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Podcast highlights Pittsburgh’s Black history-makers | The Homepage

By Juliet Martinez

"Black History: Closer than you think" focuses on important local stories

From left: An older dark-skinned man with trim black curly hair and glasses sits behind a piano. A dark-skinned woman with shoulder-length curly black hair in a yellow sweater sits on a tall chair and smiles and the man on the left. A dark-skinned man with glasses and a black beret with a yellow stripe wears an olive and green striped shirt and looks at the man behind the piano. Black-framed black-and-white photos adorn the white wall behind them.
Tim Smith (right) interviews Afro-American Music Institute founders Pamela Johnson (center) and James T. Johnson, Jr., Ph.D., (left) for “Black History: Closer Than You Think” podcast episode 3. Screengrab from https://youtu.be/AkiR_arcODc

Pittsburgh has played a significant role in Black history, with jazz legends, sports heroes, literary giants and civil rights activists. Influential Black Pittsburghers have shaped the culture and society of the nation. But how much of this history is known and remembered by the current generations?


That question drives Tim Smith, founder and executive director of Center of Life, a nonprofit organization that provides educational, cultural and leadership opportunities for youth and families in Hazelwood. He has started recording conversations with Black history makers in Pittsburgh, whether they are lifelong Pittsburghers or came from elsewhere but made their contributions here. Four interviews are available on the group's website as episodes of the podcast “Black History: Closer Than You Think.”


The podcast aims to capture these stories before those who have lived them are lost to time. Mr. Smith, an ordained minister and pastor of Keystone Church, has said his work at Center of Life is guided by what he has called his education at the “University of Hazelwood,” where the members of the community are the professors teaching him what needs to be done.


“There's a lot of Black history that is right here in Pittsburgh where people have been first to do different things,” Mr. Smith said. “It's all around us, but we never look at it because we're always looking for that big story.”


The podcast features Black history-makers from Pittsburgh such as the gospel music duo Lamont and Mary Shields; Christine Washington, the first African-American manager at First Federal Savings and Loan in Downtown Pittsburgh; James T. Johnson Jr., Ph.D., and Pamela Johnson, founders of the Afro-American Music Institute in Homewood; and jazz legend and music educator Roger Humphries.


The conversations explore the subjects’ lives and contributions to their field and social change.


“These are people whose shoulders we're standing on,” Mr. Smith said. Future episodes will feature Steeler and Pro Football Hall of Famer Mel Blount, who founded the Mel Blount Youth Home for victims of child abuse and neglect; community activists Homer and Ursula Craig, whose love story stretches from Hazelwood to Germany and back; and Amachi CEO Anna Hollis Kander, whose work focuses on the children and families of incarcerated people.


“We were trying to make the podcasts shorter, but the stories were so compelling,” Mr. Smith said. “We thought, man, we're just going to have to go ahead and let them talk and kind of eat the meat, spit out the bones.”


Center of Life's upcoming Juneteenth celebration focuses on the same theme as the podcast. The free outdoor concert will take place at Hazelwood Green on June 16. The commemoration of the end of slavery in the United States became a federal holiday in 2021. Cultural celebrations of the day elevate the achievements and contributions of Black people throughout history and today.


Mr. Smith said he chose the theme "Black History: Closer Than You Think" for both the podcast and the Juneteenth celebration because too often Black history focuses on the same stories and people.


“Those are generally people from other cities,” Mr. Smith said. “But [the podcast subjects] are all people that we can actually reach out to, right now. They’re people that have impacted history and are making history at the same time.”


The podcast is available on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, YouTube and centeroflife.org, where you can also learn more about the organization’s Juneteenth celebration.


Juliet Martinez is the managing editor of The Homepage.

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