The Hill District: A Melting Pot at the Turn of the Century
by Maddie Gaw
Playwright August Wilson immortalized Pittsburgh’s Hill District neighborhood in his landmark Century Cycle, chronicling the lives of Black Americans throughout the 20th century. While the Hill’s reputation as a significant Black neighborhood was cemented in the 20th century, its ties to Black history and culture extend back to the colonial period.
The free Black population in Pittsburgh can be traced to the Revolutionary War era, when the Continental army welcomed Black conscripts. Some of these freedmen formed a middle-class community in an area known as Little Haiti, which would become part of the Hill District and would later attract runaway slaves during the mid-1800s.
In the 1880s Jewish immigrants from Central and Eastern Europe began to settle in what was now the Hill District, and by 1904 the area was a multiethnic melting pot, with large concentrations of Jewish immigrants, Italians, Greeks, Syrians, Poles and Black Americans. The Hill had fairly integrated housing, schools and public facilities. Members of the middle class Black community started successful businesses; in 1909 there were at least 85 successful black-owned businesses in the greater Pittsburgh area, and several served a predominantly white clientele.
Meanwhile, the city of Pittsburgh had established itself as an industrial powerhouse, thanks partly to tycoon Andrew Carnegie’s innovations in iron and steel production in the late 1800s. Carnegie’s mechanization of the steel industry raised overall output and lowered overall working conditions. Unskilled workers easily replaced highly skilled union craftsmen, and were subject to long hours at low pay with the constant threat of furloughs.
Despite these conditions, Pittsburgh attracted an increasing number of European immigrants and Black migrants from the south who were looking for jobs. Many southern Blacks were actually recruited to work in Pennsylvania’s mills and were considered a formidable strikebreaking tool.
The hope that the Reconstruction period offered southern Blacks was quickly and thoroughly dashed by Jim Crow segregation laws and the Supreme Court decisions that upheld them, as well as by an alarming increase in lynchings and other acts of violence. This, combined with an inability to own land and the debt-ridden sharecropping business, convinced many southern Blacks to flee north.
Yet the north was not the land of opportunity many southern Blacks had hoped it would be. Those working in the steel industry faced hostility from white union workers that often would erupt into violent conflict, such as during the Homestead Steel Strike of 1892. They also had to deal with company-owned boarding houses and fluctuating rent that kept them in debt—not unlike sharecropping did. Those who found other work tended to have even lower wages.
The middle-class Black communities in the north, according to African American historian Carter G. Woodsen, treated many southern migrants with disdain, considering them “too criminal and too vicious to be tolerated”. Pittsburgh was no different; “social lines hardened,” writes University of Pittsburgh professor Laurence Glasco, “as longer-term residents and property owners held themselves aloof from Southern migrants”.
However, the Hill District’s population would shift dramatically in the coming decades, with the exodus of more prosperous European immigrants signaling an increasingly segregated and tight-knit Black community who had fewer distinctions about northern and southern origins.
1) Children playing on the Washington Park playground, 1907. From the Dorsey-Turfley Family Photographs, 1880-1987 collection, held by the Library and Archives at the Senator John Heinz History Center
2) Overview of Homestead Steel Works, 1890. From the William J. Gaughan Collection, held by the Archive Service Center at the University of Pittsburgh.