Homecoming: Hill District, USA

The Great Migrants

The folks who came from near and far to make a new home on the Hill.

Edith Hirsch flom SCHNEIDER (b. 1929)

Edith Oresick (bottom, left) pictured with her parents and brothers at Sissman Studios on Centre Avenue, c. 1935. Courtesy of Edith Schneider.

“My father, Max Hirsch, was born in Rumania and arrived in Pittsburgh in 1920. My mother, Ruth Sabin came from Poland with a younger sister and settled in Pittsburgh in 1923. My Mom and Dad met and married in 1924 and lived on Milwaukee Street in the Upper Hill District. Growing up, we lived close to Schenley High field.  The children in the neighborhood played in the field all summer. Everybody. That I remember.

When I was younger we lived in that block where all the parents were immigrants and spoke Yiddish. I understood Yiddish because my mother spoke it. She didn’t speak English when she came. My father became a citizen in 1923, but I used to go to classes at Herron Hill Junior High with my mother when she took classes at night to become a citizen. This was in 1939. That was quite a diverse crowd there—they came from many different countries. My mother wanted to become a citizen so she could bring her family to the United States from Poland, but she was too late. My Grandmother and two of her sons died in the Holocaust. My father’s family from Romania, most of them left to go to Israel. like people ran away from the [American] South, the Jewish boys ran away from the army because they were really not treated well.”



Ardelle Vivienne Robinson (b. 1949)

Douglass Robinson, a Pulman Porter, poses for a portrait in the Hill c. 1919. Courtesy of Ardelle Robinson.

“I know my grandfather’s family was from Abbeyville [South Carolina]. They knew of a gentlemen that lived in Abbeyville who was a very influential black man. He was ‘tryna do business with some white people in the community who he thought respected him. They kept insisting that he was trying to cheat them. One thing led to another, this man ended up dead, and my family said we gotta get outta here. They packed up and came straight to Pittsburgh. The house that they lived in that we all grew up in, including my mother and all her kids, was on Anaheim St. in Schenley Heights. But they settled on Junilla Street. He had that house built for her, and it still stands today.

My grandfather Douglass Robinson was a Pullman Porter. That’s all he ever did his whole adult life. He loved his job as best he could under the circumstances. I hear it was a good job for black men at the time, but of course, it was the times. He did well, financially. The Pullman Porters did well—they did better than most. My grandmother, she was born in Red House, Virginia. She came to Pittsburgh when she was a young woman. She belonged to a lot of different ladies clubs, she went to teas, bridge clubs, card parties, all that kind of stuff. And she was very active in the community with other ladies groups.

I used to get in the middle of the bed in the morning and just wait for them to wake up. I was in the middle of the bed one morning and she said to him, ‘Douglass put the light on.’ She didn’t go to bed blind, but she woke up blind. When the light went out that morning, that’s the same switch that made everyone stay away from her. She never wanted much but it didn’t matter. Anything she mighta asked for he made sure she had it. I thought he was a great guy.”



Evelyn Rumph (b. 1936)

Evelyn Rumph (left) pictured with her mother, Lucy Curry, in the early 1940s. Courtesy of Evelyn Rumph.

“I’m the daughter of Lucellar, they call her Ms. Lucy, Curry. She had a restaurant on Wylie Avenue. All the people in the Hill, when it was really in its heyday, went to eat at my mother’s restaurant. She came from Alabama. She was on her way to Chicago to visit, and she stopped off in Pittsburgh. She never made it to Chicago (chuckles). My dad got a job at the steel mill because back in those days in Pittsburgh, the steel mill was up and booming. He said I think we’ll do better here in Pittsburgh. She worked domestic—that’s what most blacks did in those years. They worked domestic for Jewish people who had dominated the Hill. But she cooked so well, her and my aunt, that my aunt said why should we be cooking for other people? Why don’t we open up a restaurant and see if we can make a go of it ourselves?

They opened up a restaurant on Centre Avenue. She didn’t hire nobody but her family and friends that she knew. But if you needed a job and wanted a hard day’s work, come to Lucy. She was able to go into food because everyone loves to eat, and she was described as the best soul food on the Hill. So that’s how it all began. My mother did pick cotton in Alabama. And she came up here to make a better life for herself. She made a better life, but she wanted more for her five children. She wanted us to have the best life possible, and in those days you could have a very good life.”



