National Negro Opera House

“Opera is no longer a luxury, Opera is a vital necessity. It belongs to the people. We all must move and keep moving.

Yours in the cause of good music,

Mary Cardwell Dawson”

The National Negro Opera House

7101 Apple Street, Homewood

Revitalization Project: The Western Pennsylvania Historical Society

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A Rich History at 7101 Apple Street

The National Negro Opera House was once a grand home for artists, musicians, and students in the Homewood neighborhood of Pittsburgh. The beautiful building has been abandoned now for some 40 years, and stands as a monument to the vibrant musical history that sang through the streets of black communities in this city. The opera house received national historical monument status in 2007 when it was finally recognized for the vital role it served in the black community and in musical history.

Going through the history of the home, owned by legendary numbers runner Woogie Harris, this guidebook will explore the relevance of the opera house through social and special theory. The Young Preservationists Association of Pittsburgh is launching efforts to revitalize the Apple Street residence, so it is more important now than ever to discover what secrets lie in the floorboards here, and how the space has effected communities over its lifetime.

Welcome to the National Negro Opera House!

What if the National Negro Opera walls could talk?

In his writing, Edward Soja speaks about how spaces can have importance as a result of its “historicality” and what Soja calls thirdspace, which is “combining the real and the imagined, things and thought on equal terms…these lived spaces of representation are thus the terrain for the generation of ‘counterspaces,’ spaces of resistance of the dominant order arising precisely from their subordinate, peripheral or marginalized positioning.” I’ve used this quote as inspiration for my poem “The Walls Tale.” During my research of the National Negro Opera House I came across a video of its former occupants. Many of them told great stories about the house that brought the place back to life in the viewer’s mind. Though the Opera House is worn and torn, it nonetheless lives through its “historicality.” As the former occupants said: “if only the walls could talk.” Thus, I thought I would address the question of “what if the walls did talk?”

I seek to answer this question through my poetry to help tell the tale of what the walls once saw. The walls have housed so many stories that should be told. My poetry serves to be a glimpse into gaining greater understanding of the “lived” aspects that Soja speaks of. I believe that poetry, a very fluid and creative approach to history can help inspire readers to see the house for more than what it is today.

During my research I found out that the National Negro Opera House was the location of the first Black National Opera Company in the nation. I also found out that great athletes like Roberto Clemente lived in the house. And, that one night ownership of the Steelers was bet on. There are so many stories that the walls of this house could tell. And though I may not have seen many of these occurrences, I sought to recreate them through my poetry and to further emphasize the importance of preserving such a historically significant landmark.

The history of the National Negro Opera House begun when Woogie Harris, the brother of famous photographer Teenie Harris, bought the house in the 1930s. At the time, the house was located in Homewood, a neighborhood that was for the most part middle class and white and white. By 1941, the house on Apple ave. became the headquarters and audition studios of the National Negro Opera Company. The company became hugely successful following a performance of Aida at the Syria Mosque. The Syria Mosque was torn down in 1994, due to a widely disputed deal with UPMC that resulted in the arrest of Former Senator Jim Ferlo. Though the situation of the Syria Mosque is different than that of the National Negro Opera House I can’t help but draw parallels. The Syria Mosque was demolished despite historically relevant performances. The acoustics of the venue have been described to me as “impeccable” and “amazing” with looks of nostalgia and remorse. Such sentiments mirror much of what the former occupants of the National Negro Opera House feel. In a current state of disrepair, the National Negro Opera House once rang with songs of its own.

Despite national acclaim, Mary Cardwell Dawson suffered from financial insecurity. The Pittsburgh Courier at the time lamented about this when it wrote: “How easy it would be for one of the many foundations in Pittsburgh to underwrite such an effort as hers with a yearly grant of $10,000. Such a grant would allow her to eradicate quickly all imperfections. This would be a cheap price to pay, for a few years, for what Mrs. Dawson can contribute to our cultural renaissance.”

Though such a yearly grant was never awarded to Mrs. Dawson, the Young Preservationists Association of Pittsburgh hopes to further recognize Mrs. Dawson’s contributions to Pittsburgh’s “cultural renaissance.”  Dan Holland the founder of the Young Preservationists Association of Pittsburgh (YPA) says that the National Negro Opera House is among many other structures of Pittsburgh’s black history that have been disappearing at alarming rates. In order to address this issue the YPA hopes to raise funds and turn the house into a community center. The YPA hopes that the house will once again be filled with the same artistic spirit that coursed through its halls when Mrs. Dawson’s National Negro Opera Company was headquartered on Apple ave.

 

The Wall’s Tale

If only the walls could talk, they said.
Years and years later
the house had withered away from the wear and tear of the dark steel
dusted air.
The house,
a beacon of (an underrepresented)
black culture,
Had grown tired and weary.
The rain washed its shutters shy.
The wind had weathered its windows.
And the people had forgotten
Of the house
With a tale to tell.

The walls came up in 1908
But the Numbers man
Knocked the fourth wall down
in ‘41
The house was big
On a hill it sat
On the top people sang
On the bottom the dimes piled
The nickles shook
And called the people
in.

People knew Woogie Harris
He played the numbers
Dimes stacked to touch the tip
Of the tiles
At the tip of the roof
Numbers would bring
The crowds in
Bets were placed
all in good game.

