Mark Whitaker at The Paris Review:
That story of Pittsburgh is well documented. Far less chronicled but just as extraordinary is the confluence of forces that made the black population of the city, for a brief but glorious stretch of the twentieth century, one of the most vibrant and consequential communities of color in U.S. history. Like millions of other black people, they came north before and during the Great Migration, many of them from the upper parts of the old South, from states such as Maryland, Delaware, Virginia, and North Carolina. As likely as not to have been descendants of house slaves or free men of color, these migrants arrived with high degrees of literacy, musical fluency, and religious discipline—as well as a tendency toward light skin that betrayed their history of mixing with white masters and with one another. Once they settled in Pittsburgh, they had educational opportunities that were rare for black people of the era, thanks to abolitionist-sponsored university scholarships and integrated public high schools with lavish Gilded Age funding. Whether or not they succeeded in finding jobs in Pittsburgh’s steel mills—and often they did not—they inhaled a spirit of commerce that hung, quite literally, in the dark, sulfurous air.
The result was a black version of the story of fifteenth-century Florence and early-twentieth-century Vienna: a miraculous flowering of social and cultural achievement all at once, in one small city. In its heyday, from the twenties until the late fifties, Pittsburgh’s black population was less than a quarter of the size of New York City’s and a third of the size of Chicago’s, those two much-larger metropolises that have been associated with the phenomenon of a black renaissance.