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Documenting Pittsburgh’s Past

By Paulette W. Campbell | HUMANITIES, March/April 2006 | Volume 27, Number 2

In the 1930s Pittsburgh's Hill District was "little Harlem," attracting performers like Count Basie and Sarah Vaughan to its clubs. It thrived for forty years and photographer Charles "Teenie" Harris chronicled the neighborhood's activities, snapping shots of sports figures and jazz musicians, politicians and working-class people.

As a photographer for the Pittsburgh Courier, Harris took more than eighty thousand photographs of life in the Hill District from just after the Depression through the 1970s.

"What he has given us, through these images, is really an insider's look at the day-to-day life in an African American urban community over a stretch of nearly half a century," says Louise Lippincott, the curator of fine arts at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, which in 2001 acquired the Harris collection.

"What makes the collection so special is that Harris photographed every aspect of life--formal studio portraits of the way people wanted to be seen and news photos of events as they happened."

Harris was born in 1908 at a time when the Hill was largely populated by Irish and Jewish immigrants. His parents owned a hotel on Wylie Avenue, a main road through the Hill. Blacks had begun migrating from the rural South to Pittsburgh during World War I, looking for work in the iron and steel mills.

As a youngster, Harris played baseball on the neighborhood's sandlots. In 1925, Harris and a group of neighborhood boys founded the Crawford Colored Giants, which later became the Pittsburgh Crawfords, a formidable Negro League team of the mid-1930s. It was owned by Gus Greenlee, a numbers racketeer and sports promoter who was known as "King of the Hill." He named the team after his night club the Crawford Grill, which he co-owned with Harris's brother Woogie. The team included future Hall of Famers Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson.

Harris remained interested in baseball throughout his life, taking pictures of Little Leaguers and professional players. "His photos of the Hill district's Little League really showed the pride and excitement the community felt about baseball," Lippincott says. "Opening day for the season was a big deal, with a parade and a ceremony."

In 1929, Harris borrowed money from Woogie to buy a Speed Graphic, the kind used by newspaper photographers. He began snapping pictures of celebrities visiting the Hill and sold them to Flash!, a black-owned weekly publication based in Washington, D.C.

At the same time, Harris began running numbers for his brother. This connection to the underworld opened doors to most every public and private aspect of life on the Hill, Lippincott notes. "This association granted Teenie behind the scenes access to the entertainment life and even organized crime. He was an integral part of the community and people trusted him."

In an interview in the documentary The Black Press: Soldiers Without Swords, Harris said many of his neighborhood friends thought he was crazy for taking pictures of his brother's associates-afraid the photos would prove his connection to the underworld, or worse, anger those he photographed. Harris decided to quit the numbers business.

Meanwhile, Harris's work had come to the attention of the Pittsburgh Courier. He was hired as a freelancer, eventually becoming the Courier's chief photographer. Frank E. Bolden, a reporter for the Courier and later became the city editor, said Harris had a knack for getting the right shot. "He always had a news story in that camera."

Within a few years, Harris opened his own photo studio on Centre Avenue.

"He had a wonderful eye for composing shots and he was good at relating to his subjects. Viewing his photos, you get a sense of the personality of the sitter," says Lippincott.

From 1930 to 1950 the Hill was on the national jazz circuit with places like the Crawford Grill, Hurricane Lounge, Savoy Ballroom, and Musicians Club. It was a popular stomping ground for music and nightlife between New York City and Chicago. "Lena Horne, Billy Eckstein, Ahmad Jamal-we too had some very important musicians come out of Pittsburgh," says playwright August Wilson, who grew up on the Hill. He wrote a ten-play cycle chronicling the African American experience, much of it based on his own experiences in Pittsburgh. "Take jazz or blues," Wilson said, "You can't disregard that part of the African American experience, or even try to transcend it. They are affirmations and celebrations of the value and worth of the African American spirit."

One of the most popular clubs on the Hill was the Crawford Grill on Wylie, nearly a full city block in length. On the second floor, bands played on a revolving stage. The third floor was called "Club Crawford," a VIP section where many jazz greats, including Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, and Stanley Turrentine played and enjoyed the nightlife.

Jazz musicians populated scores of Harris's images. In one photo, Sarah Vaughan and singer Ann Baker are listening to the Earl Hines Band. Lena Horne is seen several times in the collection. In one, she's backstage at the Stanley Theatre, wrapped in a dressing gown and doing her hair before a performance.

Other photos show Ahmad Jamal at age twelve and Stanley Turrentine at fifteen. "These kids were still playing in living rooms and school basements," says Lippincott. "In many cases, Harris was able to follow these renowned musicians throughout their careers, from their beginnings, their family lives, to their very public personae. He had that kind of access."

Clubs on the Hill attracted both black and white customers. White musicians who played in downtown Pittsburgh would often head for the Hill when they finished their gigs. Some would play; others, like Rudy Vallee and Paul Whiteman would come to hear Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie, Cab Calloway, Billy Eckstein, and Duke Ellington.

Harris photographed the neighborhood's businesses as well, places like Goode's Pharmacy and LaSalle's Beauty Salon. "Harris went back, over and over again, to these landscapes, these places that meant a lot to him," says Lippincott.

In the 1950s, Pittsburgh's urban renewal project changed the character of the Hill. The Crawford Grill and other neighborhood businesses fell victim to the wrecking ball, making way for the Civic Arena. More than eight thousand residents were displaced.

As the Hill changed, so did the nature of Harris's photos. "In many of the early photos there are people out on the town, in the restaurants and jazz clubs, smiling, happy . . . well at least looking satisfied and prosperous," says Lippincott. "What comes through in his early pictures was optimism. He loved his community, he thought well of the people he lived with, and it showed in the pictures."

"You can tell in the pictures of the demonstrations and the riots in Pittsburgh after the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King that he is distancing himself from his subjects, this younger generation," Lippincott continues. "His pictures were very much a product of his relationship with the people, and that changed as he got older. He had less in common with the folks rioting. The pictures seem distant; they seem less personal. It's just a sense you get that he's not connected with these people. Over the course of his career you clearly get the sense of how the community changed. So that what you have is a look at the rise and fall of an era."

About the Author

Paulette W. Campbell is a writer in Burtonsville, Maryland.

Funding Information

The Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh received $340,000 from NEH to catalog, repair, and digitize photo negatives made by Charles "Teenie" Harris documenting African American history and culture in Pittsburgh from 1935 through 1975. An Internet-accessible catalog and finding aids will also be created.