Photographs by Charles “Teenie” Harris
Image above: Small crowd gathered outside Studio Dee, WHOD radio station, Herron and Centre Avenues, Hill District, August 1, 1951
A thing you should probably know about Black Pittsburgh’s relationship with Teenie is that we love to lie about him. Charles “Teenie” Harris captured at least 125,000 people in the tens of thousands of photos he took during the 40 years he documented Black life for The Pittsburgh Courier. Thirty-five of those photos are now part of an ongoing exhibition at the Carnegie Museum of Art. To hear it today, everybody’s grandma was shot by him, everybody’s great-uncle played spades against him, and everybody’s second cousin’s third cousin got lit at the Crawford Grill with him. This is what happens when someone is magic like that. When the shadow of someone’s work is so mammoth—such a part of how we see and love and regard and remember ourselves—we insert ourselves in its shade.
In the shot above, from 1951, 45 or so people stand outside the Hill District studio of the iconoclastic DJ Mary Dee Dudley. Dudley was America’s first Black female DJ, and her shows became impromptu block parties as crowds gathered in front of the studio’s storefront windows to request songs, see Mary Dee, and be seen. The Hill of the early 20th century was an internationally renowned hub of Black culture, frequented by Duke and Satchmo, home to Greenlee Field and Madam C. J. Walker’s Lelia College of Beauty Culturists, and later immortalized by August Wilson’s Century Cycle.
In the late ’50s, many of the Hill District living rooms, rib spots, corner stores, stoops, schools, basements, backyards, barstools, banks, and barbershops canonized by Teenie’s lens were wiped away to build an arena that no longer exists. By the time he died, in 1998, at nearly 90 years old, the population of the Hill had dropped from 50,000 to 12,000.
Another thing you should probably know about Black Pittsburgh’s relationship with Teenie is that those lies tell the truth. How did—how do—we survive in a city considered one of America’s “Most Livable” but that’s somehow one of the least livable for us? I don’t know. But I do know that community, for Black Pittsburghers, is a proper noun and a shelter from the city. Even if we didn’t actually find our way into his orbit, when Teenie caught one of us, he caught all of us.