Black History. American History. History.

Grounder Rebecca Mizikar recently sat down with three former residents of Lincoln Way in Clairton to understand the vibrant black community that thrived there. Before the bulldozers demolished the last of the vacant houses along the dead-end street, before the city and developers started to talk about new visions for this blank slate of land at the edge of the town, before the Bigfoot and alien legends came to explain the decline and vacancy of an entire street, Lincoln Way was the site of a flourishing community.

Mildred Reed as a little girl with her sisters. The youngest of 5, Mildred lived on Lincoln Way from birth to her teen years. The photo was not taken on Lincoln Way.
Former residents of Lincoln Way (left to right): Frances Booker, Meme Gatewood, and Mildred Reed

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When Grounded Strategies was asked to look at the potential for redevelopment of Lincoln Way, we began with a tour and the usual research into the history of the site. Mayor Rich Lattanzi told us that the area was once a proud enclave of professional black residents, but frustratingly our search only turned up recent web posts from USA Today and urban explorers that sensationalized the abandoned homes and stretched to create explanations. Other than a few old maps showing the tight row of houses, no photos or stories of residents could be found. Grounded’s ReClaim work in Clairton brought us to former resident Cindy Moore who works with Clairton Community Cares. Ms. Moore arranged for the luncheon with three more former residents: Frances Booker, Meme Gatewood, and Mildred Reed.

Frances Booker’s memory was sharp for a woman of 91 years recollecting some of the earliest stories. “My mother said the factory whistle would blow as Andrew Carnegie rode up and down State Street in his carriage”. Carnegie was overseeing what was then Carnegie Illinois Steel just across State Street from their homes. Frances recalled that the houses were built by Carnegie for his workers and African Americans were drawn to the mill communities knowing they could find work. All three ladies reminisced about the harsh working conditions adding that blacks were often given the hottest and hardest positions in the mill. They remembered their dads coming home with boxes of “mill candy” for them – a bright and sticky treat that they understood to be the father’s reward for extra-hard work. Living with smog and soot was accepted as the consequence of the security of a mill job. “Smells like our bread and butter, is what they used to say” recalled Ms. Reed referencing the acrid smell of the polluted air.

“We had everything we needed”

The ladies painted a picture of a bustling enclave of large families that relied on each other. The street was home to a church and several stores. A butcher shop supplied meat from livestock raised behind the homes, and gardens and orchards fed the residents. “We couldn’t just go to the soda fountain in Wilson” referring to the neighboring, predominantly white, ward of Clairton. “They wouldn’t serve us. We had to be self-sufficient.” Other outside stores were known to cheat black customers by adding a little extra weight to the scale. Doctors, midwives, and other professionals lived on Lincoln Way and each helped their neighbors. Before bathrooms were added to homes, a bathhouse served the community. It was the church, however, that seemed to anchor the community (Gethsemane Church of God would later relocate to Crest Street) and prayer played a central role in their lives. Ms. Booker recalled that large families with eight or ten kids would kneel in prayer every morning in their home. The ladies credited the faith that was alive in the community for the many children raised on Lincoln Way that went on to successful lives, earning doctorates, becoming lawyers, and a host of other professions. Everyone looked out for each other’s children. If you were caught misbehaving at the end of the street, word would travel back to your parents faster than you could run home. Families helped each other in times of hardship but also celebrated life. Dances were sometimes held in the street.

Over time, Lincoln-Way became a street dominated by widows, as wives tended to live significantly longer than their husbands. A few transplants moved in that were not as trusted as the long-time residents. Grown children moved far from home and houses would sit vacant when their matriarch went to the hospital or personal care home. The ladies recalled a friend who bought a house in Lincoln Way in recent years. She thought it would be a great place for her grown daughters to stay when they returned to Clairton to visit. She furnished the house but was devastated to find that it had been ransacked. The same isolation that gave the street its strong sense of community in it’s prime also led to its demise.

What will the future hold for Lincoln Way? 

As talk of tiny houses and farming cooperatives are tossed about, it is fascinating to think the community that may not have been too far off from the vision of what a successful 21st-century pocket community could be. The Lincoln Way of the past may not have been powered by wind and solar, but the orchards, livestock, and community gathering places of the past could provide direct inspiration to a thriving community of the future.

Vacant houses along Lincoln Way, just before demolition. Photo was taken Summer 2017.

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