As the famous Hill District photos of Charles "Teenie" Harris ran across the screen, Lincoln-Lemington elder (and oral historian) Juanita King quietly identified some of the people and places to the out-of-towners seated around her. Donna Wells, an archivist from Howard University in Washington, D.C., said it was remarkable to hear King name the local heroes and icons in these photographs.
The common black histories of American towns was something of a revelation to the 450 mostly academic types gathered for the 89th annual Association for the Study of African American Life and History convention, held Downtown Sept. 29-Oct. 2. The Washington, D.C.-based Association was founded in 1915 by Carter G. Woodson, a Harvard scholar - the "Father of Black History" -- who wrote The Mis-Education of the Negro and started Black History Week, now Black History Month.
Many in attendance said the condition of blacks in their cities paralleled Pittsburgh's: the recovery of buried work from black photographers and journalists; the silencing of jazz scenes with the merger of once racially segregated musicians' unions; neighborhood decimation due to sprawl and, sometimes, riots; and urban renewal disasters. The last Teenie Harris photo to be shown was of an early, skeletal Civic Arena -- shot just after the homes and establishments of the Lower Hill had been demolished.
"You think that the things occurred locally with no national significance," said University of Pittsburgh history Professor Laurence Glasco after the conference, "but you see here that it does," have meaning across different black communities - "and it opens the eyes of people from other cities and they begin to think of these things comparatively."
Also during the conference, the legendary Pittsburgh Courier news editor and World War II correspondent Frank Bolden, who died last year, was honored by the Senator John Heinz Pittsburgh Historical Center with a marker on Centre Avenue in the Hill where the Courier's offices once stood.
Sylvia Cyrus-Albritton, the Association's executive director, said this year's convention drew more pre-registrations than last year's total registration tally. For the first time, the group also included an "Old School/New School" poetry slam and a "Youth Day" summit involving more than 300 kids from Pittsburgh Public Schools in training and workshops.
The Association, which had a local group in the '70s, is using the convention to restart a Pittsburgh chapter under Glasco, Patricia Mitchell (an assistant professor at Pitt) and Edna McKenzie, nationally known historian and veteran Courier reporter. Glasco hopes the local chapter can aid existing projects, such as the African American Cultural Center and the Teenie Harris oral history project at the Carnegie Museum of Art. The group's work locally, he says, will show that black history includes Jews, Italians, Irish and Germans - particularly in the Hill District, as Harris' photos show.
"Today is actually a much more segregated place," says Glasco. "It's an educational opportunity for young blacks and young whites to come see how their parents and grandparents did have a degree of interaction. That would be surprising to them."