This first blog post of April represents the second birthday for this blog. A lot has changed since then. The main reason that I started to blog was to provide a platform to build awareness for my novels about the Bledsoe sisters set during the years of the Great Migration. Well as some of you may know, that series will be published later this year by Samhain Publishing. The first book, A Virtuous Ruby, went up for pre-order sale this week on several platforms. It will be available on July 14, 2015.
So as I celebrate my second birthday and look forward to the third, I’m listing the places interested people will be able to order Ruby before it’s published (it will come to your e-readers on the morning of July 14). If you are able to, please pre-order. It will help me look good with the publisher! I’ll update this list when I know more about the print version.
I’m also listing the blog posts that directly involve Ruby and her history to help some of you become acquainted with her.
When I was growing up, New Year’s Eve was a time for family. We would get together at my uncle’s hours and play games to ring in the New Year. However, to many Black Pittsburghers, a New Year’s or even just a weekend night out wouldn’t be complete without going to Walt Harper’s Attic or later Harper’s, the famous nightclubs owned and operated by local jazz legend, Walt Harper.
One of the ongoing themes in Isabel Wilkerson’s book about the Great Migration, The Warmth of Other Suns, is that a lot of the success that African Americans experienced in the north would not have been possible in the South. Seeing other African Americans succeed, like Walt Harper, certainly inspired other African Americans to try. Harper was born in Pittsburgh in 1926 to relatively middle class parents, but from beginning his upbringing in that academic-rich section of Pittsburgh—Oakland—meant that he had ready access to all of the cultural amenities that PMI (last week’s post) and later the University of Pittsburgh, could provide to a developing young jazz pianist. His talents meant that he was able to travel all over the city and play for parties and proms. His engagements with Errol Gardner and Stanley Turrentine, jazz legends in themselves, meant that his reputation was secure.
He played at the legendary Crawford Grill, the place I discussed to two weeks ago. However in the late 1960’s (and I suspect that the building of the Civic Arena had something to do with it), he opened up his own nightclubs in the downtown area. He had engendered so much good will going around the Pittsburgh area playing those parties and proms, that it seemed like a long overdue move for an African American man to own and operate his own nightclub in downtown. He also played for the home Steeler games for years. He died in 2006.
This reflection on Walt Harper represents the end of my look at Pittsburgh music. I first found out about him when the Harpers intersected with my family when my cousin married one of Walt’s nieces–a story for the fiction pages.
When people speak of little girls playing back in the 1920’s, thoughts of dolls and tea parties may come to mind. However, one traveler on the road of the Great Migration was Mary Lou Williams. She was born in Atlanta, Georgia in 1910 and came north to Pittsburgh when she was four years old. Her family moved to the East Liberty area, but she slowed determined to play her way out of her neighborhood. She was a child prodigy who played the piano so well, she was hired to play to entertain people and became something of a curiosity–the little black girl who could play.
In Soul on Soul, a biography about Mary Lou Williams, Tammy Kernodle speaks about the young Mary Lou’s talent: “The Mellons, one of the wealthiest families in Pittsburgh, also invited Mary to play for their parties, and she was paid substantial amounts of money for her services…. At a time most girls were playing dressup, Mary was doing one-nighters in Memphis, Kansas City and other parts of the Midwest…..By virtue of her talent, Mary was being saved from the life of domestic service and industrial work that had robbed her mother and so many black women of their youth.”
Some child prodigies burn out, but Mary Lou kept on going, playing and composing for Benny Goodman, Earl Hines, Tommy Dorsey, Duke Ellington and Dizzy Gillespie. Many have heard of these male famous men, but few may know of Williams’s history. She later moved to Harlem in the 1930’s and when she arrived she was greeted as a celebrity. She continued to have a working musician’s life through three marriages, and was considered the mother of be-bop (she had no children of her own), but few have heard of her. Why?
She received a few laurels by the time she died in 1981. Late in life, she had undergone a religious conversion to Roman Catholicism and established a charity foundation in her name. This talented woman’s life story puts me much in the mind of Mozart, even though she lived twice as long as he did. Yet, she remains obscure. As I continue this special series about music in Pittsburgh to the end of the year, I would ask: have you learned about someone obscure in history and wondered why they remained that way?
