Once in a blue moon, as the generations before us would say, a truly special member of the community comes along. Pittsburgh has certainly had its share of these people. From spiritual leaders and innovative politicians, to musicians, artists, and creators of movements and inspirations that transcend race, religion, and social standing.
As I reflect on my role as pastor in the community—especially during this month that salutes the many African Americans who contributed so deeply to our communities—I find that I want my congregation and anyone who I can reach through my words and influence to get to know those from the past who actually shaped the communities in which we live. I usually lean to someone in the religious community, but as we all know, our innovators take all forms and appear in all walks of life. God intends for us to use our talents in ways that we may never see until we ask Him for guidance. It is a gift from God when we get to experience these quiet geniuses close to home.
Back in the early part of the 1900s, the Pittsburgh Courier was one of the top African American owned newspapers in the country. Pittsburgh’s own Charles “Teenie” Harris was their renowned photographer from 1938 until his retirement in 1975. Make no mistake about it, this newspaper was certainly the voice of the African American community back then, and Mr. Harris was as well-known in his neighborhood as any politician or athlete. For years, Harris recorded the lives of African Africans at work, at play, in turmoil, and in celebration. He visited dance recitals and barbeques, photographed children swimming and watching the Fourth of July fireworks, visited funerals and weddings, recorded mothers making fried chicken at block parties, and captured fathers heading off to work in the mills. He watched election results with the guys in the neighborhoods, and he strolled the streets with the ladies headed off to the beauty parlors. While he was sought out to photograph many famous people, these everyday people in Pittsburgh’s African American neighborhoods became his muses. As a result, he documented lives during some of the most important times in the past century, including the Civil Rights Movement—all by hanging out, and having lunch and conversation with the people of Pittsburgh.
A number of years ago, his photographs were exhibited at the Carnegie Museum of Pittsburgh. Now, in Mount Ararat’s own East Liberty neighborhood, a handful of them are on display at the newly reopened Ace Hotel, another shining jewel in one of Pittsburgh’s primarily African American neighborhoods. I urge you to visit the Ace, stroll by the photographs, pick up a book on Charles “Teenie” Harris, or look him up online and see if you can see the same neighborhoods we walk through today. See if you can feel the influence he has had over African American culture in this East End neighborhood of Pittsburgh. God calls many of us to special things in life, and we must honor those who took the call to do great things, especially as we celebrate Black History Month.
Around the same time that “Teenie” Harris was taking his photos, Errol Garner was an accomplished jazz musician in Pittsburgh. A lecture on Garner given by Robin D.G. Kelley of UCLA will be held at the University Club, University of Pittsburgh, Ballroom A (123 University Place, Oakland) at 7pm on February 17th. Local congregants, please consider attending this and other lectures that highlight influential area African-Americans.
Books and Authors
Bryan Stevenson is an influential lawyer, civil rights activist, and speaker. His book, Just Mercy, A Story of Justice and Redemption, is a must-read. Winner of the NAACP Image Award for Nonfiction as well as the recipient of a number of other honors, it is eye-opening and inspirational. Stevenson has long been a hero of mine. He is currently the Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama and a professor at the New York University Law School. He has argued on behalf of many condemned prisoners over the years and has presented a number of challenging cases for the poor and under-represented in front of this country’s courts (including the Supreme Court).