Progressive History of Pittsburgh project fills important historical gaps

By February 19, 2019 No Comments

When I began interviewing historian Anne E. Lynch for this column about progressive history, I shared my long-standing joke about the public education I received from the West Mifflin Area School District: History always comes to a standstill once you reach the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand as the precipitating event for World War I. We’d read about that and the history books would automatically reset to 1492.

“My roommate said she remembered that the Archduke was assassinated, and that started the war,” responded Lynch. “But she couldn’t say where he was killed, by whom, either of their nationalities, and WHY that triggered a world war. It’s that kind of rote memorization that makes history so dreaded in most schools, as opposed to delving deep into the backgrounds and understanding why things happen.”

You probably don’t remember much of anything about 20th-century history. I went off to college with most of my understanding of modern history shaped by television, thanks to shows like M*A*S*H. While the artistic merit of ostensibly exploring the Vietnam War through an 11-year series about the Korean War makes sense, it was very confusing to someone like me born in 1970.  

The same holds true for regional history. It was 2016 before I learned that the man who founded the City of Clairton also built a fully operational plantation just five miles from where I grew up in West Mifflin. Back then, the region was a contested part of Virginia. He built the Kuykendall-Forsyth estate in 1768; the dispute with Virginia was resolved in 1780. Slavery was partially abolished in Pennsylvania in 1780, but did not disappear from the Commonwealth until 1847.

Yet somehow in all my exposure to Clairton both as a kid and an adult, no one ever mentioned that it was founded by a man who enslaved human beings. Or thought that bit of information might be relevant in regional conversations around the Mon Valley.

These educational gaps were hard to overcome and certainly shaped my worldview as a youth and young adult. I felt like a fool in college because I had to self-learn so many things other students knew. Thankfully, we had a robust school library with these wonderful tools called Encyclopedias that were credible and comprehensive. And very much tilted toward the white folx history of America and beyond, but it was a start.

When I stumbled across the Progressive History of Pittsburgh project on Facebook, I was thrilled finally to find information about events that shaped our collective experiences. The page posts On This Day type content about significant progressive historical events and people throughout the Southwestern PA region.

The project was launched by Lynch, historian and now-interim Executive Director of the Three Rivers Community Foundation (TRCF). She was concerned that official Pittsburgh histories laud only the accomplishments of white, cisgender and heterosexul men at the expense of Indigenous residents, women, people of color and others whose contributions to this region deserve acknowledgement. So she began compiling overlooked historical facts about the region.

In 2015, Lynch and TRCF published a 100-page spiral-bound booklet, On This Day in Pittsburgh’s Progressive History and then launched the Facebook page to keep adding new information.

The project uses progressive and social justice history interchangeably in line with Howard Zinn’s concept of a people’s history.

“I look at the history of protests, of actions, of people being “firsts” or near firsts at something (first woman graduate; first Black doctor; etc.), events and people that have had impact greater than just on themselves and their communities (example: Rachel Carson, whose environmental work had a worldwide influence),” explains Lynch. “Then there are journalists who have uncovered injustices, and that work became the basis of new policies (example: Nellie Bly and her uncovering the treatment of women in mental health facilities). But I also like focusing on small acts of resistance, too – things that can show people today that one person can make a difference.”

She relies on historical Pittsburgh resources such as the Pittsburgh Mayors, The Homewood Cemetery Historical Fund and The Odd, Mysterious & Fascinating History of Pittsburgh Facebook pages as well as contemporary sources including PublicSourcePA and the Pittsburgh Current.

Lynch takes care to include anti-progressive events as well. She says, “Ignoring history and why things are the way they are is dangerous, as it allows toxic systems and situations to remain in place.”

The database includes an array of labor history and industrial accidents as well as environmental disasters, examples of racism, sexual violence and other systemic violence.

And that’s where the information about the history of enslavement in this region falls. The Kuykendall-Forsyth-Reed farm is not just a terrible thing to ignore from our long-ago past. The buildings and 6.5 acres of lands are still in operation and listed as historical structures. The property passed out of the original owner’s descendants’ hands in the early 1980’s leaving a legacy of more than 220 years of pure white male cisgender heterosexual privilege. It is ludicrous to think this legacy of what is daintily presented as “gentlemen farming” has not been a formative component of the realities of black and white folx living in this region and part of the conversation about current events in Clairton.

The original idea was for the book to be distributed to classrooms and include discussions with TRCF staff about this history. Staff and time constraints made that difficult, but Lynch hopes that a planned Labor History Center will include this intersectional documentation. She’s also considered offering ‘radical history tours’ of the region. For the time being, she plans to keep the Facebook page content fresh and is always interested in contributions from the public.

Copies of On This Day in Pittsburgh’s Progressive History are available via Three Rivers Community Foundation for a donation of $10 or more.  For more information, 412-243-9250 or alynch@threeriverscommunity.org.


Author’s Note: Read my full interview with Lynch at pghlesbian.com.

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