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    ‘We all stayed.’ Penn Hills, once a suburban landing pad for Black households, now risks disinvestment and erasure of history.

    By David S. Rotenstein,

    2024-06-13

    Willie Stargell joined the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1962, 15 years after Jackie Robinson broke major league baseball’s color barrier. Six years later, Stargell bought a modest ranch house on Doak Street in Penn Hills. His choice was no accident. Since the 1920s, the western part of Penn Hills has been a preferred destination for Pittsburgh’s Black middle class.

    In the last century, Black Pittsburghers beat a path eastward, from the Hill District, through Homewood and into Penn Hills. “It was a pretty decent community with, you know, Black affluent people,” said Aaron Tipton, a Black man in his late 50s who grew up (and still lives) in Lincoln Park, a Penn Hills subdivision that abuts the Pittsburgh city line. Black business owners, doctors, tradespeople and athletes settled there. Attracted by single-family homes with yards, clean air and less crowding, these new suburbanites transformed a mostly white, rural township. Their stories are indelibly etched into the municipality’s history.

    https://img.particlenews.com/image.php?url=3yZFJj_0tpusjgs00
    Houses dot up the hill toward Travella Boulevard, where Penn Hills’ Mt. Carmel Road meets the city of Pittsburgh’s Verona Boulevard on June 11. The tucked-away neighborhood of Lincoln Park became a haven for the Black homeownership. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

    Black people comprised 9% of the population in Penn Hills in 1930; in 2020, they accounted for 41%. The municipality offered middle-class Black homebuyers an opportunity to live the suburban dream: a home with a yard, lots of fresh air and a pathway to building intergenerational wealth. Penn Hills is Pittsburgh’s counterpart to well-known Black suburbs outside of Washington, D.C., Atlanta, Dallas and Cleveland.

    William A. “Gus” Greenlee was a Hill District racketeer and entertainment entrepreneur who owned the Crawford Grill and the Pittsburgh Crawfords Negro Leagues baseball team. In 1929, Greenlee paid $7,500 ($136,000 in today’s dollars) for a fashionable Frankstown Road bungalow and moved there from Wylie Avenue.

    Greenlee bought his way out of the Hill District and into the suburbs in a period marked by severe discrimination in housing. In an investigation into racially restrictive deed covenants and their role in creating segregated communities, PublicSource documented 18 neighborhoods where Black people could not buy or rent homes.

    Housing discrimination helped to create urban ghettos like the Hill District and contributed to decades of harm endured by generations of Black Pittsburghers. Penn Hills’ rise as a Black suburb reflects the other side of the story: how a growing Black middle class resisted segregation through suburbanization.

    Now Tipton and other descendants of those pioneers — plus newcomers pushed toward the suburbs by city gentrification — look out on a changing landscape and ask: Can Penn Hills’ Black residents protect their community and its history?

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    Views from Penn Hills’ Lincoln Park on June 11. Pictured center, this sign marks the entrance from the City of Pittsburgh into Penn Hills along Mt. Caramel Blvd. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

    Blocked elsewhere, accepted in Penn Hills

    Black Pittsburgh residents who wanted to buy homes in Penn Hills faced steep, but not insurmountable, barriers. Jim Crow practices had a firm grip on the region’s housing, employment and recreational facilities during the period when Penn Hills matured as a Pittsburgh suburb, between 1920 and 1970.

    San Diego State University history professor Andrew Wiese wrote a book on Black suburbanization, “ Places of Their Own: African American Suburbanization in the Twentieth Century .” He told PublicSource that Black homebuyers moved to the suburbs for the same reasons their white counterparts did after World War II. “Opportunities to have a home and a place of their own,” Wiese said. “There’s more money all around. And, you know, many people are looking for opportunities to use that money to improve their quality of housing, quality of schools for their kids, the quality of services that they may be able to purchase.”

    The western part of Penn Hills had a small, but important, Black population as early as the first decades of the 20 th century. It’s where Black institutions like the First Baptist Church of Penn Hills were founded in 1920. The Pittsburgh Courier in 1927 boasted that the municipality, then known as Penn Township, had no “color line in politics.” The paper described an area (presumably Lincoln Park) in the township as one “with a large Negro population [that was] blazing the trail insofar as political positions are concerned.”

    https://img.particlenews.com/image.php?url=1spZrD_0tpusjgs00
    At left, a seat is marked “reserved” at the front of the First Baptist Church of Penn Hills. At right, Dr. Sheila Johnson-Hunt, of Monroeville, the executive pastor of the church, photographed on June 12, at the pulpit. Johnson-Hunt has been with the Lincoln Park church for 34 years. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

    The Lincoln Park vicinity, which abuts Pittsburgh, contrasted with the more rural (and whiter) eastern portion of the municipality. As recently as the 1950s, some Pittsburgh civil rights activists considered postwar Penn Hills subdivisions inaccessible to Black homeownership, alongside Mt. Lebanon and Fox Chapel. At least one 64-lot subdivision there, Sampson Acres , had racially restrictive deed covenants prohibiting Black people from buying or renting property.

