Our son was born last summer via emergency Caesarean after 32 hours of labor. When his cries hit the cool, electric air, I sobbed uncontrollably, joining billions of parents across millennia who have loved their offspring instantly with a ferocity that makes the mouth speechless with awe and wonder. At 22 1/2 inches, his legs were uncommonly spindly for a newborn, and he had two dimples, like my mother and my husband’s father. His skin was the color of toffee kissed by the sun. His hands were wide, and his fingers were so long, thin, and perfectly sculpted that friends and acquaintances on social media declared he would be a piano player. He is nearly one year old now, and the boy stuns us each day with his determination, sense of humor, laughter, and keen thoughtfulness and smarts. He is beautiful.
I’m standing alongside a life-sized photograph of police in riot gear. The image has obviously been enlarged, stretching body-length along the wall of an incline intimately holding 25 of Teenie Harris’s civil rights images. I’m jolted standing near the police like this—maybe what the curator intended? How not think of Ferguson, Missouri and Sanford, Florida? The inevitable moments of unrest that bind us? Whenever I view Harris’s photographs feelings of familiarity, uncertainty, and great curiosity surface. I recognize beloved icons like Louis Armstrong, Mary Lou Williams, Martin Luther King, Jr., and many more who were hosted and supported by Pittsburgh’s black residents—laboring, posing, and protesting across time. Traversing the city, I look for their footprints at every moment. I am assembling the missing pieces of my adopted home.
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.