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“This woman is Erin Godfrey, known at the time as “Ma Pitts.” The gentleman seated at the counter was known as “Little Willie.” Mrs. Godfrey was the owner and operator of several restaurants in the Hill District. She was known for the outstanding food in her establishments and she was loved for her compassion—she often gave meals away to those who had no money.”
- Renee Aldrich, age 53

“When a slide went up of two children with Easter baskets standing in front of the YMCA on Centre Avenue, one woman stood up and said, ‘Those are my children!’”
- Deborah Starling Pollard, community liaison, Carnegie Museum of Art

"I used to run errands for the clerks and Mrs. Tyson, the owner of Tyson's Bakery. I lived at 2167 Centre Ave. and the bakery was at 2153 Centre."
- Howard Stevens Jr., age 53

“This is William Goode, the owner of Goode Pharmacy. He is my uncle and was the first black pharmacist in Pittsburgh.”
- Roberta Billburn, age 57


Filling in the Blanks:
The Teenie Harris Archive
Project Continues

"This was the first exhibition that I’ve ever done that had no labels,” says Louise Lippincott, curator of Fine Art at Carnegie Museum of Art. “That was deliberate, because we wanted to encourage people to come in and fill in the blanks. And they did. We’re beginning a dialogue instead of a lecture.”

Charles "Teenie" Harris was the principal photographer for the Pittsburgh Courier from 1936 to 1975. Considered together, his photographs of special events as well as day-to-day activities constitute one of the most important records of 20th-century African American life. The approximately 80,000 photographic negatives in the Harris archive, however, which Carnegie Museum of Art acquired in 2001, are largely unidentified. The ongoing purpose of the Teenie Harris Archive Project is to gather information about the people, places, and events shown in the photographs.

“The research and the work on this collection have to happen out in the community,” says Lippincott. “The show was a pilot project, an attempt to discover if displaying the photographs was a useful way to get information, and it was.” Now, through various channels, that work is continuing outside the walls of the museum.

One resource the museum has tapped is the phenomenal memory and connections of John Brewer of the Trolley Station Oral History Center in Homewood. Brewer began his own collection of Teenie Harris photographs about 12 years ago, and is quick to debunk the “One Shot” myth, a nickname given Harris based on his apparent ability to take one photograph—one great photograph—of any scene and move on.

John Brewer of the Trolley Station Oral History Center in Homewood collects Teenie Harris photographs and has been instrumental in helping Carnegie Museum of Art identify many of the subjects in Harris’ images.
Photo: Terry Clark

“He was given that name because of how quick he was, but if you’ve seen the photographs I’ve seen—and I’ve seen thousands—you realize there were many shots. He should still be called ‘One Shot,” because if he was in an environment with a lot of politicians, a tight spot, he didn’t have much of an opportunity for a picture. He wasn’t the Post-Gazette photographer, for example. He couldn’t ask them to wait a second.”

Brewer first met Lippincott in March 2003 at an exhibition of Harris’ photographs at Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild. “They were great photographs,” he says, “but no one knew what was in them. There was no real life or history to go with them.” As an oral historian with deep roots in Pittsburgh’s African American community—his father was the first black school principal in the city—Brewer was able to offer his assistance in identifying some of the scenes and people shown in the photographs, and in assembling groups who could shed more light on the pictures.

One of the groups Brewer has brought to the Trolley Station to study the photographs is The Girlfriends, a group of prominent African American women whose age range, Brewer says, would encompass the relevant era. “At their monthly meetings, we set up photos on a table and just let them go. And they say things like, ‘Oh, this is my father, he was a judge.’” The Girlfriends includes such women as Elaine Effort of KQV, Judge Cynthia Baldwin, and Winifred Tolbert, director of Community Development for the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Of the 80,000 Harris negatives in the Museum of Art’s collection, 4,000 will eventually be part of the archive project. Those 4,000 images were selected from work prints already in existence, and every month up to 300 of them are added to the Museum of Art’s web site for study. In addition, the University of Pittsburgh is putting about 500 of Harris’ photographs on its Historic Pittsburgh site, and more opportunities are being sought to display Teenie Harris’ photographs throughout the city.

