Charles “Teenie” Harris is best known for his photographs documenting African-American life in mid-20th century Pittsburgh. But an exhibit that opened last week at the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh tells a broader story, one which expands beyond the African-American community, both thematically and visually.
“Through the Lens of Teenie Harris: Activism & Spiritual Resistance, 1940-1970,” showcases a large number of Harris photographs, centered around the theme of activism and focusing on three topics: African-Americans during World War II; Jewish women’s involvement in reform in the 1950s and 1960s; and spiritual resistance during the Civil Rights era.
“Our theme this year at the Holocaust Center is ‘spiritual resistance,’” noted Christina Sahovey, operations and outreach coordinator of the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh and curator of the exhibit, adding that students participating in this year’s Waldman International Arts & Writing Competition created artwork, films and writings focusing on that theme.
Harris was born in Pittsburgh in 1908. He grew up on Wylie Avenue in the Hill District and culminated his formal education at the end of eighth grade at the Watt School. He began his working life as a “numbers runner” and then worked as a chauffeur. In 1937, he set up his first photography studio in the Hill District. When that studio closed in 1953, he began operating his darkroom out of his family’s home in Homewood. The Pittsburgh Courier hired Harris as a staff photographer in 1941, and he worked for that newspaper until the mid-1970s; he also continued to freelance until at least 1983. He died in 1998, at the age of 89.
The Carnegie Museum of Art acquired the entire Teenie Harris Archive — approximately 80,000 images — from the photographer’s estate in 2001.
Almost all the photos in the Holocaust Center exhibit were shot in Pittsburgh, according to Sahovey, who conceived of the show after seeing Instagram posts from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum showing photos of African-Americans during the Holocaust.
“I met with the Teenie Harris archivist at the Carnegie Museum of Art and told her my idea of having an exhibit of his photos at the Holocaust Center, and she loved it,” said Sahovey, who formerly worked with the Teenie Harris Archives as a special projects assistant at the Carnegie Museum of Art.
The exhibit is arranged both chronologically and thematically and begins with images shot during World War II, when African-Americans served in segregated units abroad, while supporting the war effort at home.
During the 1940s, Sahovey explained, African-Americans “were often treated better when they were serving overseas and faced discrimination when they came home.”
Many of the photographs in the Holocaust Center exhibit depict African-Americans wearing “their patriotism on their sleeve, hoping to improve their treatment at home,” Sahovey added.
A story from a local concentration camp liberator, William McKinney, is one of the highlights of the exhibit. McKinney’s photograph is accompanied by his heartbreaking description of his encounter with two starving Jewish children who had been forced to watch the Nazis murder their parents.
The participation of local Jewish women in progressive social action causes forms the next portion of the exhibit. Pittsburghers may recognize Florence Reizenstein and Lillian Friedberg, whom Harris photographed in their activist efforts to promote quality education and school integration. Jewish women’s involvement with social justice in the 1950s and 1960s, Sahovey explained, also included helping at-risk women, fair housing and interfaith relations; they often worked alongside black leaders.
“These women often used their prominence and prestige to work for racial equality in the community,” she said, noting Reizenstein’s work with the Urban League to co-found NEED (the Negro Educational Emergency Drive) — which still operates today — to help financially challenged African-American youth to pursue a college education.
The final section of the exhibit includes several Harris photos highlighting interfaith activism for racial equality in the 1960s.
“It was not until mainly Catholic and Jewish leaders became involved that the press seemed to care, frankly, because now there were white people involved,” Sahovey said.
Harris images showing nuns, rabbis and other clergy at the forefront of demonstrations illustrate the point.
“It was not uncommon to have these leaders in the front, so the National Guard would be less likely to attack,” according to Sahovey.
The exhibit opened on May 11 with a talk by Ralph Proctor, a professor of Ethnicity and Diversity Studies at Community College of Allegheny County who recounted his memories of knowing Harris personally. It will run through Aug. 31.
Scheduled events related to the exhibit include a Hill District walking tour highlighting Jewish and black history in the neighborhood on Sunday, July 9 and a panel event at the Carnegie Museum on oral history, which is tentatively scheduled for Aug. 24.
For Holocaust Center hours, or additional information, go to hcpgh.org.
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.