Q&A with the Progressive History of Pittsburgh

I think Black History Month (February) and Women’s History Month (March) are both critical resources to help each of us learn more about the experiences and contributions of our neighbors. One tool that I’ve come to rely upon is the Progressive History of Pittsburgh project, a Facebook page that explores social justice history in this region with well-researched status updates.

I interviewed the historian behind the project, Anne E. Lynch, for a column in the Pittsburgh Current. The Q&A itself was so robust and interesting (and long) that I opted to publish the unedited version here for those of who are interested in the topic. You should be interested – read on to discover why. Check out the latest edition of The Current for my take on all things progressive and historical.

Please describe the Progressive History of Pittsburgh project. The Progressive History of Pittsburgh is primarily a Facebook page dedicated to educating those in our region of just how many historic “firsts” and events have happened in the Southwestern Pennsylvania region.

What makes some historical events progressive? Is that different than social justice history? I use “progressive” and “social justice” history interchangeably.  It’s also “people’s history,” as made popular by Howard Zinn. 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).  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.

What inspired you to launch the project?  The City of Pittsburgh announced that it would be celebrating its 250th birthday in 2008.  I realized immediately that they would talk about the dead, European-descended men who “founded” the city, but would ignore the indigenous populations who were here first, the women, the African Americans, and basically any and all people who weren’t white males.  I suggested to my Foundation’s board of directors that I use my history degree and put together a short newsletter, outlining some of the people and events that wouldn’t be covered by the official Pittsburgh celebrations. One year of research, and a “short” newsletter became a 24-page document!  But then I was hooked, and kept researching. More came to the surface, and in January of 2014 TRCF released a 100-page spiral-bound booklet, On This Day in Pittsburgh’s Progressive History.  But again, research turned up even more, and of course history is not static, so about a year later (2015) I started the Facebook page, as a dynamic way to both highlight the materials already found, and include newer discoveries.

How do you curate new content? As a history geek, it’s impossible for me to turn off the research side of my brain.  I see a tiny snippet of history, and start digging. The Facebook pages Pittsburgh Mayors, The Homewood Cemetery Historical Fund, and The Odd, Mysterious & Fascinating History of Pittsburgh are particularly great pages to follow, and they have all sent me down research rabbit holes.  But even something a friend posts can be fodder. For example, a friend posted about a researcher in Johnstown looking for photos and other evidence of Johnstown being a “sundown” town.  I had never heard of “sundown” towns, and so I looked them up. As it turns out, Johnstown was not the only one we had here in Southwestern PA, and some of them had unofficial policies in place until the 1980s.  One little Facebook post, or mention in a news article, a factoid mentioned in a talk, and I’m off.

View of Pittsburgh
Photo Credit: Anne E. Lynch

Has anyone suggested or submitted something that you could not accept? At this point, the only submissions that I have not accepted are ones for which I cannot find corroborating evidence.  I want to be able to back up any claims with at least one outside source. Given the nature of people’s history being suppressed, though, this can be difficult to find sometimes.  Those items are set aside, and when I have the time, I go back to researching the claims.

How do you define Pittsburgh geographically for this project? I use Southwestern Pennsylvania as the greater Pittsburgh area.  This includes the following counties: Allegheny, Armstrong, Beaver, Butler, Cambria, Fayette, Greene, Indiana, Lawrence, Somerset, Washington, and Westmoreland.

I read this almost every day (or catch up every few days) and I can honestly say that I never learned most of these things in my Pittsburgh suburban education. And a lot of the information would probably have captured my imagination as a teenager. I don’t think we ever got past the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in any history class. Why are we not studying modern history? History is not part of standardized testing, so it and the other social sciences tend to be the first classes cut when schools need testing periods.  The original idea for the book On This Day in Pittsburgh’s Progressive History was to get it into classrooms in Pittsburgh, so teachers could put up the day’s events if nothing else just for the students to see, and preferably to have a discussion about how they are relevant today.  I wanted to be available to go into schools to talk about our region’s exciting history, and what we can take from history and apply to today. However, the Foundation has such a small staff (I was one of two at the time of the book’s release, and the only one now), that promoting the book was a low priority.  It’s something I’d still love to do. I want to host talks to discuss the history and how it’s still relevant. I foresee writing another book, this one going into detail behind the people and events that are part of our progressive history, and that gives a fuller sense of the movements behind them.

