‘Smoketown’ author Mark Whitaker to speak at Neighborhood Academy event
The history of Pittsburgh is a complex tapestry that includes August Wilson’s plays about working-class residents of the Hill District and an era’s most widely read black newspaper, with an impact that rivaled far larger African-American communities in Chicago and Harlem.
Author and journalist Mark Whitaker captured the latter in his 2018 book “Smoketown: The Untold Story of the Other Great Black Renaissance.” Whitaker will speak Wednesday as part of Nancy and Paul O’Neill Speaker Series at The Neighborhood Academy in Stanton Heights.
Founded in 2001, The Neighborhood Academy is a private, faith-based college preparatory school for grades 6-12 with a mission to break the cycle of generational poverty.
In “Smoketown” – its title taken from the nickname that Pittsburgh Courier writers gave the city – Whitaker tells the story of African-American Pittsburgh through the lens of music, journalism and sports. He details the extensive jazz talent — Roy Eldridge, Mary Lou Williams, Billy Strayhorn, Kenny Clarke, Ahmad Jamal, Lena Horne and more — and how the Courier set the agenda for political allegiances.
Sheila Edwell Rawlings, director of development at The Neighborhood Academy, considers Whitaker’s book vital for preserving this history, because stories from the minority experience are often not recorded by the mainstream. It’s particularly meaningful for students at The Neighborhood Academy, she added. “The characters in the book are real people, and so are we,” Rawlings said. “Our lives, our impact is real.”
Whitaker, whose father was a Pittsburgh native, spent summers during his youth with his extended family in the Hill District. A graduate of Harvard and Oxford, Whitaker served as editor of Newsweek from 1998 until 2006, the first African-American to lead a national news magazine. He went on to senior positions at NBC News and CNN. Whitaker will spend Thursday morning with Neighborhood Academy students.
Past series speakers include Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists Ron Suskind and Isabel Wilkerson, and author Margo Lee Shetterly, whose book “Hidden Figures” about women mathematicians at NASA during the space race became a popular film in 2016.
General admission tickets for the Wednesday dinner, cocktails and a lecture by Whitaker are $100. Proceeds from the biennial event benefit the academy. For more information or to purchase tickets, click here.