August Wilson and the Great Migration to Pittsburgh
By Fiona Kyle, Dramaturg
The country meets the city in 1930s Pittsburgh in August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson. African-Americans packed up their belongings, children, and Southern way of life in what’s known as the Great Migration. The Great Migration brought approximately six million African-Americans to the North, West, and Midwest from 1916 to 1970 with emphasis on major cities in America including New York City, Chicago, Detroit, and Pittsburgh. Multiple factors contributed to this exodus. The boll weevil invaded Texas in 1898 and devastated crops across the South, resulting in the unemployment of many agricultural workers. The start of World War I halted European immigration to the United States that caused a labor shortage in war-related industries. Finally, Jim Crow, a rigid system of laws that targeted African-Americans, was alive and well in the South: poverty, lynchings, denial of the right to vote, and poor educational systems drove Southern migrants North in search of a better quality of life.
Although they had strong reasons for fleeing the South, many did miss their Southern roots. Migrants could not carry extended family, friends, and the whole of their culture in the few bags they brought North. As one migrant told economist Abraham Epstein in his 1918 survey, The Negro Migrant in Pittsburgh, “If I were half as well treated home as here, I would rather stay there.” Nonetheless, they worked hard to keep their heritage alive in their new surroundings, bringing Southern cooking, dialect, traditions, and superstitions with them. Mississippi, Arkansas, and Carolina Clubs formed across Northern cities as a means to keep Southern communities together.
Their country way of life was challenged not only by racist whites who worked hard to deny them the higher standard of life they sought but also by African-Americans who had lived in the North longer. This was felt particularly strongly in Pittsburgh. The city harbored runaway slaves and attracted freedmen prior to the Civil War; between 1870 and 1900, the African-American community grew exponentially and became the sixth largest in the United States. During the period of Migration, there were three socioeconomic groups within the African-American community: first, a “black elite” of well-educated professionals from the old families in Pittsburgh, second, prosperous skilled workers, and third, stable but poorer workers. A 1923 editorial in the African-American-owned Pittsburgh Courier asked the elite members of the community to accept the migrants and to “give them a chance” at the same time as denigrating them:
We can not [sic] expect strangers in our midst to know our customs, our habits, our various social ordinances without some instructions… We have little reason to point to their faults, their awkwardness, their crude customs, their revolvers, and their lack of decorum, until we are sure they have been taught by us in all the nicer things known to our communal life.
Migrants found it difficult to relate to those who were Pittsburgh-born. Southerners felt that the old families were elitist and lacked understanding of the hardship they faced journeying North, and many preferred to spend time with those who shared that experience. Often, rather than marrying a Northerner, a migrant from the South would bring a spouse from back home to Pittsburgh or would marry someone from the same geographic location whom he or she had met in the city. The tensions were felt even in the church. The older, well-established Methodist and Baptist churches were unwelcoming, and small “storefront” churches catering to the new migrants from the South sprang up around the city.
The Great Migration served as part of August Wilson’s inspiration for The Piano Lesson. The journey was made by train, boat, bus, and even horse-drawn carts. Daisy Wilson’s mother, August Wilson’s grandmother, walked from Spear, North Carolina, where her family worked as sharecroppers, to get to Pittsburgh. Wilson grew up in the Hill District on 1727 Bedford Avenue (seen to the right), where many migrants lived and congregated. His childhood house looms in the background of our set to illuminate the world of The Hill.
The Hill District, where The Piano Lesson is set, became the most densely populated section of the city. The living conditions were deplorable during and after World War I. The housing available to migrants was old and dilapidated. Health conditions deteriorated, and crime rates skyrocketed. In 1938, researcher William Y. Bell Jr. called residents of the District, “The most disadvantaged of the disadvantaged.” Despite the poor standard of living, the area was culturally rich, as music and sports thrived. Claude McKay, a leading poet of the Harlem Renaissance, considered the heart of the Hill, the intersection of Wylie and Fullerton Avenue, the “Crossroads of the World.” The migrants slowly assimilated and laid down their Southern roots in the city’s soil. The ten plays of The American Century Cycle by August Wilson investigate and celebrate African-American history and legacy through the lens of Pittsburgh’s Hill District.