    Clifford McEvoy owned a Hill District jewelry store. After World War II, he bought several properties in Penn Hills. McEvoy sold one to builder Charles E. Davis and he had a home for himself built on another.

    Stroll down Lincoln Park’s Travella Boulevard with a woman named Antionette and she’ll proudly tell you about all of the homes once owned by doctors, tradespeople and small business owners.

    Antoinette — she asked that we only use her first name for privacy reasons — has lived there her entire life, 60-plus years. Her mother bought their home in 1953. “I believe when my mother … first moved up here, she said there wasn’t very many Blacks up here,” she said. “My mother was up here, the Greenlees was up here, and there was one other Black family up here, and that was it.”

    “We had an electrician, two doctors, auto mechanic,” said Tipton, who is her cousin. “Antoinette, her father, he owned a gas station actually.”

    Antoinette’s mother is a Georgia native who lived in Homewood before moving to Lincoln Park. The suburb fulfilled two of her criteria: “She had kids, so education was one of the things and then she said she still wanted to be somewhere where she could hear trains.”

    In 1950, all of the homes on Travella Boulevard were owned and occupied by white people, except for one. Gus Greenlee’s physician brother, Charles, appears to have become the second Black homeowner there when he bought 7219 Travella Blvd. in 1951. Charles Greenlee was an accomplished obstetrician and civil rights activist. To pay for the home, he got two private mortgages totaling $11,000.

    Four years later, another physician, James Stewart, bought the house next door at 7215 Travella Blvd. Stewart practiced medicine in Homewood, where in the 1970s he directed the Homewood-Brushton Neighborhood Health Center ( renamed in 1977 for prominent civil rights leader Dr. Alma Illery). Stewart paid $16,300 in cash for the home.

    https://img.particlenews.com/image.php?url=0hj5bU_0tpusjgs00
    7215 Travella Blvd. in Penn Hills’ Lincoln Park on May 30. Physician James Stewart, who practiced medicine in Homewood, bought the house in the 1950s, and would sometimes treat his neighbors out of his home office there. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

    Stewart also treated some of his neighbors, like Antoinette’s family, in his home office. “He diagnosed me with my heart murmur,” she said. “He diagnosed my mother. She had shingles in her eye. She said she went because one of us was sick, and she took us up to see him, and he said, ‘You’re in worse shape than they are.’”

    Nanette Tipton, Aaron Tipton’s mother, moved to Lincoln Park in 1953, two years before Stewart, when her sister bought a home on Travella. “When we moved up here, I had just went into the seventh grade in East Liberty,” she said. “A lot of people didn’t even know Black people lived up here.”

    Parcel by parcel, these early homebuyers contributed to the growth of a vibrant Black community in Lincoln Park.

    A big challenge: buying land

    A Black Army veteran laid the foundation for creating subdivisions marketed to Pittsburgh’s Black middle class.

    Charles Davis was a bricklayer who worked for white developers after World War II. From the Penn Hills home he constructed in 1947, Davis built a successful contracting business . Two of his first solo suburban projects: Blackadore Estates in the late 1950s and Academy Heights in 1961. His son, Charles W. Davis, remembers his father’s stories about the early days in Penn Hills.

    “At that time, we had white neighbors out here, they didn’t want him to build here,” he recalls. “But the way he did that was you have a front man and so you get a white guy to make the deal. Everybody thinks they’re dealing with a white guy.”

    https://img.particlenews.com/image.php?url=1w3pVz_0tpusjgs00
    “Population explosion of ’50’s creates suburb” reads a headline in the Sept. 28, 1994 edition of The Times Express, found at the Penn Hills Library. Pictured above second from left is Mary Jane Isaac, with the Lincoln Park Community Center, in a photo from the early 1980s marking the Penn Hills Toys for Tots campaign. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

    Davis’ story fit a pattern. “I found a lot of Black building tradesmen in the Cleveland neighborhoods I studied building their own houses,” said Georgia Tech historian Todd Michney, a redlining expert who co-wrote a book about Black builders in Cleveland . “I think that was very much a way to acquire somewhere to live that was outside of the segregated so-called ghetto areas [that were then] developing.”

    WAMO broadcast personality John “Sir Walter” Christian bought two homes from developer Charles E. Davis, one in Academy Heights (in the city, next to Penn Hills) and another in Blackadore Estates.

    Pittsburgh’s rural fringes attracted homebuilders like Davis as well as homebuyers.

    “The biggest challenge was to be able to purchase land at all,” said Wiese. “To do that in a climate where often land simply wasn’t available to African-American buyers, you know, where realtors wouldn’t show, institutions wouldn’t lend, and local municipalities, if they were already incorporated, would put up barriers and obstacles.”

