Pittsburgh is a city steeped in sports history. The Steel City’s sports teams—the Steelers (football), Pirates (baseball), and Penguins (hockey)—have international followings. Monuments and museums throughout the city celebrate Pittsburgh’s sports history. In the early twentieth century, Pittsburgh became a Mecca for Black baseball with two pathbreaking Negro Leagues teams, the Pittsburgh Crawfords and the Homestead Grays. Pittsburgh also is a city plagued by erasures and racial bias with regard to its commemorative landscapes. Once dubbed the “Mississippi of the North,” Pittsburgh has a long history of racial segregation and violence. That segregation extends to historiography and the historic sites preserved to tell the city’s story. The city’s sports history and erasure intersect in a vacant, two-acre lot in Pittsburgh’s Hill District.
The Hill District has ties to Black history dating to the early nineteenth century. An early wave of formerly enslaved people settled there before 1850, when the Fugitive Slave Act created a break in Black settlement in Pittsburgh. By the first decades of the twentieth century, the Hill had become a congested immigrant neighborhood filled with Southern Black migrants, Eastern European Jews, Italians, and migrants from the Levant. Despite notable efforts to preserve and rehabilitate a small number of sites associated with big names in Black history, much of the Hill’s Black history sites (and the city’s) have been destroyed by urban renewal, disinvestment, and gentrification. Because of playwright August Wilson’s body of work documenting twentieth-century life there and the widespread attention focused on the neighborhood’s history of displacement, Pittsburgh’s Hill District is one of the nation’s best known Black neighborhoods alongside New York’s Harlem, Chicago’s Bronzeville, and Atlanta’s Old Fourth Ward.
Three Brothers from Barbados Build a Ballpark
In 1920 Alexander McDonald Williams rented two lots in Pittsburgh’s Hill District and set about building a professional sports stadium and entertainment venue. The Barbados native had owned a billiards hall in the basement of a theater at the intersection of Fullerton Street and Wylie Avenue. Dubbed the Crossroads of the World after World War II, for decades the intersection was a congested entertainment district with restaurants, nightclubs, and theaters as well as brothels, speakeasies, and gambling dens. “It was greater than Seventh and T [streets]” in Washington, DC, one visitor told a Pittsburgh Courier columnist in 1954. “What made this crossing so attractive was that it was surrounded with everything that any wild night-lifer wanted.”