Striving Toward Freedom and Black Pittsburgh

Mrs. Ira T. Lewis, wife of the president of the Pittsburgh Courier Publishing Company, presents a photograph of the late Robert L. Vann, former publisher of the Pittsburgh Courier, to a representative of the shipyard workers at the launching of the Liberty ship SS Robert L. Vann, Circa 1943 (NYPC)

Canaan, Dim and Far: Black Reformers and the Pursuit of Citizenship in Pittsburgh, 1915-1945 (University of Georgia Press, 2021) by Adam Lee Cilli, Assistant Professor of History at the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg, is an assiduously researched historical study that focuses on Black middle-class reform efforts in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, during the height of the Great Migration from 1915 to 1945. The title is drawn from a quote by W.E.B. Du Bois that “the Canaan was always dim and far away” despite the striving toward freedom made by African Americans in U.S. history. This text contains an “Introduction,” seven substantive chapters, and a “Conclusion” with 41 illustrations, including images, photographs, maps, and newspaper prints.

“This book spotlights neglected elements of middle-class black activism in the decades preceding the civil rights movement,” states Cilli in the opening pages of his book (2). Here he implores us, and in his narrative overall, to embrace a more nuanced understanding of Black middle-class professionals in the history of civil rights reform that he argues moves well beyond the politics of racial uplift. Cilli does this while also stating how his book “demonstrates how the lives of reformers and migrants intersected” in the interest of Black freedom rights (12). For the author, racial uplift is only “one dimension” of a more complex push toward equality that was waged by Black middle-class professionals and migrant workers in Pittsburgh. Cilli’s analysis is supported with an array of primary sources, including materials from the records of the NAACP and National Urban League, interviews drawn from the Pittsburgh Oral History Project, Black newspapers, prints, photographs, maps, the WPA records, and U.S. Census data.

In the introductory chapter, the author lays out his case in a clear and cogent manner. He begins here first with a discussion of The Souls of Black Folk published in 1903 because “no one matched the force and eloquence of Du Bois in Souls” in terms of his critique of the accommodationist stance supported by some middle-class Black reformers (1). A perennial discussion in the history of the Black freedom struggle has to do with the various ideologies and strategies deployed by middle-class professionals in the quest for freedom. Du Bois is a central figure and represents well the Black middle-class perspective more than most in this history. Though the ideologies may have been defined first by Black middle-class professionals, Cilli argues that it was the working-class migrants who gave campaigns for rights and freedoms “shape and force.”  These actors, both professionals and migrants, helped to lay the foundations of the national struggle that emerged in the 1950s and 1960s.

This work is essentially a community study of Black Pittsburgh with a focus on associations such as the Pittsburgh National Urban League (PUL) chapter and the Pittsburgh NAACP. Cilli contends that the Black middle-class social workers, nurses, and education reformers that made up the PUL and NAACP made conscientious efforts to advance a broad spectrum of Black freedom rights, including extending access to employment, housing, healthcare, and political power. Pittsburgh’s chapter of the NAACP also specifically fought against police brutality and provided legal support services for Black migrants. These local chapters of the League and the NAACP should be considered distinct from the goals, objectives, or stances taken up by the national offices of these associations.

At its core, this is a work about how social workers, journalists, medical professionals, scholars, and lawyers worked along with ordinary people to advance the Black freedom struggle in Pittsburgh and beyond.

Pittsburgh, through this study, is presented as a distinctive case to help demonstrate how middle-class Black reformers were not merely fixated on self-advancement and racial uplift.  Cilli posits to us that working with migrant communities, Black middle-class professionals looked for practical solutions to stark inequalities while moving “fluidly across” political alliances and ideologies. In this process, there were associations and individuals, such as newspaperman Robert L. Vann who used various tactics and strategies to advance civil rights reform. This eventually led Black institutions such as the Pittsburgh Courier to garner national influence that helped to lay the foundation of the Civil Rights Movement. Pittsburgh’s Urban League chapter did not always mirror the (seemingly) more conservative outlook of the NUL national office. According to the author, this chapter managed to secure critical social safety support for migrants, waged campaigns to combat anti-Black stereotypes, enhanced Black political power, and helped to facilitate the inclusion of Black workers into the industrial labor movement. Black professionals who dominated civil rights associations in Pittsburgh took “a race-first approach to reform work” and did this by, at times taking nuanced positions on issues while revealing an “ideological mutability.”

