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Pittsburgh's Black Renaissance Started in Its Schools

From the 1920s through the 1950s, Schenley High, Westinghouse High, and other city schools graduated scores of black notables and anchored the neighborhoods around them.
P.L. Prattis (center, in vest), an editor of the Pittsburgh Courier after Robert Lee Vann, in the newsroom with staff in the mid-1940s
P.L. Prattis (center, in vest), an editor of the Pittsburgh Courier after Robert Lee Vann, in the newsroom with staff in the mid-1940sCourtesy of Getty Images/Teenie Harris Archive/Carnegie Museum of Art

When historians analyze the causes of the Great Migration, the exodus of millions of African Americans from the rural South in the early 20th century, they stress the urgency of escaping the vicious Jim Crow backlash against Reconstruction and the dream of finding factory jobs in Northern cities. Yet a less studied factor—worth noting in this era of crude stereotypes about black attitudes toward education—was the lure of better schools in the North. And surprisingly, nowhere was that attraction greater than in the gritty steel town of Pittsburgh.

In the 19th century, what is now the University of Pittsburgh was called the Western University of Pennsylvania and considered a sister school to Penn in Philadelphia. Before his death in 1858, Charles Avery, a white Pittsburgh cotton trader whose travels through the South had awoken him to the horrors of slavery and turned him into an ardent abolitionist, endowed a fund for 12 scholarships a year at Western University for “males of the colored people in the United States of America or the British Province of Canada.”