The Hill District of Pittsburgh – Part II

Updated: Jan 30

Our last issue described the founding of Pittsburgh at the end of the French and Indian War when, in 1758, the British took the fort at the confluence of the Monongahela and Allegheny rivers and renamed it Fort Pitt. You can read about it here.

On land initially owned by the grandson of Pennsylvania's founder William Penn, the Hill District became one of Pittsburgh's most historic neighborhoods. After the Revolutionary War, 150 freed slaves came to Pittsburgh from Virginia. On March 1, 1780, the Pennsylvania Assembly passed “An Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery,” which deemed that no child born in Pennsylvania could be a slave.

Known to locals as simply The Hill, the 1.4-square-mile cluster of neighborhoods perched high above downtown Pittsburgh became a major stop on the Underground Railroad. In the early 1800s, more blacks began to migrate northward; beginning in the 1850s, the Hill District became Pittsburgh's primary arrival point for Irish and German immigrants followed by Italian and East European immigrants during the 1880s. Southern Blacks began their major migration to the Hill District in the 1910s. The Hill found itself the home of immigrants from 25 countries and a national center for African-American sports, journalism, theater, and commerce.

Referring to The Hill's heyday of 1930 to 1950, the Harlem Renaissance poet Claude McKay called it the “Crossroads of the World”. A jazz Renaissance began on the Hill in the early 1920s and continued through the 1960s. In the glory days of the Hill, touring national jazz artists like Duke Ellington, Coleman Hawkins, Dizzy Gillespie, and more, played week-long engagements in Pittsburgh. The Hill was also home to The Pittsburgh Courier, one of the most influential Black newspapers and two great teams of baseball’s Negro Leagues – the Pittsburgh Crawfords and the Homestead Grays.

In our next newsletter, read our final installment on the historic Hill District of Pittsburgh.

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