Passionate About Pittsburgh
and the Moms Who Live Here

Pittsburgh Jim Crow

Protest on Grant Street–Teenie Harris


As I reported to you in a previous post, The North was not a shining example of equality when it came to civil rights. Pittsburgh had slavery and it also had Jim Crow. Now what we can say is that The North was a little more covert in their racism, but it was cruel and damaging just the same. Segregation was a common and accepted practice in the Pittsburgh area and it still thrives today.

Protesting segregated businesses–Teenie Harris

When you think of iconic images of Jim Crow segregation in the south often an image of subdued Black patrons at a lunch counter being berated comes to mind. There may not have been protests here that garnered national attention but many long-time institutions participated in the practice. Most Pittsburghers are familiar with Isley’s Restaurants but what they don’t realize is that in the early years of the establishment Blacks were forbidden from eating in at the lunch counter and were only allowed to take out meals. My uncle and grandparents always relayed the memories of those days when I was young. We even frequented Isley’s, but we never sat down. Somethings are not easy to forget.

Protesting Isley’s racist business practice–Teenie Harris

Other contentious areas of segregation were neighborhoods and community facilities. In 1958 The Greater Pittsburgh Board of Realtors took a survey in response to fair housing laws. They found that the majority of white residents in the area were against integration in their neighborhoods.  And when it came to sharing facilities like swimming pools Black residents were met with violence when they showed up. In the 1930’s angry white residents beat young Black patrons with rocks and sticks when they would try to enter Highland Park swimming pool. If the police were called to the disturbance the Black People were charged with inciting to riot. To further avoid future violence and armed guard was placed at the pool to deter Blacks from entering. 

Kennywood’s white only pool

Highland Park and Isaly’s are fixtures in Pittsburgh culture, so keeping with that theme let’s discuss one more. Kennywood Park. Every year when me and my children ride the train and view the historic photos along the track I make a point to educate them on the history. Blacks were not in the photos because we were not allowed in the dancehall, the swimming pool, and certain dining areas. A riot broke out when a fair skinned family friend brought her dark-skinned husband onto the floor after she initially passed for white. Eventually Kennywood was sued in court to integrate the pool and lost, but instead of complying they simply closed the pool. This isn’t ancient history, my mother could not swim with whites. Think about that.

A political billboard in Pittsburgh. Dark hands reaching for a white child–Teenie Harris

And still today Pittsburgh struggles with the remnants of Jim Crow. Schools and neighborhoods are still divided by racial lines in the city. Healthcare, education, crime and poverty are all disproportional when it comes to race. As a Black woman in Pittsburgh my baby is 3 times more likely to die as an infant than a white child. let me put this in perspective. The infant mortality rate for Black babies is 13.7 in Allegheny county which is almost the same as war torn Syria who’s rate is 14.8. White babies are below the national average with a rate of 4.7. So when someone says Blacks just need to get over and move on, please understand the reason why we can’t is because our very lives depend upon it.


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