Mark Whitaker’s Smoketown is a captivating portrait of this unsung community and a vital addition to the story of black America. It depicts how ambitious Southern migrants were drawn to a steel-making city on a strategic river junction; how they were shaped by its schools and a spirit of commerce with roots in the Gilded Age; and how their world was eventually destroyed by industrial decline and urban renewal. Whitaker takes listeners on a rousing, revelatory journey-and offers a timely reminder that Black History is not all bleak.
I am a transplant, not native to Pittsburgh or anywhere near Pittsburgh. As an outsider, and longtime library lover, I had the idea soon after moving here to fill my arms with borrowed books about local history and learn all I could.
Smoketown: the untold story of the other great Black Renaissance by Mark Whitaker is where I started on this multi-step (is that a Pittsburgh steps joke?) journey toward getting to know this city.
Smoketown shapes the portrait of the African-American Pittsburgh community during the Gilded Age with a collage of characters. It is as much about notable individuals as it is the rise of The Pittsburgh Courier, what would become one of the most circulated black newspapers in the United States. Whitaker does a fantastic job of holding up contributors such as Charles “Teenie” Harris, Robert L. Vann, P. L. Prattis, and others, right alongside coverage of big names and movements in sports, music, and politics of the time. Whitaker describes their contributions and, more remarkably, their background—the stories of the people telling stories. Through Whitaker’s writing he shows the impact of reporting about your community, for your community, as the Pittsburgh Courier did.
It has been an illuminating first stop on my own journey toward understanding this region. While understandably new to me, I think even for long time Pittsburghers there will be unfamiliar facts to discover about Pittsburgh, the Courier, or even some of the many lives that have made this city great.