Okay, I’ve endured enough jokes. I was asked today, “Why Pittsburgh? Is it because it is the pits?”
Ha! Ha! It’s not as if I haven’t heard that one before, since I’m originally from Pittsburgh ….
Then there were all of those jokes in the movie 42, which was a fine movie except for all the Pittsburgh jokes…
Fortunately, when you hail from Pittsburgh, The Steel City, we can take one on the chin (except for the record for the Steelers this season, they’ve got to do better).
Living away from my birthplace for a number of years has permitted me a perspective of how unique the city is. It is the perfect amalgamation of East coast, Midwest and Appalachian sensibilities. Then, when you throw race and the shifting immigrant population into all of that, the potential for story conflict is huge.
At the time of the beginning of The Great Migration, Pittsburgh was the sixth largest city in the country, a destination place.
And, unbeknownst to me, even as a steel-jawed native, it was quite the destination for jazz. I mean, I knew that Lena Horne grew up here, but it didn’t really register until I did my research.
The story of the development of jazz as well as many other musical forms here, reflects the story of America, a setting that is potentially rich with conflict. So over the next few weeks, I will highlight a few of the figures who put Pittsburgh music on the map and made the city a destination during the years of The Great Migration.
And by the way. If you must know, Pittsburgh is named after a Prime Minister of England, William Pitt the Elder, and no, he wasn’t the pits. He just happened to have an unfortunate name. And the name of the city may be unfortunate, but it is a very special city. Hope you come by and visit sometime.
No, this post is not meant to address tonight’s football game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Chicago Bears. Today, I want to address what these two cities meant as destinations for African Americans during The Great Migration. Certain parts of the South migrated to certain cities. Migrants from Mississippi tended to migrate to Chicago. Migrants from Georgia and Alabama, like my paternal grandparents, held sway in Pittsburgh. Many times, migrants decided where to go by how long their train money would take them. However, Pittsburgh and Chicago were considered destinations for jobs– Pittsburgh had the steel industry and Chicago had jobs the meat packing industry.
These two cities had a commonality in more than just their working class industries. They were the places where the story of The Great Migration was told throught the lens of black journalism, In Chicago, The Chicago Defender was the newspaper of note. Wilkerson in The Warmth of Other Sons, even goes so far as to credit The Defender with starting the Great Migration after some families in Selma Alabama left their homes in 1916 because of poor treatment in. Pittsburgh had the famous newspaper, The Pittsburgh Courier. These newspapers were not just local entities; they were distributed nationally throughout the South. Puilman porters would bring copies of these papers onto trains into the South. In the 1930’s and 1940’s owners of various packing plants and mills would put ads in these two journalistic powerhouses knowing that African American readers would read the ads and come north as a cheap labor supply.
In numbers though, Chicago was king and drew the bigger share of migrants to its environs. Pittsburgh was the fourth biggest migration destination, after Philadelphia and Washington D.C. Although Chicago is the bigger city with the bigger national story to tell in terms of The Great Migration, I hope to change that with my stories. A lot happened in Pittsburgh as well.
However, I would be remiss not put in a plug for my hometown team. Let us also hope, that the Steelers are able to get their act together and win a game this week.
English: Steel mills and a long staircase in the South Side Slopes neighborhood of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, United States. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
As we filled out tons of paperwork during the course of planning my mother’s funeral, I was a little bit surprised by my father’s insistence on filling out the documents by including what I thought was a long-ago discarded “Jr.” as part of his name. My father’s inclusion of the suffix reminds me that there are a few things to convey about my paternal grandfather as a participant of The Great Migration.
He was the first one to migrate northward in his family, taking with him my paternal grandmother, the first one to migrate from her family. He was lured by the promise of big money to be made in the steel mills. When they arrived in Pittsburgh in 1942, the onset of World War II meant that there was a great deal of money to be made in steel. The unions had gained a foothold in the first part of the twentieth century, but big business had made it a consistent desire to break those unions. The big bosses turned to the African Americans of the South to lure them to steel-producing cities like Pittsburgh, as strikebreakers.