Welzetta Hardeman (1936-2017)

Welzetta Hardeman’s mother (pictured, right) and aunt posed for a portrait at Johnson Studio on Centre Avenue, c. 1940-1945. Courtesy of Carol Hardeman.

“In 1941 they began to tear down where the Waterfront is in Homestead. That’s where I lived, and we had to find a place to go. When we left Homestead my father had died about a month or two before then. I remember coming in this house, I never saw so many beds. So many rooms, in all my life. When we moved up here, of course it was 1941. There was white people every other house. And you were told, you’re in a white neighborhood now, don’t come here acting up. [Black] people began to buy homes, although everybody worked. I felt we were poor, poor. I did (laughs).

My mother had bought the house but my mother wasn’t but 21. She bought the house off the man who owned a bar down the hill. [The mortgage was] $17 a month. She used to go down the Hill and used to take us down with her. Jews had many little shops in the Hill, and she’d go down in the little store, and she’d pay the mortgage there. It’d be about four or five old men sitting in a little room in the store, sitting by a fire. Yeah. She had the house but it wasn’t easy.

I know about the rough times. I know about the plumbing. I know about the roof when it was leaking, here and there, everywhere. And when the family came, even holiday time when they all came, everybody came in here just the same. And you had plenty of food. I still think to myself, you ain’t never been cold. You ain’t never been outdoors. So I have a lot of thanks to give. That I feel very deeply. It wasn’t as fashionable as it is now, but it was home. It was home.”



Elizabeth Ann sharpe Haley (b. 1941)

Ann Haley’s graduation photo for Schenley High School, class of 1959. Courtesy of Ann Haley.

“My parents were grew up in Alabama. I was actually born in a little town called Letohatchee, Alabama, which is about 30 miles from Montgomery. When I was six months old they moved to Pittsburgh, where my mother’s sister and her family lived (the Moncrief’s). My dad was young with two young children, and the job opportunities were be better here in Pittsburgh. That’s the reason for the move. I actually grew up on Morgan Street and then my family purchased a house on Francis Street, which was up the street from the Centre Avenue YMCA.

[There is] just so much history in the Hill of people who’ve done well, and mainly because of the neighborhood. All the houses were [kept] with pride, and people were homeowners. Which doesn’t mean that if you weren’t a homeowner that you couldn’t prosper. But that Francis St. and Centre Avenue, those were all homeowners so they took the leadership and pride into the Hill. So you know when people say, ‘Where are you from?’ I’m glad to say I’m from the Hill.”



Charlene Foggie-Barnett (b. 1958)

Charlene Foggie-Barnett pictured with her parents in their Ewart Drive living room. Photo by Teenie Harris, 1959.

“My basic connection [to the Hill] is my mother (Madeline Sharpe-Foggie) was married to my father (Bishop Charles H. Foggie) in the Hill, and they produced me (laughs). But my mother was raised in the Hill on Junilla Street, and her extended family was raised in the Hill. They had come from Abbeyville, South Carolina, and eventually ended up as a family in the Hill District. My father was actually born in Sumpter, South Carolina, but he had to go north because his father was almost lynched. He was raised in Boston, and he became a minister and a Civil Rights leader here in the Pittsburgh area.

My dad was close with Thurgood Marshall and a lot of the national Civil Rights people. And I remember them being in the house different times, even Dr. King before his death. These people were sitting in each other’s living rooms, planning things. As we do now. But their outcomes were very much chronicled and pinnacled because big things were happening.

I was raised on Ewart Drive. It’s in the “Sugar Top” area, which in some circles can get you into kind of a sticky mess because at one time it was considered an elitist area. It was and it was not. There were some people that had made some advantages economically, socially, politically, educationally and what not—and they seemed to congregate in this area. Attorneys, physicians, business owners, ministers, educators lived in Sugar Top, as did other people. If you fell down and got hurt, your neighbor would take you in and clean up your cut. It was really like Cheers almost. Everyone really knew your name. Or they knew where you were supposed to be. And it didn’t matter if you lived in the Lower Hill or Upper Hill or Middle Hill or whatever, people got along. I know I’m making it seem like a utopia but it felt like that. And I’ve never had that feeling again.”