While we know that the African American community in Pittsburgh has a rich and accomplished past, we don’t always take the time to investigate some of the many people that have helped to make our city truly great. We hear their names, but we don’t often know their stories.
Esteemed playwright, August Wilson, is a name that we hear frequently. Theaters, local art exhibits, and special sections in our local newspapers mention him often, talking about his Pulitzer Prizes and touting his ability to break down barriers in a field notoriously dominated by white males. But rarely do we hear about what made this man such a strong voice for African Americans—not only in theater—but in politics, in communities experiencing social change, and in the hearts of the people of Pittsburgh, who, to this day have not forgotten this brilliant son.
Wilson was one of six children born to an African American mother and a white father for whom he was named, but who was noticeably absent from his life (Frederick August Kittel); he used his mother’s maiden name, Wilson, professionally. His mother began the upbringing of her children alone in the Hill District neighborhood of Pittsburgh, later marrying a man who would move the family to a newer and more middle class neighborhood where they would be subjected to varying levels of racial hostility. Wilson went on to attend a number of local high schools, all with varying experiences, from non-acceptance as the only African American student at high school, to being accused of plagiarism in another school when his 20-page paper seemed too advanced for a boy of his age and social standing.
I think it is important to note that Wilson used these experiences to grow in his analysis of his role in this world, and he channeled what he observed of life, people, and circumstances into the brilliant written works that we know from him today. His plays all take place in different decades and all reflect characters and people— true experiences from his own past. He used his talent and his voice to illustrate, over time, the change and the culture of the African American community. A Pulitzer Prize winner for many of his plays, he turned down the opportunity to develop one into a movie because he strongly felt that the director needed to be African American, and because there were no well-known African American directors at the time, the project did not take off. Strong-willed and sensitive, he remained true to his convictions, something we should all note.
I think we can all tap into our individual sense of who we are, who we want to be, and what we can do to illicit change in our communities. Using local examples to inspire us, we can contribute to the richness of our culture and heritage. Not only should we draw on the strong voices we hear today and the echoing voices of the past, but we should also look to our own experiences and people—past and present—from our own communities with whom we might share a vision or a voice.
So… my directives to you today in terms of local events and must-reads are to visit The August Wilson Center here in Pittsburgh. Learn about African American writers in the area such as University of Pittsburgh professor, Toi Derricotte, whose controversial, ground-breaking, and award-winning writings are often compared to iconic poets like Sylvia Plath, Emily Dickinson, and Walt Whitman. Or, go further into the literary realm and read “Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” by Maya Angelou, or “Native Son” by Richard Wright. Naturally, I feel the need to direct you to the spiritual side of literature, but let’s branch out: read little-known but impactful Senegalese Phillis Wheatley’s slave era book, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. Rejuvenate your faith in your communities, your culture, and yourself. Black History month is closing out for 2016, but for all of us, the sentiments should continue into our year of triumphs, challenges, and faith.
“I would like to be remembered as a person who wanted to be free…so other people would also be free.” This iconic quote from Rosa Parks during the height of the Civil Rights Movement forces us to reflect on our basic human rights, the rights that we were not always so privileged to. We wouldn’t be where we are today without the influential figures fueling the Civil Rights Movement, lending their strength, spirit, and wisdom to the cause. I can only imagine the riots, the quiet defiance, the speeches, the fear, and the strength that threatened to overcome these leaders. While there are countless leaders of importance, and many we may not know about, this week the late Dr. Gardner C. Taylor stands out in my mind. In his ministerial career spanning over six decades, to me, he helped transform America.
Deemed “The Dean of American Preaching,” Dr. Taylor served as both a close friend and mentor to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The grandson of former slaves, he played a large role in the religious leadership of the Civil Rights Movement, setting an example of leadership for us all. Alongside Dr. King, he helped found the Progressive National Baptist Convention (PNBC) in 1961, formed after Dr. Taylor and supporters of Dr. King seceded from the National Baptist Convention, USA. The PNBC, a convention of African American Baptists that emphasizes civil rights and social justice, has grown beyond the United States, expanding Dr. Taylor’s influence to Caribbean and European residents.
Dr. Taylor pastored at Concord Baptist Church of Christ in Brooklyn for 42 years, a church that served as a beacon of hope for many and became a model as such for the nation. A testament to his strength and determination, when the church burned down in 1952, he didn’t let naysayers influence him. Instead, he rebuilt and doubled the church’s size. A truly gifted individual, his words impacted multiple generations. Remaining one of New York’s largest churches, Concord operates its own elementary school, nursing home, and credit union to this day, all a testament to Dr. Taylor’s legacy.
Dr. Taylor’s wisdom, charisma, and unforgettable sermons were often sought after, and in 1993 he preached the pre-inauguration sermon for President-elect Bill Clinton. In 2000, he was given the highest civilian award in the United States, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, by President Clinton in recognition for his contributions to ministry and activism.
On February 21st at 2:30pm head on over to the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh Downtown and Business (612 Smithfield St.) to learn about heart disease, the leading cause of death for African Americans in the United States. Listen to Darah Richardson of Omni Health and Wellness as she discusses risk factors and tips to improve health and wellness.