Doubtless, he did not know he was taking someone’s job. All he knew was that he was getting paid more than he ever had, and worked hard to create a better life for his sons. Despite not being allowed to join the existing unions, African American steelworkers like my grandfather could see the horrible conditions in the mills and made inroads to the unions in different ways. According to Joe Trotter and Jared Day in their book Race and Renaissance, African American steelworkers created their own unions, but continuously sought to join predominately white unions on their own terms.
As the lowest in rank, African Americans had to work the hardest and most dangerous jobs in the mills. They were exposed to the most heat and noxious fumes. It was the fumes that got to my grandfather and weakened his lungs, rendering him an invalid for the last ten years of his life. I have the vaguest memories of a snappily-dressed, curmudgeonly man who sat in a corner in an overstuffed barcalounger. He would play with my sister and me by creating a monster’s lair behind the chair. He would come at us from opposite sides of the chair, and growl and threaten to get at us. We would squeal and shrink away from him in mock horror, never really wanting to escape his terrifying clutches.
I was too young to understand why he didn’t get up from the chair more often. Neal Huguley, Sr. was only 56 when he died, an age that seemed ancient to me when I was six, but now seems much too young an age to die. I now understand what that Jr. was for. My father, as well as my son, carry his name forward. We are all grateful beneficiaries of his great sacrifice for a better life.
Joe Louis’ headstone in Arlington National Cemetery, Virginia. I surely did not expect to see his picture in the funeral planning parlor
Funeral homes were always creepy places to me, but now that my mother has been associated with one, my perspective is different. In adjusting to this strange, new world, where my mother does not exist any longer as living breathing presence, I see that she is still teaching me new ways to look at things.
When the funeral director guided us downstairs to the room where example caskets were kept, I did not feel the same kind of stomach-churning trepidation that I would have felt just two weeks ago. Odd.
The parlor at this quiet and comfortable family- owned funeral home in Pittsburgh’s famed Hill District neighborhood was decorated with fascinating photo collages of black Pittsburghers in the Hill’s heyday as a “go-to” destination during The Great Migration. The most striking photo collage for me was the one right next to the casket room featuring about a dozen photos of boxers. Joe Louis was there, but there were other boxers I could not identify. As we selected a suitable resting place for my mother, it was easy to imagine my Champion Bates as one of those boxers. Those photo collages, taken by the esteemed Charles “Teenie” Harris and others, were so captivating I wanted to stay and examine each one of them.
Reflecting further, I remembered that the funeral business during the Great Migration provided a dignified profession for black males where they could earn a better than a decent living. Also, funeral directors have had a long history of being involved in activism. Planning parlors, just like the one I visited, were often used as gathering places for planning protests. Clueless law officials would not disturb anyone there. After all, no one wants to be in a funeral home–unless they have to be there.
It gets even better. In The Warmth of Other Suns, Wilkerson discusses the possibility of some type of underground that funeral directors regularly participated in the transport of “living” protesters out of the South when things got too hot. A perfectly sane journalist named Arrington High was smuggled out of Mississippi by coffin after his commitment in an insane asylum for publishing a pamphlet advocating integration. High’s case is the one that this “network” of funeral directors are willing to discuss. They stay mum on any other escapes. Is it possible that on the very worst day of my life I might have finally found a potential hero for my hairdresser character, Emerald Bledsoe?
Time and research will tell. In the meantime, keep teaching me, Mom. There’s always a lot to learn.
English: Portrait of Frederick Douglass as a younger man (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
My mother died this week. While I set up this blog to put forward educational information on The Great Migration, I feel I would be sorely remiss if I did not pay tribute to my mother. Her overall feeling was that people did not pay enough attention to history and we had to do more to get them to understand it’s value to our lives and its richness. She did this through her genealogical research, and I use historical romance to do mine. She was my sounding board in many ways, and made it a point to interrogate me on my projects, just as I had done the same for her.