    Davis found an effective route around those barriers. Straw buyers, like developers Orin, Glenn, Howard and Stanley Sampson, bought properties from white owners unwilling to sell to Black buyers. They, in turn, then sold them to Black buyers like Davis.

    Unlike Lincoln Park’s pioneer Black homeowners who changed Penn Hills in a piecemeal manner, Davis transformed large chunks for Black homeownership.

    Willie Stargell’s road home

    Willie Stargell didn’t need a straw buyer in 1968 when he bought his Lincoln Park home. The blocks around his new home had been solidly Black for about a decade. The famous left-fielder bought the house from Lenwood Morgan, a Black truck driver and Hill District business owner.

    https://img.particlenews.com/image.php?url=4CsasQ_0tpusjgs00
    The Pittsburgh Pirates’ Willie Stargell bought this Doak Street home in Penn Hills’ Lincoln Park in 1968, here photographed on May 30. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

    Celebrities like Stargell and Christian rubbed shoulders with doctors, business owners and the other middle-class homebuyers who flocked to the suburb in the 1950s. Their presence has become woven into the community’s oral history.

    There are lots of stories circulating in Pittsburgh about how Stargell ended up living in Penn Hills. Many of them turn on a common theme: White property owners refused to sell to Stargell. The Pirate wouldn’t have been the first athlete to hit a racial wall when looking for housing. Jackie Robinson had trouble finding a home in New York in 1952. In 1957, a San Francisco developer refused to sell a home to Willie Mays .

    Locally, Muhammad Ali’s prolonged effort to buy a home in Mt. Lebanon is well known. The prizefighter bought a home there in 1974.

    https://img.particlenews.com/image.php?url=0u0OHh_0tpusjgs00
    1970s Willie Stargell baseball cards from his time playing for the Pittsburgh Pirates, photographed on June 12. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

    Though his autobiography and other books written about him are silent on Stargell’s path to Penn Hills, stories about it are part of local lore. “I just heard they wouldn’t sell it. He couldn’t get it,” said Lincoln Park’s Antoinette. “They were like, we don’t care who you are.”

    Lee Carol Cook, a Black attorney who grew up in O’Hara Township and whose father and grandfather were elder statesmen of Pittsburgh’s Black legal community, also heard that Stargell had trouble buying a suburban home. In her version, Stargell couldn’t buy a North Hills house “because there were restrictive covenants in the deeds.”

    Tipton and his friends knew that Stargell lived one street over. One day, on a dare from his friends, Tipton went up to Stargell’s home and knocked on the door.

    “He opened it up and he told me to come on in,” Tipton said. “And when I went inside there [was] Willie Stargell, Manny Sanguillén, Roberto Clemente and Dock [Ellis].”

    By the time that Tipton left the home loaded with baseball swag, his friends had all run away. He didn’t share any of it with them. “I had walked in with all this stuff and I didn’t want to give them nothing,” he recalls. Later on, Tipton dated one of Stargell’s daughters.

    Author Damon Young’s family moved to Penn Hills in the 1990s and he graduated from that school district. “If you were Black and had a little bit of money, you’d move to Stanton Heights or Penn Hills,” he recounted at a book festival this year.

    Damon Young told his story in a 2019 memoir, “ What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker .” By the time his family moved to the suburb in the 1990s, things had begun to change. The homes and infrastructure had begun to fray. Benjamin Herold documented the changes in his 2024 book, “ Disillusioned: Five Families and the Unraveling of America’s Suburbs .”

    An unobstructed view of disintegration

    Penn Hills in the 1950s pulled Black Pittsburghers into the municipality because of the opportunities it offered for building wealth and a better life. According to Herold, since the 1990s, Penn Hills has become a place where Black Pittsburghers are pushed because the properties are less expensive than in the city where gentrification is changing longtime Black neighborhoods like East Liberty.

    https://img.particlenews.com/image.php?url=4MdaHg_0tpusjgs00
    Avery Barren-Williams, left, 5, plays cornhole with her grandmother, Brigitte Barren, 52, at Ms. Barren’s mother’s house where Archer Street meets Travella Boulevard on June 11, in Penn Hills’ Lincoln Park. Ms. Barren grew up at the home her mother still lives in. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

    Drew Allen owns a popular Homewood barbecue restaurant. He grew up on the North Side and in the Hill District. In 2020, he bought a house across the street from Stargell’s former home.

    “I decided I’d just take some money and start investing, buying a little property. And then I ended up moving in,” he said.

    “The whole front was down when I came out and got it. I gutted it from the inside out,” Allen said.

    He was clearing a debris-strewn vacant lot next to his home as he spoke. “I just started just taking care of it,” he said. “This place was shambles.”