A noticeable strength of the text is the focus on the role that Black women played in reform efforts in Pittsburgh. These women include Jeannette Washington, Pittsburgh’s first Black public health nurse, Grace Lowndes, a PUL representative engaged in advocacy work, and Georgine Pearce, who was concerned with the education of Black youths in the city. Washington worked with migrants, providing free health screenings and educating them about preventive care. Lowndes was an advocate for Black juveniles and sex workers. Pearce focused her efforts on monitoring the education of local Black youths through home visits. Women were critical to the work of reform and played key roles in securing access to healthcare, education, and legal services, as revealed in Canaan, Dim and Far.

The chapters in this work cover a broad range of issues and subjects, including healthcare, education, trade unionism, the carceral state, police brutality, sex workers, and civil rights reforms more broadly. Chapter One provides an overview of the Great Migration to Pittsburgh and the rise of the Black community in the Hill District section of the city, while Chapter Two goes into an in-depth discussion of the PUL. The second chapter assesses how the PUL aided migrants. League staff sought to receive Black migrants as they entered the city and help with housing and employment needs. There are a cast of characters associated with this organization discussed in Chapter Two, such as Sadie Bond, who stood at the rail station to intercept migrants from the perils of city life while offering social service support. Chapter Three leads with the story of migrant worker Joe Williams and profiles the criminal justice work of the Pittsburgh NAACP, giving us some insight into the long history of race and the carceral state. The following chapter situates the work of Robert L. Vann and the Pittsburgh Courier which became a nationally known newspaper and critical source of information for Black Americans during the height of the Jim Crow Era. Remaining chapters focus on education reform efforts waged by the PUL and Black reformers and the labor movement. The final chapter assesses the role of Pittsburgh reformers in laying the foundation of national civil rights reform initiatives such as the case with the Courier’s “Double V Campaign.” Cilli concludes his narrative with a discussion of the legacy of reform initiatives in Pittsburgh.

Canaan, Dim and Far is a book that has more strengths than noticeable weaknesses. Cilli makes several important critical interventions, including his contention that Black middle-class professionals as a group “saved Black lives” with their healthcare initiatives, education reform work, and trade union activism alongside migrant workers. He also helps us to think about a more extended chronology when it comes to a historical understanding of the evolution of the carceral state and its devastating impact on African Americans, more generally, that he sees as extending back to before the height of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. Cilli is correct in suggesting that we must reject the previously more flat and one-dimensional view of the Black professional class as solely self-serving. Canaan, Dim and Far helps us embrace a more comprehensive view of this group.

Shortcomings of the text are more stylistic than content based. Chapters are packed with granular details that, at times, give the work a dense feel. There is also some verbosity in terms of the long chapter titles, and perhaps some of the information in the first chapter (in particular on the Great Migration to Pittsburgh) might be condensed or folded into the book’s introductory chapter.  Some engagement with August Wilson’s ideas, words, or life story might have been beneficial here. Most Americans likely come to an understanding of the Hill District by way of a Wilson play. That said, Canaan, Dim and Far is a necessary, well-researched, and outstanding work on the history of the struggle for Black equality in Pittsburgh.

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Hettie Williams

Hettie V. Williams is the president of the African American Intellectual History Society (AAIHS). She is an Associate Professor of African American history in the Department of History and Anthropology at Monmouth University where she teaches courses in African American history and U.S. history. Her latest publications include 'Bury My Heart in a Free Land: Black Women Intellectuals in Modern U.S. History' (Praeger, 2017) and (with G. Reginald Daniel) 'Race and the Obama Phenomenon: The Vision of a More Perfect Multiracial Union' (University Press of Mississippi 2014). Follow her on Twitter @DrHettie2017.