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Pittsburgh was a sanctuary city 150 years ago. Now racism is a public health crisis

Pittsburgh Tribune-Review - 1/20/2020

Jan. 20--Pittsburgh is a city of contradictions when it comes to race relations.

In its infancy, Pittsburgh was a hotbed of abolitionism, and residents provided safe harbor to blacks fleeing slavery in the South.

Yet 150 years later, a report on racial disparity in the city prompted two city councilmen to push through legislation that declared racism a public health crisis.

"I look at Pittsburgh as a sanctuary city at that time," Sarah Jameela Martin of Knoxville, a retired city school teacher who has produced a film documenting Pittsburgh'sUnderground Railroad, said of the city in the mid- to late-1800s. "We were more tolerant. We had more black businesses in town at that time than we have now. We had activism in the city unlike what we have now."

William Marshall of the Hill District noted that the first parade celebrating the 15th Amendment giving black men the right to vote happened in Pittsburgh in 1870 and drew 5,000 blacks and whites from across the region. Marshall organizes Pittsburgh's Juneteenth & Black Music Festival, which runs from June 19-28, and said this year one of the events would be a reenactment of that parade.

Juneteenth celebrates the emancipation of slaves.

"People worked together," Marshall said. "They fought together. They did business together. Black ingenuity and economic diversity were high at that time. It is very contradictory now."

Pittsburgh's Gender Equity Commission last year released a report that documented inequalities across gender and race in Pittsburgh.

It found among other things that black women in Pittsburgh are more likely to have a baby die during pregnancy than those in most other cities in the country, that more than one-third of black women live in poverty and are five times more likely to be poor than white men, and that black men are more segregated to certain jobs, compared to Pittsburgh's white male workforce.

The report prompted the city's two black councilmen -- R. Daniel Lavelle of the Hill District and Ricky Burgess of North Point Breeze -- to push through legislation creating an All-In Cities Leadership Forum to recommend actions to address racism and declaring racism a public health crisis in the city. Burgess last week introduced a bill that would prohibit hateful activity among the city workforce.

Lavelle, noting the Martin Luther King Day holiday, said King advocated for social justice reform but turned to economic reform in his later years. King was assassinated April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tenn., while advocating for higher wages for sanitation workers.

"What got him killed is what we're now beginning to really talk about, which is the economics of our community and changing around the actual economics of our country and our community and how resources are being spread out," Lavelle said.

Lavelle and Burgess said they would appoint the leadership forum this year, and members would offer recommendations to address inequality in housing, health care, business opportunities, education and the criminal justice system, among other things.

The forum, they said, would also seek funding from corporations and nonprofit organizations to realize its goals. Burgess said he expects the city will also contribute.

"We expect them to come up with recommendations in partnership with the mayor," Burgess said. "Some of those recommendations will go to us. Some of those recommendations will go to corporate America, like the Rooney Rule. I think there will be a variety of recommendations that we will turn into policy and be active about."

Richard A. Stewart Jr., president of the Pittsburgh chapter of the NAACP, said conditions in Pittsburgh and Allegheny County have improved over the years, but blacks continue to face daily discrimination.

"Dr. King's vision is just moving slow," he said. "It's not moving at a pace that I think it should be moving, which would be totally inclusive of everyone that's here in this city."

Bob Bauder is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Bob at 412-564-3080, [email protected] or via Twitter .

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