Homecoming: Hill District, USA
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Keeping It Moving

In the ‘40s and ‘50s, black folks settle into life on the Hill.

Louise Catherine Powe (b. 1938)

Louise Powe’s family, including her mother (front row, right), aunts, grandmother, and older siblings, at a picnic in the early 1930s. Courtesy of Louise Powe.

“I seen the deed to [our] house. Freda Rebecca Henninger and her husband Joseph W. Henninger sold that house on Watt Street to my grandfather for a dollar in June, 1922. That house is in my family as of today, and I’m living in it as of today. So my father’s side of the family originated from Virginia. As far as I know of my mother’s side of the family, from what I’ve been told, my great-grandmother was a German-Italian woman. She must have married my great-grandfather and I guess they disowned her, and we know nothing about her side of the family at all. We just know that my grandma, they were biracial, and that’s about as far as I know about them.

My dad worked at a place named Dravo back then—he worked in the mills, and my mom stayed at home and raised us. When my father got kind of a heart problem, he got a job chauffeuring for an organization called the Moose organization. My mom had to go to work [too]. We lived on Webster Avenue, and she walked over to Tuberculosis Hospital [that] was on Bedford Ave at that time. The person interviewing her never asked her her race; she just put down she was white because that’s what she looked like to her. She was hired I believe because they thought she was a white woman.

As far as my childhood in the Hill, that’s the best part of my life. Living where I am now, every morning I wake up and just thank the good Lord that I’m still here. I just feel spirits all in the house. I can talk to my grandma, my Aunt Louise—because I was named after my aunt—my mom, you know. I tell my kids, don’t take me off the Hill. I said if something happens to my memory, I wanna be on the Hill.”

 

 

Joan Matthews-El (b. 1939)

Joan Matthews-El (pictured far right) and her siblings at their Bedford Avenue home, c. 1940s. Courtesy of Kim El.

“My mother was born in Bessemer, Alabama. But she doesn’t claim that. I’m not quite sure when my father came—he was kind of reticent to talk about the South. So you got two Southern folks, and a great migration. I was brought to the Hill from Lawrenceville. Our whole family lived in Lawrenceville because my dad worked at Heppenstall steel mill. I was two years old and my brother was three months old when we moved to 2348 Bedford Ave in the Hill District. They were tearing down this little section of apartments and houses that my mother and dad lived in, [and] they brought with them extended family of my grandmother and her husband. They moved to the Hill because there was a 4-bedroom house and they could take everybody there.

We were on Bedford. It was purely residential, so there wasn’t anything going on there. We were kinda like the bougie people on the street. First ones to get a TV, a black and white. [I] must have been about 14. It only showed one channel, and everybody came with their popcorn and sat around watching this one little TV. We had that big console Philco (radio) in the living room. And of course the living room had linoleum—everything had linoleum on the floors so you could scrub ‘em and wash ‘em and wax them.

I graduated at 16—I skipped classes because I could read at three. They woulda called me a nerd [but back] then but they didn’t know what to call us. I beat up a couple of bullies. I’m kind of a warrior, baby. Back in the day if you were 18 and not married everyone went like ‘Oh wow, no one wants her.’ You know you got married, and they taught you either to be a secretary or a homemaker in a Home Ec class. No one pushed you to go to college. Uh unh, no. Girls don’t go to college. They stay at home, watch the children, learn how to type in case you don’t find a man that wants you. Then you can be a secretary. I was a secretary, then I went to school to be a nurse. I would study my lessons at night. I said I was going to learn to be somebody.”

 

 

Teri Bridgett (b. 1948)

Teri Bridgett and her sons in their Chauncey Drive home, c. 1970. Courtesy of Teri Bridgett.

“We lived, actually, the rear of Junilla St. There was a alley, and we called it Skid Row.We were there as renters. It was a very impoverished place, but we didn’t realize it was all that until we moved out. And then we moved into one of the projects, up on Chauncey Drive. Oh gosh, that was like moving from hell to heaven. It was like, we’re moving up there? The upper crust!