Girlfriends, pictured at right at a recent meeting, is a group of prominent African American women who have volunteered to sift through and identify as many Teenie Harris images as possible during their monthly meetings. Several of the members have found friends and family members among the subjects.
Photo: Terry Clark

Accessioning the negatives—registering and admitting them to the Museum of Art’s permanent collection—is another project altogether. Each one has to be dusted, written up in a condition report, put into an archival sleeve, numbered, and given a descriptive title. Any information on the image must also be transcribed and entered into a database. Scanning the actual images will come later. For now, gathering information about existing photographs is paramount.
While the photographs were on display in the Museum of Art’s Forum Gallery, visitors were invited to share their knowledge through “memory sheets” in the gallery or by posting their comments on the museum’s web site. More than 1,000 memory sheets were gathered from the two sources by the time the photographs were taken off display. Now, students of Dr. Laurence A. Glasco, a University of Pittsburgh history professor and a member of the Teenie Harris Advisory Committee, are following up on some of these memory sheets, verifying the information provided and trying to collect even more.

Since last July, the museum’s own oral historian for the project, Patricia Pugh Mitchell, has been meeting with people at libraries, churches, and other gatherings to elicit memories they may have of the photographs. A Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of Pittsburgh, Mitchell was coordinator of African American programs at the Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania, where she wrote Beyond Adversity: Teaching about African Americans’ Struggle for Equality in Western Pennsylvania, 1750 – 1990. “That research took me out into the community,” Mitchell explains, giving her many contacts and sources of information for the Harris project.

Some older residents are especially helpful in identifying pictures. “You can put a book of the photographs in front of them, and they rattle it off,” she says. Mitchell interviewed Robert Lavelle in his office on the Hill, where he has been the proprietor of Dwelling House Savings and Loan for about 50 years. She was also able to connect with Vivian Hewitt, one of the first African American librarians hired by Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, who now lives in New York. “She was absolutely fabulous,” Mitchell says.

In addition, Deborah Starling Pollard, the museum’s community liaison, has been taking slides of the Harris photographs to community groups and retirement centers since last June, and often the people she visits see familiar faces in the pictures. At the Christopher Smith Senior Highrise in the Hill District, residents identified a photograph of Chuck Cooper, a Duquesne University graduate, who was the first black athlete to enter the National Basketball Association (NBA). And when Pollard put up a slide of two children with Easter baskets standing in front of the YMCA on Centre Avenue, one woman stood up and said, “Those are my children!”

There is a certain urgency to gathering this information. Brewer lamented the death last August of Frank Bolden, a well-known reporter for the Pittsburgh Courier in the 1930s and ‘40s who became an unofficial historian of black Pittsburgh. “Frank took a lot with him,” Brewer said. “He had so much information. I could say a word to him, and he’d go on for an hour if he felt like talking to me. We have to connect with our ancestors through living people. We have to get our people to open up.

“The Museum of Art holds our history in their hands,” he continues. “I think they’re doing an excellent job, and only they can do what is necessary to preserve this collection. I appreciate the time made available for people to see the collection. People need to understand that the essence of who we are lies within those pages. Teenie captured that, sometimes good, sometimes bad. A lot of stuff happened from 1936 to 1975. By bringing it out and allowing us to do what we do, the Museum of Art has given the general public a much better appreciation for where they came from, non-African Americans as well as African Americans.”

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Help Document History
Help Carnegie Museum of Art identify Teenie Harris’ images. Visit the Museum of Art’s website at www.cmoa.org/teenie/info.asp and view up to 500 of Harris’ photographs. Submit your comments by completing an electronic memory sheet and become part of the museum's permanent record about Teenie Harris and his images. Your participation will enhance the significance of the Teenie Harris Archive for anyone interested in the history of Black urban life in the United States in the 20th century.

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Copyright (c) 2003 CARNEGIE magazine. All rights reserved.