The internet has really been an asset in teaching modern history.  We as humans are more connected than ever, and have access to literally a world’s worth of news and events.  History is not static – history is “made” every day – and with the internet, we can see it in action (sometimes in real time).  We could get into a whole discussion on school curricula, from the focus on pre-1900 history, the rote memorization of dates, and erasing the history from non-“Western” countries, but that’s a whole other tangent. The way history is taught in schools is usually boring.  I’d love to see an overhaul of history curricula that makes it dynamic, relevant, and interesting, which it is.

(Side note: and that’s really ALL people remember about World War I!  My roommate and I were talking about that just the other day.  She said she remembered that the Archduke was assassinated, and that started the war.  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.)

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I recall seeing a lot of posts about labor history, racial justice history, feminist history, and LGBTQ history. What other sorts of historical events would you like to capture?  Disability rights history and environmental history are also topics I try to cover, but honestly any history that bucks the standard “dead white European male” history is fair game.  I also include alternative narratives to things like military history – rather than accepting one side as “good” and the other as “bad,” examining the background of why battles happened and their ramifications for all involved.

It is equally important to note the anti-progressive history of our region.  We have had people die in hate crimes here in the city. We have had cross burnings and other hate-fueled vandalism.  We’ve always had an active Klan presence in the region. We’ve had governments and corporations infiltrate and spy on activist groups and labor unions.  We need to acknowledge that hate does happen here. When we ignore the evil history, we are less vigilant. We pay less attention to what’s happening. And so, when it comes up again, we are shocked.  “How could this happen here?” Well, it already has, and will again unless we take steps to change both how we react and the systems that allowed it in the first place. Ignoring history and why things are the way they are is dangerous, as it allows toxic systems and situations to remain in place.

How can people submit?  Either post directly on the page, or message the page, or email me at alynch@threeriverscommunity.org

What would you like to see happen with this archive? As much as I want to write another book, I know that as soon as it comes out, more history will surface.  This is why I like using the internet as a forum for education, as it can be updated in real time. I have so much research on paper, though, for which I’d like to find a home.  I know there are some plans in the works via the Battle of Homestead Foundation to create a local labor history center, so if that progresses, it could potentially house the research for others to explore.  A part of me wants to start offering radical history tours of Pittsburgh, but I’m not sure I have the time or energy to pitch that to companies already hosting Pittsburgh tours, and I’m not sure how amenable they’d be.

Where do we look for current information on social justice and progressive current events?  Both PublicSource and The Pittsburgh Current are doing good jobs of covering today’s progressive struggles.  The Facebook pages I mentioned above are also good resources, though they do tend to focus less on modern history.  Three Rivers Community Foundation maintains a very large calendar of progressive, social justice events happening in the region on our website.

Can you identify three or four historical events in your archive that everyone should know? 

  1. Jane Grey Swisshelm is quite possibly my favorite historical Pittsburgher.  There are two neighborhoods named after her (Swisshelm Park and Swissvale). She was an abolitionist, feminist, and journalist.  She’s amazing.
  2. Martin Delany is another figure we should be proud to claim.  While not born here, this Black abolitionist made his home here, and was another remarkable person.
  3. The vast amount of labor history that we have here.  At least 10 labor unions were founded here, we were home to many labor leaders, and many of the issues that labor took on (hours in a work day, child labor) were born here.  Pittsburgh is a union town – quite literally!

Do you need volunteers? As it’s pretty much just an archive, I don’t really need volunteers except for people to send in snippets of history they find!

You use a calendar “On This Day In History” format which is effective for highlighting individual events. How could the project connect the dots? The original, 24-page newsletter went chronologically, which made it easier to connect the dots, as you could see the progression of events.  Because of the intent to have it used in classrooms, I switched to a calendar format for the book. Both have their strengths and drawbacks. Even now, with a dynamic format like Facebook, I often leave things out because I only have a year (not even a month) when a piece of history occurred, and I haven’t figured out how best to post those.  My current hope is to piece everything together into an actual, published book, which examines the backgrounds, crossovers, and intersections of events and people.

What did I miss? (Shameless plug): Copies of On This Day in Pittsburgh’s Progressive History are available via Three Rivers Community Foundation for a donation of $10 or more.  Email (alynch@threeriverscommunity.org)or call the office (412-243-9250) to get your copy.

If you want a speaker for your group or class, I am available and would be happy to do so!  I can talk about specific events, specific movements, specific people, and/or tying our history to today.

Thank you, Anne.


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