PITTSBURGH — Mark Whitaker chronicles one of this city’s most fascinating eras in his new book, “Smoketown: The Untold Story of the Other Great Black Renaissance” — writing about Pittsburgh’s Hill District from the 1920s to the 1950s, including the lives of poet and playwright August Wilson, singer Lena Horne and many others.
During an event Monday night at Pittsburgh’s Heinz History Center, the author wove that period together with other major threads of this city’s past — from the brutal steel era to the sweeping philanthropic and educational initiatives that ultimately contributed to Pittsburgh’s modern-day technology revival.
Wilson, for example, was a huge beneficiary of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, one of the legacies of industrialist Andrew Carnegie. The library in the Hill District essentially served as the poet’s classroom. But as Whitaker noted, the current tech boom hasn’t yet had a similar effect on the black community of today.
“As I go around the country now, people want to hear about the latest Pittsburgh renaissance, which hasn’t so far benefitted the black community as much as one would hope it would, but certainly has benefitted the city and made Pittsburgh a hot city,” Whitaker said. “But it all started with education.”
He continued, “Whatever you say about Carnegie and Mellon, and so forth and so on, the fact that they funded these great universities was a big part of the first big success period, and the building of Pittsburgh in the gilded age, and it was one of the magnets that brought black migrants here, and it is the basis for the renewal now. I don’t think you would see all of these tech companies and all of this other stuff happening without those great universities and libraries.”
In a recent interview with the Pittsburgh literary site Littsburgh, Whitaker addressed the issue in more detail.
Despite the still-distressing overall picture, there are small signs that Pittsburgh’s latest renaissance may be starting to benefit the city’s black population. Gentrification is beginning to reach the Upper Hill, the one part of that neighborhood that has remained more or less intact. … Tech giants like Google and Facebook and Uber that have set up shop in Pittsburgh to hire programmers and engineers from Carnegie Mellon and Pitt are making donations to schools in black neighborhoods. And for black students who can get into those universities, there is now a reason to stay in Pittsburgh once they graduate. Over time, they may help replenish the local black leadership class that was depleted when so many talented folks of the post-Smoketown era-people like my father-left Pittsburgh after high school and never moved back.
Whitaker, former managing editor of CNN Worldwide, is also a veteran of NBC News and Newsweek. He was inspired to write “Smoketown” based on his research into his own family’s history in Pittsburgh. He was interviewed Monday night by David Shribman, executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, at the PNC Presents Town Hall Event Series in the city’s Strip District. Smoketown is published by Simon and Schuster.