Books and Authors
Dr. Cornel West is a prominent Professor of Philosophy and Christian Practice at Union Theological Seminary and Professor Emeritus at Princeton University. He has also taught at Yale, Harvard, and the University of Princeton. Earning the honor of Magna Cum Laude at Harvard, he went on to obtain his M.A. and Ph.D. in Philosophy at Princeton. I have always found him both impressive and inspirational. He has released three spoken word albums and written over 20 books, a true motivator. His classics, Race Matters and Democracy Matters, are thought-provoking and intellectual, and his latest releases, Black Prophetic Fire and Radical King, have received critical acclaim. His memoir, Brother West: Living and Loving Out Loud, is passionate, brilliant, and moving. Not to be missed, the memoir uncovers details from his three marriages, his struggle with finding his calling, his near-fatal bout with prostate cancer, and everything in-between. Intending to keep the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. alive, he has appeared in numerous documentaries, films, and television shows, including the Bill Maher Show, Colbert Report, CNN, C-Span, and Democracy Now.
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).
As we finish celebrating the first week of Black History Month 2016, I find myself reflecting on those that made it their life’s work to ensure that African Americans would receive all of the basic rights of an American citizen. How many of you are familiar with this historic line, declaring these freedoms: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”? First written in the U.S. Declaration of Independence in 1776 by Thomas Jefferson, and notably quoted thereafter in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s monumental “I Have a Dream” speech, we should always remember the basic principles that our nation was founded upon and act to ensure that progress continues to be achieved.
There are many highly esteemed, educated, and successful trailblazers that deserve to be honored, remembered, and celebrated at every possible opportunity. One of those is the late Rev. Dr. Harold A. Carter, Sr, whose 47 years in ministry impacted multiple generations. Dr. Carter should be remembered not just for his determined faith, but for the many leaders and ministries that have grown and developed in unbelievable ways with his direction and example. While leading his Baltimore-based congregation at New Shiloh Baptist Church, which is now one of the largest churches in Maryland, Dr. Carter labored to establish a church complex that includes senior citizen’s housing, a theological institute, a music school, and a children’s center, all of which have become a model for other ministries to follow. Outside of the walls of his church, he also became a sought after speaker for the Promise Keepers Men’s Ministry and countless other revivals and events throughout the United States and abroad. His words even crossed the airwaves, as he shared in ministry on WBAL-Radio on Sunday evenings for decades.
Dr. Carter was heavily influenced by Martin Luther King, Jr. and followed a path similar to that of Dr. King, first aspiring to be an attorney before accepting the call to preach. He was heavily involved at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, coordinating the Poor People’s Campaign in 1968, which sought to rally support for African American causes. His wisdom allowed him to serve as a bridge between leaders, inspiring generations as he served as a spiritual patriarch of love, compassion, generosity, and wisdom.
I’d like to direct you all to Dr. Carter’s book, The Prayer Tradition of Black People. While discussing the history of African American prayer life, he uncovers nuggets of historical gems that prove to be both engaging and thought-provoking. If you’re looking for some additional stimulating reading material that will provide you the opportunity for exploration during Black History Month—or at any time—I also recommend works by Dr. Jawanza Kunjufu. Dr. Kunjufu has lectured at universities throughout the United States and also served as a consultant to many urban school districts. He has been featured in both Ebony and Essence magazines and has appeared on BET, The Oprah Winfrey Show, and The Michael Baisden Show.
It’s important to get out and educate ourselves locally on the events and celebrations in honor of Black History Month. On February 11th and 15th at 11:45am, the “Hallowed Grounds” tour at the University of Pittsburgh (4200 Fifth Ave, Oakland) highlights numerous significant African American events that occurred on the University of Pittsburgh campus over the years. Among other spots, you will see the computer lab and hear the account of an incident in 1969, when at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, 50 students locked themselves in that room, and in a rousing peaceful protest, demanded to have their voices heard.
Get out and see the city in honor of Black History Month!
The origin of the formal “Black History Month” commemoration goes back to 1915 when Harvard historian Carter G. Woodson and Pastor Jesse E. Moorland founded a group called the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, which researched and promoted achievements of people who were of African descent. Today, the group is known as the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, or ASALH. Back in 1926, ASALH began the sponsorship of a Negro History Week in 1926, choosing the second week of February to honor the birthday of Frederick Douglass. The birthday of Abraham Lincoln was celebrated as well. With overwhelming response, teachers, students, philanthropists, and progressive whites began supporting the effort. Becoming a crucial part of African American life and culture, a genuine appreciation for Negro History Week was fostered, expanding well past Woodson’s death in 1950. In the 1960s, the Civil Rights Movement was in full swing, and many college students on campuses around the country began to celebrate Black History for the entire month of February. In 1976, the nation’s bicentennial, President Gerald R. Ford urged Americans everywhere to reflect on and honor the accomplishments of African Americans.
Since then, schools and churches across the country hold events, awareness seminars, and celebrations to honor prominent African Americans from history and in the local communities. Anyone under the age of 50 grew up celebrating this month as a way to study, research, remember, and honor the generations of African Americans who struggled with great adversity to achieve full citizenship in American society, thus impacting social and political change worldwide in the process.
However, many generations lived in a very different time and still bear painful scars. We have a responsibility to continue pressing forward, and cannot allow the sacrifices of those that have come before us to be forgotten. Our history is fraught with adversity, but it is with thanksgiving for past sacrifices, hope for the future, and pride in our accomplishments that we celebrate Black History Month.
Since the first Black History Month in 1976, every American president has released an African American History Month proclamation. I suggest we make our own proclamations this year. It’s time we stepped forward to endorse the effort, taking pride in those who struggled before us. In the words of President Gerald R. Ford, let us “Seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”
Join me here every week in February as we celebrate Black History.