Book Review presents reviews of recent publications on Pennsylvania subjects by noted scholars, historians and journalists.

The Untold Story of the Other Great Black Renaissance
by Mark Whitaker
Simon & Schuster, 432 pp., cloth $30

Smoketown tells a story at once inspiring and tragic: the tale of how Pittsburgh became home to one of the nation’s most dynamic black communities before urban redevelopment and civil unrest gutted its vibrant cultural center, the Hill District.

The Hill, once dubbed the “Crossroads of the World,” was the birthplace of legendary playwright August Wilson and the setting of his 10-play cycle.  But the origins of Pittsburgh’s black cultural renaissance stretch back to the 1800s with the first wave of African American migrants before the Civil War. Soon Pittsburgh’s rapid industrial growth gave birth to “negro Carnegies” such as Cap Posey, a coal supplier who became the wealthiest black man in Pittsburgh, as well as thousands of other educators, tradespeople and entrepreneurs who later arrived with the Great Migration. Drawn by Pittsburgh’s educational opportunities and the promise of jobs in its steel mills — which did not always materialize — these newcomers settled in the Hill District and other black enclaves around the city.  A galvanizing force for this community was the Pittsburgh Courier, whose “Double V Campaign” — a World War II rallying cry for victory overseas and against racism at home — as well as its sports coverage of figures from Joe Louis to Jackie Robinson helped make it the most widely read black newspaper in the country.

When it comes to Pittsburgh’s jazz history, Smoketown really sings. Pittsburgh was host to a staggering number of jazz greats: Billy Eckstine, Billy Strayhorn, Mary Lou Williams, Erroll Garner, Ray Brown, Roy Eldridge, Lena Horne and many more. On any given night these musicians gathered at the Crawford Grill for jam sessions that shaped the direction of jazz.
Moving chronologically through the century, each chapter of Smoketown focuses on a different person or institution — an approach that inevitably gives more coverage to certain figures than others. But Smoketown is above all a saga of interwoven lives. Whitaker’s careful research and cinematic storytelling offer a compelling and timely glimpse into Pittsburgh’s past—and a vision of what its future could be.

Imani D. Owens
University of Pittsburgh