Black migration making great impact on Pittsburgh region
Jobs in the region’s steel mills were a draw for Southern black Americans in the 20 years before World War I, but their skills and experience were greatly ignored, members of the Allegheny-Kiski Valley Historical Society members were told at a Black History Month presentation Sunday.
Among those steel mills was one in Vandergrift, according to Samuel S.W. Black, director of African American programs at the Senator John Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh.
Much of his Black History Month address outlined economist Abraham Epstein’s 1918 sociological study for his University of Pittsburgh dissertation. Epstein noted the most blacks moved to the eastern part of Pittsburgh in the late 1800s and early 1900s, Black said.
Although Epstein’s study included some “curiously racist” words such as “shiftless and ignorant” to describe black workers, the study did show that many blacks were getting jobs in mining and steel manufacturing.
“They were usually the lowest paid, and they had the most dangerous jobs,” Black said.
Even those who had experience as skilled workers were given unskilled labor jobs. Hinson Herron is an example. Herron was a skilled worker in a Southern steel factory, “but he could only get an unskilled job at the Vandergrift mill, even though he had experience in making steel.”
In 1916, Carnegie Steel — the largest steelmaker — employed about 4,000 African Americans.
“Ninety-eight percent were unskilled labor and earned 30 cents an hour for working eight to 12 hours a day,” Black said.
At the same time, Jones & Laughlin had about 1,500 black employees who worked 10 hours a day, also at 30 cents an hour, he said.
“They had the most dangerous jobs there were, and there was no chance of advancement,” he said.
By 1918, about 39,000 blacks lived in Pittsburgh — most in the Hill District, Black said. About 60 percent of them had moved from Alabama, Georgia, Virginia and North Carolina. Most who came from Alabama had worked in steel mills in Birmingham.
Most got the same reaction as Herron when they applied for jobs in this region: Their job skills weren’t recognized.
Most black Americans at that time registered as Republicans because Abraham Lincoln was a Republican. But by the early 1900s, they “started to turn their portraits of Lincoln to the wall,” Black said.
He said Pittsburgh Courier newspaper editor Robert L. Vann predicted in 1932 that most African Americans in Northern cities would become Democrats in order to get representation.
Black migration to Pittsburgh made a great impact on the region at the turn of the century and later from the 1940s to the 1960s, Black said.
Some movers and shakers were migrants to this area, from Vann to baseball great Josh Gibson and jazz musicians such as Mary Lou Williams.
Chuck Biedka is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Chuck at 724-226-4711, [email protected] or via Twitter .