Category Archives: Teenie Harris Archive

View from the Hill: A Tale of Black Pittsburgh’s Complicated Legacy


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Charles “Teenie” Harris, billboard at the corner of Crawford Street and Centre Avenue, denouncing the redevelopment of the lower Hill District, 1969. Carnegie Museum of Art, Heinz Family Fund.

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.

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Teenie Harris: The Lens That Rescued the Legacy


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A Man and His Dog, Lower Hill District, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, c. 1981. Photograph by Mark Clayton Southers, taken during his tenure as chief photographer at the New Pittsburgh Courier.

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.

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The Chronicle of Alma Speed Fox


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Charles “Teenie” Harris, group portrait from left: C. Dolores Tucker, Alma Speed Fox presenting “Daisy Lampkin Award” bowl to Wilhelmina Byrd Brown and Mary Gloster at Women’s Auxiliary of NAACP dinner dance at the Roosevelt Hotel, February 1967. Carnegie Museum of Art, Heinz Family Fund.

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.

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The Martin Luther King Jr. Effect in Pittsburgh and Beyond


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Charles “Teenie” Harris, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. with Loran Mann, Charles Harris, Matthew Moore, and Tom McGarrity at press conference, University of Pittsburgh, November 1966. Carnegie Museum of Art, Heinz Family Fund.

Yesterday the nation celebrated the birth of a King—Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The greatness of this man’s plight—equality for all people—and the parade of non-violent demonstrations and negotiations, culminating with his detestable assassination, cemented his martyrdom in the annals of history. He was intelligent, courageous, selfless, and seemingly tireless, but also by some reports, lonely at times. Although he was at the top of a very large heap of nationwide civil rights workers, a summit can be a lonely pinnacle, but this King was never alone because men of his stature rarely make the climb to greatness by themselves. There were armies of workers, in every town and municipality across the nation, struggling for equal employment, fair wages, voting rights, adequate housing, and medical care. Most were rarely visible, but their dedication was dynamic nonetheless. Dr. King came to speak for those who had no voice, or those whose cries were not being heard. King stood up for those who were too weary to fight, from being continually knocked down.

When most people think of civil rights their immediate thought is most often of Dr. King at the historic 1963 March on Washington, and the delivery of his “I have a dream” speech. The eloquence of his heartfelt oration stirred an already brewing nation, not only in the conversation of human rights, but for black America, the day-to-day realities of how the struggle affected their lives. What is muddled in this stoic recollection on the national mall are the lieutenants of the cause standing with King—Ralph Abernathy, Jesse Jackson, John Lewis, A. Philip Randolph, Roy Wilkins, Whitney Young, James Farmer, and many more. These men lead local and national groups such as the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), The Urban League, SNCC (Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee), and many more. Without their support, national awareness of King—the eloquent and brave southern minister—might not have occurred.

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What’s That under Teenie’s Christmas Tree?


36887_1200pWhile there are a number of images of Teenie Harris’s family events in the collection, there are just a few without people in them. One December in the late 1940s or early 1950s, he took a picture of their Christmas tree in a corner of his living room. The room is dim and cozy, the tree is lit, and the presents beneath opened and in slight disarray (pictured above).

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