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Black Migration to Pittsburgh

Black Migration to Pittsburgh

by Larry Ciptak

from Out of This Kitchen: a History of the Ethnic Groups and Their Foods in the Steel Valley


Ever since the 1875 puddler's strike crippled the iron industry in Pittsburgh, southern blacks were recruited to work in western Pennsylvania's mills. The men were familiar with the industry: before the Civil War, over 2,000 slaves labored in the iron mills of Tennessee.

The blacks–with an aversion to unionism and treated to a hostility reception by the Amalgamated–provided steel managers a potent weapon to break strikes. "The presence of nonunion blacks convinced white employees that mill owners deliberately tried to use blacks 'to pull down white labor.' In some instances, these sentiments led them to retaliate violently against blacks who ignored the strikes and remained loyal to local iron and steel officials," wrote Dennis C. Dickerson in Out of the Crucible: Black Steelworkers in Western Pennsylvania, 1875-1980.

But exclusion from the labor unions served only to further drive black workers to side with their employers. It wasn't until the passage of the Wagner Act in 1935–which gave workers the right to bargain collectively–that blacks were "welcomed" into the unions once union officials realized that they needed the black workers in order to achieve labor solidarity.

In 1900, black steelworkers in Homestead formed the Murdock Grays, a baseball team renamed the Homestead Grays in 1912. The Homestead Grays Athletic Club included a basketball and a boxing team.

The labor shortage caused by World War I and the great steel strike of 1919 gave blacks the rare opportunity to secure good jobs at a decent wage. The number of black workers in Pittsburgh increased dramatically–from 2,500 in 1915 to 14,610–in 1919. But when the Depression came, "black steelworkers were usually the first to be laid off and last to be recalled when production resumed," according to Dickerson.

World War II facilitated the migration of an additional 10,595 black newcomers to Pittsburgh. By 1950 blacks represented 6.5% of the total work force in the city.