She was all on board with The Bledsoe Sisters. But she continued to remind me of how there were so many stories that needed to be told. When I published my first blog post, she was proud of it, but then followed up with an e-mail about many other series and story ideas, enough to keep me busy for decades, and I had to remind her that I had only written one blog post.
You see, she was the one who used her retirement years to trace our family’s history back to that landmark year of 1776. This may mean small potatoes to some, but in African American genealogy it is no small feat to “break the “wall” before 1870, the first census where African Americans are recorded as people. A remarkable accomplishment.
I will miss our many debates about history and historical figures like Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, discussions about genealogical reality shows, and whether people understood how close we are to the past. She had laughed and found particular resonance in comedian Louis C.K.’s comment about how slavery was “just two 75 year old ladies” away.
Since she was my best friend, I would share with her my frustrations about how the publishing industry does not seem very open to my ideas. So, to me, my mother is going forward stir things up a bit, “nudge” as we say in the writing world, and see what could be holding things up in the delay of spreading this love of history. She is my guardian angel now and her name will always be on any dedication page of anything I ever publish. I start today.
Rest in peace, Lilia C. Huguley, and thank you for the love of history.
Historians point to economic factors as preeminent reasons for the start of The Great Migration around 1915. That is true. However some people began to fear for their safety as well. Prior to 1915, lynchings occurred with an alarming frequency across the last years of the nineteenth century and the first few years of the twentieth century. Activists like Ida Wells Burnett engaged in rigorous protests against the vigilante punishment. However, the shift in technology from agricultural to mechanical jobs also triggered African Americans to leave their homes. This tightening of the economy spurred an uptick in the number of lynchings that occurred across the South.
When people think of lynching, they think of African American males facing vigilante justice for sexual attacks against white women. However, as Ida Wells-Burnett herself pointed out at the time, interracial sexual attacks were rarely the reasons for these punishments that occurred outside of the law. For example the lynching that first stirred her to activism came about because one of her friends dared to open a new grocery store in the black community that threatened to siphon off the business of the grocery store that was already there.
One reason why the word remains firmly a relic of a hundred years ago is because an official definition of the word means two or more people have to be assembled to carry out the punishment. Another reason the word is not used more often is there is the mistaken belief that lynching can only occur with a hanging. However, many don’t know that lynch victims were often burned or shot.
People of various races, sometimes even women, were lynched during this time period. But the repeated use of this vigilante crime against African American males in the first part of the century drove them seek new economic opportunities elsewhere. They feared a lack of safety for themselves and for their children. They also understood that there was no way to obtain justice in the criminal system where they had no voice.
A neighborhood watch official who carries out vigilante justice because he fears increased theft of property in the community and subsequent economic loss is representing more than one person when he shoots someone who he wrongfully believes is engaging in that thefts.
It’s time for that word, lynching, to make a comeback.
The Jungle was a novel that I was required to read in high school and I have loved it ever since. However, it wasn’t until I began doing the research about the Bledsoe sisters series that I began to understand the tie that the striving Lithuanian family had with the African Americans of The Great Migration.
Upton Sinclair published The Jungle in 1906 to complain about the working conditions that existed in the meat-packing houses in Chicago in the first part of the twentieth century. Sinclair’s hero, Jurgis Rudkus, have very little influence on the horrific conditions that he—and his large family—have to live in and work in. Only by grabbing his own power through politics can Jurgis come to full American citizenship. Until he understands the role he plays in politics, he is always on the fringes of society, even after all of his family is taken from him by death, starvation and prostitution.
In the first part of the twentieth century in the South, African Americans were required to pay taxes and yet could not play a role in the political process. This powerlessness was another factor that drove people to leave the South for still-difficult lives in the North. Over the trajectory of The Great Migration (1915-1970), African Americans gradually gained a foothold in political power as they were able to vote and influence elections. And once African Americans in the South saw the possibilities for political power, they began to demand for more—right where they lived.
The Jungle reminds me of the determination of European immigrants. Their participation provided a road map for African Americans of the Great Migration to step forward and demand to be a part of the political process in their own country—a legacy that lasts into the present day.