Mark Whitaker’s ‘Smoketown’ celebrates Pittsburgh’s black renaissance

March 14, 2018 GMT

When Mark Whitaker talks about his new book “Smoketown: The Untold Story of the Other Great Black Renaissance” (Simon & Schuster), readers from Pittsburgh often admit they are unfamiliar with many of the stories and personalities.

“But people from outside of Pittsburgh say they had no idea,” says Whitaker, who appears Feb. 21 at Carnegie Library Lecture Hall as a guest of Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures’ New & Noted series.

From the 1920s through the 1950s, Pittsburgh’s black community was just as vibrant as similar enclaves in New York and Chicago, and produced groundbreaking musicians and sports teams. “Smoketown” illuminates the period that featured musicians such as Errol Garner, Billy Strayhorn, Earl Hines and Mary Lou Williams, and the Homestead Grays and Pittsburgh Crawfords, two of the finest baseball teams of any league or era.

The Pittsburgh Courier, the newspaper financed by coal tycoon Cumberland “Cap” Posey and guided by publisher Robert Vann, was the engine of Pittsburgh’s black renaissance.

“One of the things that gave the small black community in Pittsburgh so much confidence was, in part, they had this newspaper,” says Whitaker, a Pittsburgh native who has worked as the managing editor for CNN Worldwide, the Washington bureau chief for NBC, and a reporter and editor for Newsweek. “They knew that there were people around the country, in black America, who had respect for Pittsburgh and what was being achieved in Pittsburgh, because they were reading the Pittsburgh Courier. Even if they had never been to Pittsburgh, there was a resonance to Pittsburgh in black America.”

Vann’s decision to address the politics and social issues of the day was instrumental in the Courier’s standing as the premier black newspaper in the U.S. But a speech he gave on Sept. 11, 1932, in Cleveland had a profound effect that reverberates today. “The Patriot and the Partisan” encouraged black citizens to embrace the Democratic party after years of support for Republicans, who had done little to address equal rights, voting rights and other social issues important to blacks.

“By 1936 you see this massive shift across the country of the black vote from the Republican to Democratic party,” Whitaker says. “So when you think about the implications of that, first of all it changed the face of the Democratic Party. Ultimately, once that happened and the Democratic Party started to be more supportive of civil rights legislation, that drove the Southern Democrats over to the Republican Party. It was the beginning of this domino effect in American politics.”

Whitaker unearths stories about forgotten contributors to Pittsburgh’s black culture. Charlotte Enty Catlin was a piano teacher who was instrumental to the careers of Strayhorn and Lena Horne (who spent time in Pittsburgh after her first foray as an entertainer fizzled). He resurrects the story of Evelyn Cunningham, a journalist with the Pittsburgh Courier who made the transition from fluff pieces to covering civil rights.

How did such a relatively small community produce so many remarkable talents? Whitaker thinks it’s partially because Pittsburgh’s size ensured both competition and support, especially in the music community.

“There have been books written about Billy Strayhorn, Mary Lou Williams and Errol Garner, and they treat the fact that they came from Pittsburgh as sort of anomaly, sort of this miracle,” Whitaker says. “When it fact, it’s the opposite. It’s not despite they came from Pittsburgh, it’s because they came from Pittsburgh — and they all were geniuses in their own right — that they benefited from this tremendous culture.”

Rege Behe is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.