Pittsburgh, 1957: A Mecca of Black Culture and Business Destroyed (From the Playbill)
For the huge numbers of African Americans fleeing the South in the post-Civil War 1880s, few destinations held as much promise as the booming city of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Hoping for jobs in the steel and railroad industries and escape from the Jim Crow segregationist laws of the Reconstruction-era South, blacks flocked to Pittsburgh and specifically to the Hill District, a neighborhood close to downtown but up against steep hills that made it an undesirable living location for the city’s upper classes. Though Pittsburgh was by no means free of racial prejudice, African Americans formed tight communities in the Hill District, a city-within-a-city nationally recognized by the 1930s as a mecca of black culture and business. It was home to one of the country’s most vibrant jazz scenes and one of the finest teams in baseball, the Negro League Pittsburgh Crawfords, who played in Greenlee Field, the first black-owned and black-built baseball park in America.
But as the century moved forward, deteriorating infrastructure hung as a shadow over the neighborhood. In 1943, City Councilman George E. Evans wrote that “approximately 90 per cent of the buildings in the area are sub-standard… and so there would be no social loss if these were all destroyed.” Regardless of whether the Hill’s buildings were in need of repair, the city was really in search of a place to build the new Civic Arena, and chose to demolish the Lower Hill District in 1956 to create a building site. This led to the displacement of 8,000 residents over the next five years, creating even more over-crowding in the Middle and Upper Hill neighborhoods. This caused the demise of much of the city’s cultural vibrancy, and effectively altered the character of the Hill to the present day.
Furthermore, after World War II, Pittsburgh as a whole entered a period of economic decline as the city lost increasing numbers of jobs and people to the suburbs and to overseas manufacturing. During this time, Pittsburgh’s African-American population actually grew and gained a larger share of the city’s total – reaching about 12% in 1950 – but continued to face unfair employment practices and barriers to where they could live. From the early 1950s through the 1960s, the unemployment rate of blacks was more than double that of whites, and income discrepancies were rampant. Although the city passed a municipal fair employment practices ordinance in 1953, the Pittsburgh area office accounted for nearly 25% of all discrimination complaint cases statewide.
August Wilson’s Fences is set in 1957, a landmark year in the early Civil Rights Movement: it was the year that Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his famous “Give Us the Ballot” speech during the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom, and Congress passed the first Civil Rights Act since Reconstruction. Wilson’s play focuses on the daily African-American experience rather than the important events of the era, reminding us how slowly the effects of the Civil Rights Movement were felt by the average citizen.
Top: Josh Gibson, who was known as "The Black Babe Ruth," surrounded by fans of one of Pittsburgh's two Negro League baseball teams, the Homestead Grays
Bottom: Pittsburgh's Hill District circa 1956, after the demolition for, and beginning of construction of, the Civic Arena (top right)