Migrant Voices: A Website on the Great Migration to Pittsburgh

View of downtown Pittsburgh (Wikimedia Commons)

Ten years ago, as a graduate student, I embarked on a mission to reconstruct the lived experiences of southern Black migrants in Pittsburgh and to better understand their relationship with reformers who operated in the city’s racial advancement institutions.  The information came slowly and by piecemeal. The Library of Congress had a set of letters prospective migrants wrote to the Urban League office in Pittsburgh in 1922; the University of Pittsburgh’s Archives and Special Collections held a number of interwar-era master’s theses on Black living and working conditions in the Steel City; and microfilm reels of the Pittsburgh Courier yielded some information as well. But I had yet to locate the greatest treasure: several large collections of oral history interviews.

I learned about these collections when I read Dennis Dickerson’s Out of the Crucible and Peter Gottlieb’s Making their Own Way—both of which are indispensable studies of Black life in western Pennsylvania. Between 1973 and 1977, Dickerson and Gottlieb interviewed fifty-three African Americans who had lived and worked in the Pittsburgh area sometime during the first four decades of the twentieth century. Gottlieb conducted his interviews while still a PhD candidate at Pitt, first for the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission’s Pittsburgh Oral History Project and later for his doctoral dissertation on Black migrants in Pittsburgh. Dickerson likewise conducted interviews for his dissertation on Black steelworkers in western Pennsylvania. After earning his PhD from Washington University in St. Louis, Dickerson developed his dissertation into the book Out of the Crucible: Black Steelworkers in Western Pennsylvania, 1875-1980. Gottlieb meanwhile published Making their Own Way: Southern Blacks’ Migration to Pittsburgh, 1916-30.

Both scholars went on to have distinguished careers in history, but the interviews they conducted fell into relative obscurity.  The Pennsylvania State Archives housed the interviews from the Pittsburgh Oral History Project, although it made copies of some of them for the Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh. Gottlieb donated his dissertation interviews to Pitt’s archives, and Dickerson eventually gave his interviews to the Heinz History Center.

When I first located these collections, they still had not been digitized, so I spent countless hours at the archives listening to and learning from the migrants who shared their stories—and taking copious notes. Only later did it dawn on me that I was likely one of only a few dozen people who knew about and had listened to the recordings.  Their existence and location were too obscure and inaccessible for anyone but a handful of specialists.

Among the interviewees were James Simmons, Ben Irving, and Nola Lindsey. Before moving to Pittsburgh in 1924, Simmons lived on a fifty-acre farm near Albany, Georgia, where his family grew rice, corn, potatoes, and cotton. To supplement his family’s earnings between planting and harvesting, he worked for a company that built and maintained railroad tracks. Ben Irving did likewise for his family in Bullet County, Alabama. He labored at a nearby lumberyard when he was not needed at home. Boll weevils eventually ruined his father’s cotton crop, and by the early twenties both father and son had made their way to Pittsburgh for jobs in the industrial sector. Nola Lindsey’s father was likewise drawn by the steel sector, but she herself faced both racial and gender barriers to employment in Pittsburgh. Like most employed Black women in the city, she worked as a domestic laborer.

These stories touch on crucial issues and moments in interwar America—from the onset of the Great Migration to the calamity of the Great Depression and the emergence of the industrial labor movement. LeRoy McChester, for example, spoke with pride about how he joined the CIO in the mid-1930s and the sense of empowerment this gave him.

Though I lacked the resources to do anything about it at the time, I realized that something could and should be done to make these stories more accessible. I dreamed of a website where all these interviews could be housed, and where they would be available to anyone at the click of a mouse. But the demands of completing my dissertation, finding a faculty position in a difficult job market, and managing the duties of an early-career professor forced me to put my dream on hold.

Then in late 2022, an unexpected opportunity emerged. I was invited to join a curriculum-development project under the auspices of the University Center for International Studies at Pitt. Funded by the Chancellor’s Office, this project, called “Transnational Pittsburgh,” brought together a multi-disciplinary team of Pitt faculty members to develop three courses on diaspora communities in Pittsburgh, specifically the Slavic, Asian-American, and African American communities. The course I ultimately created centered on the experiences of southern Black migrants in Pittsburgh and involved students in archival research and data collection. In this role, the Transnational Pittsburgh Project also provided funding for me to hire a professional web developer who could help me realize my dream of creating a website that would serve as a central hub of information on the Great Migration to Pittsburgh.

The timing could not have been better. The University of Pittsburgh’s Archives and Special Collections had just finished digitizing and transcribing the Gottlieb interviews.  And since I had the Dickerson interviews digitized during my final year of graduate school (thanks to funding from the University of Maine), this meant that all fifty-three interviews could be featured on the website.

From fall 2023 to spring 2024, I prepared all the content for the website and worked with the web developer, who managed the coding and backend development for the site.  From the outset, I wanted a very simple and user-friendly design with few frills—the excellence of the content would drive the experience. Historical sensibilities and interpretations change from one generation to the next, but the primary sources will always be valuable—especially when they give a voice to previously silent historical actors.

This website, Migrant Voices, is meant to serve as a digital repository for scholars and laypersons alike to investigate and reconstruct the lives of Black migrants in Pittsburgh. It includes over fifty oral history interviews, nineteen letters written by Black migrants, ten Pittsburgh Courier articles, ten master’s theses (produced from 1918 to 1945) about Pittsburgh’s Black community, links to key manuscript collections, and a selected bibliography, among other resources. I hope they will prove useful.

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Adam Lee Cilli

Adam Lee Cilli, Ph.D. earned his doctorate in history at the University of Maine in 2016 and currently serves as an assistant professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg. He is the author of Canaan, Dim and Far: Black Reformers and the Pursuit of Citizenship in Pittsburgh, 1915-1945 (University of Georgia Press, 2021). This book illuminates the social justice efforts of journalists, scholars, social workers, medical experts, lawyers, and other professionals who navigated the fraught racial landscape of the urban North during the first phase of the Great Migration. Upending traditional depictions of Black reform work that stress its essential ties to racial uplift ideology, Canaan, Dim and Far shows how reformers experimented with a variety of strategies as they moved fluidly across ideologies and political alliances to find practical solutions to profound inequities. His articles have appeared in the Journal of Women’s History, Journal of Urban History, and Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography. Follow him on Twitter @LeeCilli.

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