    Stargell’s former home across the street had uncut grass, weeds and debris in the yard.

    https://img.particlenews.com/image.php?url=0RADnb_0tpusjgs00
    Homes around the corner from Willie Stargell’s old home in Penn Hills’ Lincoln Park, on May 30. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

    The properties on Allen’s street speak to larger issues in Penn Hills, many of which relate to the malaise chronicled in Herold’s book. As disinvestment and crime spilled across the city line in the 1980s and 1990s, Penn Hills residents — many of them Black transplants from the city themselves — resorted to a familiar tactic of  white segregationists by setting up barriers at the municipality’s limits. In 1996, Penn Hills installed a permanent barrier closing the street.

    “You used to be able to go from Wheeler Drive to Wheeler Street, which is the city, and people would commit crimes in the city, come through Wheeler Street, onto Wheeler Drive, which is Penn Hills,” said Marcia Cereza, who serves on the municipality’s Zoning Board and lives in Blackadore Estates.

    Cereza is Puerto Rican and she moved to Penn Hills from Wilkinsburg. She is the second owner of her home and her neighbor is Lois Christian, Sir Walter’s widow.

    “Blackadore down there was beautiful,” Cereza said. “You had to have a piece of change to move out there.”

    Now, she said, Blackadore “has a bad rap because half is the city and half is Penn Hills and it’s split. And you can see where the sign said, ‘Welcome to Penn Hills.’ You can see the physical difference in the neighborhood, believe it or not.”

    https://img.particlenews.com/image.php?url=3gmOBz_0tpusjgs00
    Pavement runs up against brick where Penn Hills’ Mt. Carmel Road meets the city of Pittsburgh’s Verona Boulevard on May 30. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

    In Lincoln Park, Pittsburgh ends where the city’s brick pavers meet Penn Hills asphalt. Just across the line inside Penn Hills, there is a row of older buildings on one side of the road and vacant lots on the other side.

    The Boulevard, as Tipton describes Verona Boulevard before it turns into Mt. Carmel Road, was the community’s business district. “There was pretty much everything down there,” Tipton said. “There was a grocery store, there was a dry cleaners, there was a bar.”

    Antoinette and Tipton have been watching their neighborhood disintegrate as older residents move away or die. Disinvestment and the municipality’s aggressive approach to demolishing abandoned and deteriorated homes are erasing their neighborhood’s history.

    “We all stayed here,” said Tipton.

    Earlier this year, Penn Hills consulted with the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission’s [PHMC] State Historic Preservation Office on the proposed demolition of 16 homes, including one on Travella Boulevard two doors down from Charles Greenlee’s former home. Because Penn Hills is using federal funds, it had to determine whether the proposed demolition would impact historic buildings. The agency informed Penn Hills that none of the 16 buildings was historically significant.

    Antoinette narrated her neighborhood’s history while standing in front of Greenlee’s former home, which isn’t slated for demolition. Yet. It’s a substantial two-story brick house with a clay tile roof. The front entry is covered by a plywood sheet. Runaway vegetation obscures its façade.

    https://img.particlenews.com/image.php?url=2xaHgP_0tpusjgs00
    Bushes grow over the front door of 7219 Travella Boulevard, physician Charles Greenlee’s former home, on May 30, in Penn Hills. Charles was an accomplished obstetrician and civil rights activist, as well as brother to William A. “Gus” Greenlee, Crawford Grill and Pittsburgh Crawfords Negro Leagues baseball team owner. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

    “There’s a lot of rich history in there,” Antoinette said. “And you just let the house like this just with a rich history, just go to waste.”

    She wonders why the house isn’t a historic landmark, honored in some way, and not just with a plaque. There’s not even an entry for it in the PHMC’s inventory of historic buildings and archaeological sites.

    Antoinette thinks that it needs to be fixed up in a way that benefits a wide swath of her community, not just people interested in the building’s history. Young people could get experience in construction and people who need housing could live there. “Everybody’s hand is getting washed,” Antoinette said.

    Instead, longtime residents like Antoinette and Tipton have an unobstructed view of their neighborhood’s disintegration. Their homes, their community and their stories have become raw materials extracted by sociologists, journalists and historians writing on suburban poverty.

    Antoinette is passionate about not letting her community and its rich Black history disappear. “We want to see something,” she said. “After a while, it’s just going to be a few houses and a bunch of weeds everywhere. … A few people just in the houses, that’ll be all that’s standing.”

    David S. Rotenstein is a historian and writer and can be reached at david.rotenstein@gmail.com .

    This story was fact-checked by Briana Bindus.

    The post ‘We all stayed.’ Penn Hills, once a suburban landing pad for Black households, now risks disinvestment and erasure of history. appeared first on PublicSource . PublicSource is a nonprofit news organization serving the Pittsburgh region. Visit www.publicsource.org to read more.

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