That story of Pittsburgh is well documented. Far less chronicled but just as extraordinary is the confluence of forces that made the black population of the city, for a brief but glorious stretch of the twentieth century, one of the most vibrant and consequential communities of color in U.S. history. Like millions of other black people, they came north before and during the Great Migration, many of them from the upper parts of the old South, from states such as Maryland, Delaware, Virginia, and North Carolina. As likely as not to have been descendants of house slaves or free men of color, these migrants arrived with high degrees of literacy, musical fluency, and religious discipline—as well as a tendency toward light skin that betrayed their history of mixing with white masters and with one another. Once they settled in Pittsburgh, they had educational opportunities that were rare for black people of the era, thanks to abolitionist-sponsored university scholarships and integrated public high schools with lavish Gilded Age funding. Whether or not they succeeded in finding jobs in Pittsburgh’s steel mills—and often they did not—they inhaled a spirit of commerce that hung, quite literally, in the dark, sulfurous air.The result was a black version of the story of fifteenth-century Florence and early-twentieth-century Vienna: a miraculous flowering of social and cultural achievement all at once, in one small city. In its heyday, from the twenties until the late fifties, Pittsburgh’s black population was less than a quarter of the size of New York City’s and a third of the size of Chicago’s, those two much-larger metropolises that have been associated with the phenomenon of a black renaissance. Yet during those decades, it was Pittsburgh that produced the best-written, widest-selling, and most influential black newspaper in America, the Pittsburgh Courier. From a four-page pamphlet of poetry and local oddities, its leader, Robert L. Vann, built the Courier into a publication with fourteen regional editions, a circulation of almost half a million at its zenith, and an avid following in black homes, barbershops, and beauty salons across the country. ...
In the realm of the arts, Pittsburgh produced three of the most electrifying and influential jazz pianists of the era: Earl “Fatha” Hines, Mary Lou Williams, and the dazzling Erroll Garner. It was in Pittsburgh that Billy Strayhorn grew up and met Duke Ellington, beginning a partnership that would yield the finest orchestral jazz of all time. Another Pittsburgh native, Billy Eckstine, became the most popular black singer of the forties and early fifties and played a less remembered but equally groundbreaking role in uniting Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Sarah Vaughan on the swing-era bandstands that helped give rise to bebop. Then, in the midforties, in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, a black maid born in North Carolina who had taken up with a white German baker gave birth to a boy who grew up to become America’s greatest black playwright.
August Wilson, of course. An excerpt from the forthcoming Smoketown: The Untold Story of the Other Great Black Renaissance, by Mark Whitaker.