Mark Whitaker’s ‘Smoketown’ Reveals a Forgotten Black Renaissance

With a potent newspaper, a surge in the arts, and some sports heroics, Pittsburgh was the center of a vital cultural moment.

Smoketown: The Untold Story of the Other Great Black Renaissance
Mark Whitaker
Simon & Schuster
30 Jan 2018

The most famous black renaissance of the early 20th century took place in Harlem. That burst of artistic and cultural output, particularly its literature, has been well documented and has become, at least to some degree, a standard part of secondary curricula. The movement happening around the same time in Pittsburgh hasn’t received nearly the attention, but Mark Whitaker’s Smoketown: The Untold Story of the Other Great Black Renaissance launches a valuable corrective. His research opens up new connections in a fascinating history, but his storytelling skills drive the narrative.

If the Pittsburgh community (the nickname “Smoketown” refers to the city’s airborne industrial output) didn’t get the attention of its New York peers, it may be because the Pennsylvania effort as depicted by Whitaker sprawled more in terms of both time and fields, and even geography. Where the Harlem version has come down to us as a coherent group with a defined vision (to oversimplify), the Smoketown story works more as a constellation of connected people and events. Whitaker covers from the Great Migration through August Wilson, who wasn’t even born until 1945, closer to the Hill District’s demolition than to its cultural peak.

At the orbital center of the community, The Pittsburgh Courier found its way into every corner of society at the time, and Whitaker threads the paper’s story through all the book’s other elements. Another version of this history would simply cover the Courier, following rabbit trails here and there, but Whitaker’s approach shows the connections between different aspects of black life in Pittsburgh, developing a community rather than a series of isolated events.

The staff of the paper, particularly publisher Robert L. Vann and his immediate circle, figure prominently, and their work to change the paper from a small vanity publication into one of the leading black newspapers of the era holds the renaissance together. That work draws in industrialists, athletes, musicians and more as it takes on social and political topics with aplomb. The paper comes across as fearless, taking on James Weldon Johnson and W. E. B. Du Bois before later engagements with the Republican party, the Roosevelt administration and racism in the US military. What we don’t see is much turmoil within the office or too many missteps, and a history strictly of the paper would likely be illuminating.

Whitaker takes on the cultural aspects of the era gleefully. He opens the book in the middle of the era with an account of boxing champion Joe Louis and his landmark defeat of Max Schmeling. The story brings out the best of Whitaker’s writing, as it’s full of energy without sacrificing details. He follows Louis from the perspective of the Courier‘s coverage and support of the boxer, showing the paper getting ahead of its competitors. The story slides smoothly into tying the paper’s prominence, explaining, “By championing the champion of their people, the colored men and women of Pittsburgh had also confirmed their place at the vanguard of black America” (22). The connections between the press, the arts, sports, and politics start to become clear.

Sports would be a large part of those intersections. Whitaker’s accounts of the city’s two Negro League teams provide some of the most intricate narrative of the book, pulling in business tycoons and number runners. The most significant portion, of course, comes with the brief bio of Jackie Robinson, but the focus on his chauffeur/ promoter/ guide Wendell Smith that highlights the important work being done in Pittsburgh. Robinson was playing for Kansas City before breaking Major League Baseball’s color barrier, but it was Smith’s crusade for integration that helped that achievement come about, and Smith was with Robinson throughout his first two years in first the minors and then the major league. Smith himself would be posthumously inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Whitaker also makes a case for Pittsburgh’s importance to jazz at that time. Initially, his thinking here feels suspect, as he seems to point to performers with loose or short connections to Pittsburgh, but he successfully argues for the centrality of Pittsburgh in each artist’s career and training. Figures like Billy Strayorn, Erroll Garner, Lena Horne, and Billy Eckstine trace more than just coincidental roots to the city, where local teachers like Charlotte Enty Catlin and opportunities would lead to great influence on the larger world of jazz.

With stories diverse enough in field and time – particularly compared to the Harlem Renaissance and considering the space given to Wilson, who fits better as an epilogue – Smoketown hangs on Whitaker’s ability to keep this stories connected, usually through the Courier, without it feeling forced. He successfully does so, but he relies too heavily on a writing tic that overly complicates a sprawling narrative. Whitaker frequently starts a chapter or a character introduction in the middle of a person’s life before jumping back a generation or two (the whole book, with its opening on Louis, has this structure). As a hook for any given story, the trick can be catchy, but it adds a series of unnecessary loops to the text, which would benefit from a little more straightforward telling.

It’s apparent that Smoketown offers an encomium to the era. Other than some squabbles between baseball owners and a few professional conflicts, the period feels joyously of-a-piece, and some of that comes from Whitaker’s manufacturing. His book is a celebration of an under-appreciated era, and there’s nothing wrong with that. As it is, Smoketown could be a one-off artifact that’s both valuable and entertaining. As it could be, Whitaker’s enthusiasm will be infectious enough for others (or Whitaker himself) to dive further into some individual elements of the “other great black renaissance”, continuing to uncover a remarkable part of US history.

RATING 7 / 10