In recognition of Women’s History Month, the Teenie Harris Archive invited women whose father and/or mother were integrally involved with the local civil rights movement, to reflect on their personal experiences living with such involved parents. Knowing that a public figure lets their hair down at home, so to speak, prompted the question: What was it like to grow up with a civil rights leader? Teenie Harris often photographed these dynamic men and women—parents of a proud generation of women.
There’s a spirit of resilience that runs through the streets of the Hill District. A hardness that outsiders shy away from but residents embrace. An undeniable mask of determination that don our elders faces from decades of being overlooked and fighting back. One need only glance at the images in Teenie Harris Photographs: Civil Rights Perspectives to understand the magnitude of this grit. Look closer at the crowds holding picket signs in front of a newly built Civic Arena or the protesters marching down Centre Avenue and you can almost hear the faint cadence of a “We Shall Overcome” chant. A call to action that some during that time didn’t hear but others, like community activist Sala Udin, couldn’t seem to ignore.
“Then, all you had to do was walk out the door and the movement swept you up like a wave and carried you down the street with it,” said Udin, who caught the wave at 19, and rode it to the capital to hear Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speak at the March on Washington. At a time when young people were listening to Malcolm X and SNCC and Dr. King to decide where they stood, Udin was trying to figure out who he was relative to this growing movement. “When I heard King talk about the bravery and the sacrifice of the civil rights workers in the Deep South, he answered that question by saying, come do this with your life. And I said yes.” Shortly after, Udin rode the wave further south to Mississippi and joined the effort of attacking legal segregation.
The home my wife and I share sits in an impressive building on Fifth Avenue. If I peer out our kitchen window and glance right, I’ll see Dinwiddie Street. A 15-second drive up Dinwiddie leads to Centre Avenue. The Hill House, the Thelma Lovette YMCA, the Alma Speed Fox Building, and perhaps the most politically contentious Shop ‘n Save in the country all sit within a five-minute walk. We do not live in the Hill District. This awkward stretch of land that exists between Oakland, downtown, the Hill, and the South Side is technically called Uptown—a differentiation that definitely seems to matter to pizza delivery men. But this apartment we live in—located in a building that was once Fifth Avenue High School and is now the Fifth Avenue School Lofts—and the hows, whys, and whats of how people came to live in this long-dead school building, tells a Hill District story. A Pittsburgh story. A black America story. A Teenie Harris story.
The story of how the Fifth Avenue School Lofts came to exist is a complicated one that I will attempt to simplify. It is also contentious. There will be people who will vehemently disagree with what I’m about to say, either claiming that I’m intentionally disregarding important context or attempting to skew facts to promote an agenda. I am doing neither. What I am doing is telling this story how I’ve come to see it.
Iconic Pittsburgh Courier photographer Charles “Teenie” Harris rescued the broken oral tradition of our African ancestors through his magnificent and captivating photographic images. I’m quite sure that innately he knew that it was his duty to perform these tasks. I’m assuming subconsciously he knew this; however, I’m not so sure he could have imagined his work’s magnitude. We are often unaware that history is being made by our everyday actions. That’s one of the most beautiful things about being a photojournalist. As a photojournalist, your job is to capture moments in time to tell the story at hand. However the work you do puts a time stamp on moments in life for all of eternity. From the perspective of one who has enjoyed that very same position during the eighties and early nineties, I can honestly say that it was a great honor and privilege to be part of our African American community in such an intimate way.
Mr. Harris had the nickname “One Shot Teenie” for a reason. Whereas the modern-day photographer can zip off multiple frames per second, and occasionally use a flash, they’re not faced with the task of popping a very hot flash bulb out of their camera, catching it, and putting it in their pocket all while covering an event like Mr. Harris. Positioning himself to get that one great shot took a tremendous amount of skill and great timing. Pre-digital newspaper photographers were caught up in the daily ritual of running from assignment to assignment, press conferences, churches, schools, and city hall, all while zipping in and out of the darkroom, mixing chemicals, D 76, Dektol, and many others. I view this aspect of their daily grind as photographers as the lost art of developing film by hand. During that time, we were adept at being low level chemists and time management experts. Taking a picture on your smart phone these days pretty much demonstrates just how far we have come technologically and artistically.
When I agreed to write this essay, I knew it had to center around a conversation with Teenie Harris Photographs: Civil Rights Perspectives guest curator Alma Speed Fox. At 91 years old, she’s fought for civil rights, women’s rights, and LGBT rights for over 75 years.
Alma was a friend of my grandmother, Georgetta Holmes Stevens, aka “Big George.” And she’s my uncle Tim Stevens’s “Civil Rights Mother.”
I remember her attending one of my Big George oral history readings. I told a story about my grandmother inspecting my elbows to make sure I was using lotion regularly. Alma shared how back in the day, after making lemonade, black women sat their elbows in the lemon peels to lighten them. It was the only time you were allowed to put your elbows on the table.
But I’d never talked one-on-one with Alma. When she agreed to talk with me, she asked a rhetorical question: “Why, after all this work, haven’t black people come further?” Before I could answer, Alma asked if I’d heard of Derrick Bell.