant 450 over six grades.

The teachers are almost all white, young, inexperienced, and likely to move on after a few years. Although the school has worked its way back from a dismal diploma rate to graduating most of its students, more than a quarter of them will never attend college, and many who do will never finish. As administrators walk the hallways, they greet students who skip classes not with warnings but inquiries about what’s bothering them, a sign of their primary concern that no one leave the building before school is out.

Schenley, meanwhile, has been shuttered and sold to private developers, the victim of a contentious experiment in school reform. In 2005, Pittsburgh turned its school system over to Mark Roosevelt, a former Massachusetts state legislator and great-grandson of Teddy Roosevelt, who decided in mid-career to become a school superintendent by attending a one-year training course funded by entrepreneur Eli Broad.

Mark Roosevelt delivered innovation, including support for charter schools and Gates Foundation projects, but he lost goodwill in both black and white communities by closing Schenley rather than pay for asbestos removal. The uproar over the loss of the iconic school drained support for Roosevelt’s agenda, and it hamstrung Linda Lane, the black woman who took his place after he quit to take the presidency of Antioch College. “The pain goes on,” Lane admitted as she stepped down after six years.

Witnessing what has become of the Hill and Homewood and so many black city neighborhoods like them across America, it’s hard to believe what thriving hubs they once were, and even harder to fathom what it will take to bring them back. Yet if there is to be progress, virtually every expert agrees, reforms will have to be multi-pronged—encompassing courts, prisons, police, and banks—and will have to start with schools.

A mural in the Hill District honoring playwright August Wilson, who attended Catholic schools in the neighborhood and set Fences and other plays there. (Beth J. Harpaz/AP)

While the overall forecast for Pittsburgh’s inner-city schools is far from bright, there are rays of promise. When a city-wide vocational high school was shut down to save money, many of its programs—in carpentry, health services, sports management, cooking, and cosmetology—were moved to Westinghouse. Students in those programs are now the stars of the school, paraded before visitors as musical prodigies once were.

A handsome, gregarious senior boasts of earning his electrician’s license and having a job lined up after graduation. Students in a professional cooking class learn from a former sous chef how to work a restaurant kitchen line and organize a food truck. Although administrators say some parents still look down on vocational training—a stigma in black America that dates back to controversy over Booker T. Washington’s trade schools—they concede that for many students, it offers more realistic hope than taking on student debt to pursue a liberal arts education.

The city of Pittsburgh, meanwhile, is enjoying an overall resurgence, propelled once again by its institutions of higher learning. Tech giants such as Google, Facebook, and Uber have opened outposts to snap up engineers and computer scientists from Carnegie Mellon, Pitt, and Duquesne. Those companies have started donating computers and other supplies to black neighborhood schools, and they could do more. They could establish or fund after-school programs where African-American kids can learn extra math and computer skills. They could create mentorship and internship programs to give high-school students a taste of the jobs that might await them if they stay in school and get through college.

If nothing else, Pittsburgh’s revival gives motivated black youth an incentive to stay put. For another, more sensitive, factor in the decline of black Pittsburgh was black flight, by middle-class strivers who walked through doors opened in the civil rights and affirmative action era and never came back. (One was my father, C.S. “Syl” Whitaker, Jr., Westinghouse class of 1952, who went to Swarthmore College and then became an Africa scholar at UCLA and Princeton.)

Today, members of that generation who did eventually return express shame over not being there to fight for their neighborhoods. One is Lynell Nunn, the actor’s sister, who returned to Pittsburgh to care for her aging parents after decades working as a lawyer in Washington, D.C., only to discover that it was too late to save her beloved high school. “I still haven’t forgiven them,” Lynell says of city and school board leaders. “We had so much pride in Schenley.”

One who did stay was Joe Williams III, the son of a mechanic and grandson of a janitor who grew up in the North Side neighborhood of Manchester. After graduating from Carnegie Mellon and Duquesne’s law school, Williams opened a criminal law practice in his old neighborhood on a block that had grown so decrepit that he was able to buy a boarded-up townhouse from a city slum agency for $4,000. Two decades later, Williams was elected to a judgeship in a downtown courthouse where his grandfather mopped the floors and his father fixed the boilers. After raising their son in the suburbs, he and his wife Darryl have moved into the Manchester house and are working with neighbors to rebuild the neighborhood.

Every Memorial Day, Williams also hosts a family reunion at which he and his relatives visit the burial sites of ancestors who have lived in the Pittsburgh area for four generations. At each grave, they require members of the younger generation to recite the stories of their forebears. Like so many tales of black Pittsburgh, they are stories full of sacrifices made for the sake of education, and a reminder to the youngsters that reverence for learning is a strain as deep and proud as any in the African-American tradition.

Mark Whitaker’s book SMOKETOWN: The Untold Story of the Other Great Black Renaissance was recently published by Simon & Schuster.

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