- Race and Renaissance: African Americans in Pittsburgh since World War II
[End Page 88]
In recent years, historians have enriched our view of the civil rights movement to encompass a broader national view of racial segregation, social activism in black communities, and white resistance to racial change during the twentieth century. No longer is the history of the African American freedom struggle a conversation that is regionally confined to the South. Exciting studies by Martha Biondi, Matthew Countryman, Patrick D. Jones, and Robert O. Self, among others, have highlighted how civil rights protests and white opposition rocked the neighborhoods, schools, buses, and streets of cities outside of the South during the second half of the twentieth century. Joe W. Trotter and Jared N. Day’s new book is a noteworthy addition to this scholarship, contributing to our understanding not only of Pittsburgh’s civil rights history but also of the importance of industrial growth and deindustrialization, suburbanization, urban housing, and urban “renewal” efforts in the civil rights struggles of northern African Americans, as well as the opportunities and limitations blacks faced as they pressed for both social and economic change. Built on an extensive foundation of archival sources, oral interviews, newspaper articles, and relevant secondary sources, Race and Renaissance is essential reading for historians of race, civil rights, and cities in post–World War II America.
Trotter and Day employ a long view of Pittsburgh’s African American history, beginning in the nineteenth century when blacks (as well as native-born whites and European immigrants) sought to carve out spaces for themselves in the iron (and later steel) industry and the crowded neighborhoods nearby. Pittsburgh had always been an interracial space, though African Americans consistently experienced economic marginalization and segregation. The city’s growth during the second industrial revolution yielded very uneven dividends. While black men made inroads into the iron and steel workforce (even as skilled “puddlers”), they never equaled more than 3 percent of these workers in Pittsburgh during the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. Despite extensive racial exclusion in the manufacturing economy, the black population of the Steel City continued to grow dramatically during the early to mid-twentieth century, from 27,000 in 1914 to 82,000 in 1945. Many African American newcomers regarded Pittsburgh as the “Mississippi of the North” (48): white landlords and realtors refused to lease and sell properties to blacks, consigning African Americans to specific areas of the city such as the Hill District and Homewood neighborhoods; police harassment was frequent; and local schools often excluded black children. [End Page 89]
However, as Trotter and Day illustrate, black men’s and women’s experiences with urban/industrial segregation fostered a dynamic African American culture. As evidenced by the proliferation of black faith communities (including followers of Islam), the popularity and profitability of Negro League baseball clubs (such as the Homestead Grays and the Pittsburgh Crawfords), and the growth and activism of African American political organizations (such as the Urban League of Pittsburgh [ULP], the Universal Negro Improvement Association [UNIA], and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People [NAACP]), black Pittsburghers transformed the “mean experience” of segregation into “congregation,” creating what Trotter and Day aptly characterize as a “black metropolis” within the city (15).
The book’s main chapters explore why the proliferation of black protest politics after World War II ultimately could not dislodge the city’s established patterns of segregation and racial exclusion. As Trotter and Day illustrate, the black freedom movement in Pittsburgh was very active and complex, driven forward by numerous political actors whose voices and views spanned the entire spectrum of black protest during the era of the civil rights movement. From a particularly active Urban League of Pittsburgh, to the National Negro Labor Council (NNLC) and the Negro American Labor Council (NALC), to the Black Panther Party and the Black United Movement for Progress, men and women of the African American communities of Pittsburgh struggled to...