The Pittsburgh Courier was once the most influential black newspaper in America, sending reporters across the country and overseas to report on the championship bouts of Joe Louis, the heroics of the Tuskegee Airmen and the rise of Martin Luther King Jr. in the early months of the Montgomery bus boycott. Today the Courier is a small online publication with a tiny staff, but last weekend it was again confronted with the challenge of covering a world-shaking story in its own backyard: the deadliest attack on Jews in American history, at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood.
Grabbing a video camera and a microphone, Courier managing editor Rob Taylor Jr. rushed to the corner of Forbes and Murray avenues in Squirrel Hill to interview scores of black Pittsburghers who came out spontaneously to participate in a vigil on the night of the shooting rampage. One of them was Rev. Glenn Grayson, the pastor of the Wesley Center AME Zion Church in the nearby historically black Hill District and a father who lost a son to gun violence eight years ago. “A tragedy for Squirrel Hill is a tragedy for the Hill; it’s a tragedy for the whole city,” Grayson said.
Back at Courier headquarters in the South Side Flats neighborhood, the moving show of solidarity captured on the video that Taylor posted to the Courier website came as no surprise to publisher Rod Doss, given the historic ties between the city’s Jewish and African-American communities. “They have supported us today, yesterday and in the future,” Doss said, “and we will continue to do the same for them.”
The celebrated plays of August Wilson have mythologized the Hill District as an all-black universe, but the Lower Hill was largely Jewish until the early 20th century, and to this day the Star of David can be found on the walls of former synagogues that are now African-American churches. Wilson himself was raised in a cold-water flat above a store called Bella’s Market run by Jewish grocer Bella Siger in the post-World War II years when the Hill was still racially mixed. Even in the ’60s and ’70s, as white flight turned the Hill and other neighborhoods virtually all black, the last white merchants to leave were Jewish.
Some of those businesses became targets during the urban riots of that period, but now they are remembered fondly. Allegheny County Judge Joseph Williams III, who grew up in the black Manchester neighborhood on Pittsburgh’s North Side, recalled a Jewish shopkeeper referred to by his grandmother as “the Peach snuff box man.” He allowed his black customers to buy on credit, writing down their purchases in a notepad emblazoned with the logo for the smokeless tobacco brand until they could settle up on paydays.
During the civil rights movement, perhaps the best-known benefactor of Pittsburgh’s NAACP and Urban League chapters was Florence Reizenstein, the petite, tireless wife of a prominent Jewish businessman who crusaded for school integration and fair housing as well as support for Israel. Charlene Foggie-Barnett, the daughter of AME Zion bishop and NAACP leader Charles Foggie, remembered the many meals that Reizenstein ate at her family’s dinner table on the Hill, and how she eventually encouraged them to move to a larger house in Swisshelm Park, south of Squirrel Hill, in part to “break open” the neighborhood for other black homebuyers.
Even in the Reagan years, as punitive drug and sentencing laws accelerated the downward spiral of the city’s black neighborhoods, African-American defendants sought out Jewish lawyers whenever possible, recalled Joe Williams, one of the few local black law graduates of his generation to set up a practice in the inner city. “It’s always been part of our belief system that you want to get a Jewish attorney,” Williams said, “because they bring an understanding of what it means to be persecuted.”
The one area where the alliance has faltered over time, both groups conceded, is in the city’s schools. Pittsburgh once boasted some of the finest racially and ethnically integrated public schools in America, with locally legendary school names such as Schenley, Westinghouse and Taylor Allderdice. Today only Allderdice, located in Squirrel Hill, remains meaningfully mixed, thanks to a long-standing busing program. But even there, where the student population is 40 percent black, an academic tracking program has resulted in less social integration than the overall numbers might suggest.
“The city has slightly resegregated,” admitted Pittsburgh Post-Gazette executive editor David Shribman, a Jewish native of Canada who grew up in New England and moved to the city 15 years ago with his wife Cindy, a Catholic from Buffalo, N.Y. To counter that trend, Shribman said, the paper has launched a “Pittsburgh tapestry” initiative to combat conflict between its ethnic and racial communities by educating them about their common history. Meanwhile, Shribman’s daughter Natalie, who graduated from an integrated all-girls private high school in Pittsburgh, is studying to become a rabbi at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati and plans to focus her work as a religious leader on “multicultural, multiracial, multireligious convergence,” as her proud father put it.
In the face of the enormity of the Tree of Life atrocity, however, Jews and African-Americans alike reached for personal remembrance more than social reflection. Shribman shared a speech by G. Marcus Cole, a Stanford professor who says he learned tolerance as a black kid growing up in the “shtetl” (Yiddish for “village”) of Squirrel Hill, as he lovingly called it. Foggie-Barnett recalled going “up street,” as black residents of the Hill District used to say, for Mineo’s Pizza on Murray Avenue, where “everyone felt comfortable.” She also described the shock of hearing that one of the 11 Tree of Life fatalities was Irving Younger, a 69-year-old retired real estate agent with whom she became friendly when their kids attended an elementary lab school run by the University of Pittsburgh. “I can see him saying, ‘I’m going to be there on Shabbat morning, because somebody has to be,’” she said. “That’s the kind of guy he was.”
Then Foggie-Barnett choked up as she spoke of Sylvan and Bernice Simon, a couple in their 80s who were married in the Tree of Life synagogue in 1956 and died there together at the hands of a hate-filled gunman 62 years later. “The most savage attack of this kind in our history happened in little old Pittsburgh, in one of our most harmonious neighborhoods,” Foggie-Barnett said, sounding as though she still couldn’t believe it. “It’s a cruel irony, as so many things in both of our histories are.”
Mark Whitaker, the editor of Newsweek from 1998 to 2006, is the author of “Smoketown: The Untold Story of the Other Great Black Renaissance,” a history of the African-American community in Pittsburgh.
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