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The Best of Black Culture (Including Food!) in Pittsburgh

The City of Bridges is steeped in African-American history

The 1950s and ’60s were periods of civil unrest for black Americans, in all parts of the country. Pittsburgh was no different. As residents here fought for equality, the nucleus of activity was the city’s predominantly black Hill District neighbourhood, especially the intersection of Centre Avenue and Crawford Street. It was soon dubbed the “Freedom Corner,” and today people visit to pay their respects to the fight for civil rights.

Major protests were held here: The Freedom Corner served as the departure point for more than 2,000 people who marched on Washington behind Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1963. Hill District natives Carlos Peterson and Howard Graves created a monument to commemorate the event, and dedicated it in 2001.

That pilgrimage site is just one piece of black history and culture to be tracked down in Pittsburgh, a city that witnessed its fair share of activity during the Civil Rights era. If you’re trying to track down elements of black history and culture in the City of Bridges, many sites are, like the Freedom Corner monument, located in the Hill District neighbourhood (about 30 minutes from Pittsburgh International Airport). Others are downtown in the Cultural District, a 14-square block filled with dining establishments, theatres, art installations and art galleries.

Here are some highlights Billy experienced while exploring Pittsburgh's rich African-American culture. 

August Wilson Center and birthplace

The August Wilson Center for African American Culture is a glittering example of a major U.S. city paying tribute to one of its native sons, who died in 2005. Opened in 2009, the August Wilson Center hosts exhibitions by prominent artists, lectures, theatrical performances and more. The sprawling, state-of-the art structure is located in the heart of Pittsburgh’s downtown cultural and entertainment district, and is named in honour of a Pulitzer prize-winning playwright who brought the history of Pittsburgh’s African-American community to the attention of playgoers everywhere with his 10-play series The Pittsburgh Cycle (each of the 10 plays was set in a different decade of the 20th century).

August Wilson Center

Near the Cultural District (and south of the popular Strip District), there’s a site of pilgrimage at 1727 Bedford Ave. It’s the home in which Wilson was born, and it has been designated a historical national landmark. Named in honour of the playwright’s mother, Daisy Wilson, the house is in the process of becoming a non-profit cultural institution that will offer an artists’ residence, outdoor amphitheatre, workshops, master classes and more. There is no date set for the renovation but the home is popular among sightseers, meanwhile.

Audarshia Townsend / Billy

Birthplace of playwright August Wilson, which will eventually include a visitor's centre

African American Program at Heinz History Center

Also located in the historic Strip District, the Heinz History Center is dedicated to preserving and presenting the history of Western Pennsylvania (and yes, it’s named for the same Heinz family that became a household name thanks to ketchup, pickles and sauces). One of its most popular wings is the African-American program, which showcases a number of historically significant documents, photos and paraphernalia. They range from 17th century-era slave shackles to a guitar donated by famed musician and Pittsburgh native George Benson.

1212 Smallman St., 412-454-6000
www.heinzhistorycenter.org

Underground Railroad Tours

If you find yourself with ample amount of time, you should embark on one of many Underground Railroad tours offered in Pittsburgh. Two in particular caught our attention, the Historic Hill Underground Railroad Tour and Blairsville Area Underground Railroad Project. Keep in mind, however, if you plan on attending the Blairsville tour it is approximately an hour away from downtown Pittsburgh. Visitors get a somber look at what it must have been like for fugitive slaves, and in addition to tours of homes, tunnels and other points of interest, they can check out the Underground Railroad Museum.

The Historic Hill tour is ideal for those planning a group outing. They’ll custom design your excursion, and plan everything from transportation to food and drinks. They will also help you pick out all the historical sites to see, including safe houses and secret routes used by fugitive slaves.

Carmi Soul Food

Looking for authentic Southern food made popular by African Americans? This modest, black-owned eatery is located among the historic mansions, humble dwellings and Victorian-era churches of Allegheny West, a tiny neighbourhood not far from Heinz Field, PNC Park and the Andy Warhol Museum. Carmi is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner and serves up favourites like fried chicken smothered in homemade gravy, grilled chicken stuffed with cornbread, and juicy smoked turkey ribs covered in a signature barbecue sauce. One of the few black-owned, Southern-inspired restaurants in Pittsburgh, it’s a popular destination.  

917 Western Ave., 412-231-0100
www.carmirestaurant.com

Market Square LED Installation Freedom Plaque

During the mid-18th century, a group of courageous, selfless people called the Pittsburgh Anti-Slavery Society gathered to discuss how to help fugitive slaves. These abolitionists, made up of local business owners, religious and civic leaders, met up in what is now called Market Square. Their mission was to help slaves escape through the Underground Railroad, an enormous network of safe houses and secret routes that led them to free states and Canada. There were similar undertakings happening in Boston, Philadelphia and New York. Slaves escaping along the Underground Railroad would use the North Star to help them navigate, and it was depicted upon a special plaque installed in the center of the market in 2011. At night it’s illuminated, demonstrating its importance to Pittsburgh’s history. Market Square is also home to one of the region’s largest farmers’ markets and Oyster House, which opened in 1871.

23 Market Square, 412-566-4190
downtownpittsburgh.com/play/market-square

Savoy Restaurant

A popular Strip District destination, Savoy gets plenty of action from post-work revellers and those who frequent the area’s vibrant dining scene. Its owner, Charles Sanders, is a former running back for the Pittsburgh Steelers football team. He also happens to be African American, and so is his executive chef, who executes a menu based on Sanders’ favourite dishes. The sleek eatery offers a globally inspired menu, from teriyaki salmon bites to turkey lasagna made with homemade noodles. But the standout entrée are the pork ribs flavored with four different sauces from around the world (Caribbean, sriracha, Asian barbecue and Spanish).

2623 Penn Ave., 412-281-0660
www.savoypgh.com

Courtesy Katelyn Rose

Savoy Restaurant

Tana Ethiopian Cuisine 

The culturally diverse East Liberty neighbourhood boasts cuisines from all over the globe, and Tana is one of the most exciting offerings. While much of the authentic Ethiopian menu is dotted with dishes piled high with shredded chicken and beef amped up with exotic spices like mitmita (hot pepper powder). It’s a vegetarian’s playground as well, as chickpeas, lentils, cabbage and collard greens are all essential staples in Tana’s Ethiopian dishes.

5929 Baum Blvd., 412-665-2770
www.tanaethiopian.com

Published Thursday, October 27th 2016

Header image credit: An event at the August Wilson Center / Courtesy Melissa Farlow for The Heinz Endowments Downtown Now Photography Project

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