The white people were up there. They had flowers, and the yards were beautiful and well-kept at the time we moved in. There were rules and people kept the hallways nice and clean, they’d have inspections and each apartment would get inspected. And there were rules from the welfare people. They’d come out and you’d have to hide things. If we were treated with discrimination, we didn’t recognize it at the time we moved up there. But of course gradually all the white people were moving out and the bulk of us just become a black neighborhood.

We felt safe. Everyone—the parents or people who lived in the neighborhood looked out for each person’s child. And if your neighbor saw you they were able to correct you. You represented your family and we wanted to make sure we did that right. We learned to take care and appreciate where we lived. Of course coming from down behind alleyways and things like that, you do appreciate when you move up into the project element. I don’t think the kids now, they don’t even begin to understand what it was like. And later they didn’t appreciate and they didn’t keep them up. But that was years later.”

 

 

Norman Brown (b. 1949)

Todd Brown plays outside his family’s Whiteside Road home, c. 1950s. Courtesy of Norman Brown.

“My mother for the most part was a stay at home mom until most of us were pretty much grown. She was one of the first African-American women to work at Joseph Horne’s—she was a salesperson there. My father worked for Dravo Corporation. He worked in the steel mill for awhile, doing barge work, welding, and stuff like that. I don’t know if this happened in other project areas, but certainly Whiteside Road was—everyone sort of knew everyone. At least in the row houses where I lived. There was always somebody looking out the kitchen window or the front window or out the front door or the back door.  

It was one of those places that, when you hear the term it takes a village, it had that sense about it. That you didn’t get away with sort of anything. It was the type of situation in reference to raising children, at least for my family, when the streetlights came on you need to be on the sidewalk in front of the house, or in the house. It was the clear message of, please don’t have me come lookin’ for you. I would love people to know what an incredibly positive place it was to be. What a wonderful place it was to grow up. What wonderful basics about how you treat people. What respect is about, I got from being there. What an absolutely exciting thing it was to explore Centre Ave when I was old enough to do it. It was that quality of growing up. It was quite lovely, actually.”

 

 

AMOS LAWSON (B. 1949)

Amos Lawson (pictured, right) with his siblings in the early 1950s. Courtesy of Amos Lawson.

“My roots are always gonna be in the Hill District. It will always be home for me because when I was coming up, the word community—that’s what it was. I see people now I grew up with, and we reminisce quite a bit about when we were children, and how it was. We had places like the YMCA, the K Boys Club, Hill City—there was always some place to go. It was just like a big family. Even your neighbors.

When I was a preteen, Little League baseball was big. Memorial Day weekend we used to march down Centre Avenue with our spanking new uniforms. We had a customary street dance at A. Leo Weil, and that was a real big event for the neighborhood. If you had any talent or thought you had any talent that was the place to be. So many performed down there before they became professional entertainers. Most of the guys my age, even when we were in junior high school, we were working so we could have the money to buy tailored pants and stuff like that. That was the norm back then. I spent a lot of time selling newspapers, Ebony’s and Jet’s back then. Back then you couldn’t even come down on Centre Ave unless you was clean—you had to be sharp when you come down here.

There were a lot of shops. The Famous Hot Dog, the Dog Hut, the Mainway Market, Lutz’s Meat Market, (the bars) Todd’s, Parker’s, Jack Henry’s, and Taylor’s, which had the best corned beef sandwiches in the city right there. The Ellis Hotel and the restaurant in the bottom part of that. The jazz was off the hook at The Hurricane, the Crawford Grill, the Ringside Bar. They had the Savoy ballroom, and every Friday night we’d go down there and we saw some of the top entertainers before they became famous. The day after MLK got killed, I was down at the Savoy Ballroom in 1968. [The Delfonics] sang two songs. All of a sudden I saw them whispering on stage, and they said we’re gonna have to cancel the performance because there’s a disruption outside. I looked outside and Centre Avenue was on fire. Just to see the aftermath on the next day, it was still smoldering. You could see the smoke. And our leaders were out there you know, [Harvey] Adams, Jake Milliones, and guys like that were out there tryna keep the peace. They were putting signs in windows saying, this is owned by a brother you know. But it was too late then.”