But one evening the game got funny
Black and Yellow made it to the table
And Rooney wanted to bet
Woogie was a good man
He’d help a friend out
He’d keep a game going
He’d keep the story rolling
Till the walls could hear

But Woogie knew that luck
Was whimsy
“Take another turn–on me.”
The walls listened closely
Rooney leaned in
The numbers rattled
The men crawled closer
The whispers got louder
Till the numbers
turned the nickel
Black and Yellow


In the Mosque from Syria
A woman once sung
To Aida
The crowd fell in love
With the Nubian princess

In the Mosque
The notes of art
Soared into the acoustic nooks
The walls pushed their roots firmly into the earth
And grew out with each note

The staccato of the drum roll
Lined the streets
The roots held firm
In anticipation of a coda
But was met with a double
Bar line

The roots were pulled
To sow seeds of gravel
The lines were drawn
The carriages were parked
The home of good song
Was silenced

Till 1962 the walls stood up for Mary
They hugged her company in
The walls listened
To the the tunes that turned
To the dimes that danced

The walls watched
The walls wept
When the songs grew silent
And the dances grew dim.

The walls stood tall
They crept closer
Slowly and slowly

They stood
strong,
firm.
For as long as they could
They stood

But the walls wept
As the songs grew silent
And the only singing it heard–
Came from the wind
That whistled the
wood till it was as thin
As thinned gin.

The walls droop down to the ground
The trees have grown over
The racoon has taken shelter
And the house has become historic
Though some may say it’s prehistoric

But the walls watch and wait
After its shutters were shunned
Its windows wilted
After Woogie grew daisies
And Rooney grew rich
But the walls will wait

On 7101 Apple street
A home in Homewood
The Queen Annne-style house
Stood once more
Inside children played music
Brushstrokes of color
Painted the walls

Soja would smile
To see the lived
Come back to the house
Of history

Soja once spoke of
combining
Real and imagined things–
Thought on equal terms
Lived spaces
Representation
Terrain for generation
Of Counterspaces

The Syria Mosque has fallen
The National Negro Opera House
Remains wilted
The real and the Imagined can come
On equal terms
In a lived space
To represent
Once more
A Terrain for a generation
Of Counterspaces

 

Music in Black Pittsburgh: Reclaiming a Community

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The National Negro Opera House stands as a monument to the role of music in the creation of a unified and strong black culture here in Pittsburgh. The opera company was founded by a woman named Mary Cardwell Dawson and performed all over the country as the most well known black opera company in history. Dawson, A graduate of the New England Conservatory, she was unable to integrate into the white opera scene and shifted her efforts to teaching the next generation of black musicians and singers who would one day break these racial barriers. She was a fearless and strong leader in the black musical community, serving as president of the National Organization of Negro Musicians and directing a nationally recognized choir that preformed at the World’s Fair in New York City among other prestigious venues. Her role in the community teaching young people to play classical music laid the groundwork for Pittsburgh to be one of the Jazz capitals in the United States. She provided accessible and affordable classical training to young black musicians who otherwise would not have had access to this elitist genre, and formed a culture in black Pittsburgh centered on opera and classical music. This classical music training created stars like Ahmed Jamal and Napoleon Reed from Dawson’s humble beginnings.

The music scene quickly became the glue that held this community together and empowered them both as individuals and as a cohesive neighborhood. The National Negro Opera Company’s first production, Aida, performed in 1941 at the Syrian Mosque in Oakland, had a storyline relevant to the struggle of the black community. The opera takes place in Egypt where a Nubian princess, Aida, is being held a slave. She and Radamès, an Egyptian military commander, fall in love and he ends up being killed by his own people in order to save her life. The production has strong themes of anti-slavery, humanity and equality, and in its powerful musical numbers feels like a call to action for both the oppressed body and their oppressors. This show went on to be performed in Chicago and New York City and the cultural influence of this type of art and media during the early years of the Civil Rights movement cannot be overlooked. Narratives like this one inspired leaders to take a stand against injustices in their own cities, and Pittsburgh was no exception.

Another way in which music empowered this community was much more literal. Woogie Harris, brother of famous photographer Teenie Harris, was an influential and trusted community leader who earned his living through music venues among other ventures. He was one of runners of the numbers, an informal lottery game popular in Pittsburgh’s black and white communities alike. He also was affiliated with Gus Greenle, the owner of the Homestead Greys negro league team based in Pittsburgh’s East End. Having earned his money though music and then pouring it back into building up pastimes to encourage community engagement, Woogie Harris truly used music to build his neighborhood up.

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Woogie Harris was also the owner of the National Negro Opera House for its years in use by Mary Cardwell Dawson as a music school. Harris rented her the top section of the house, and used the rest to house visiting black musicians from all over the country. At a time when white people began to develop a love for jazz but still wouldn’t dare occupy the same hotels as their black entertainers, the Apple street house was a haven for these talented travelers. Here, they could be treated like the stars they were, walk down a grand staircase, enjoy a nice meal, and mingle with other artists.

When we think about Soja’s theory on Thirdspace, the National Negro Opera House served as much more than the sum of its parts. The house stood proudly on Apple Street as a commemoration to all that had been created by and for black musicians here in Pittsburgh. Inside, it made famous black musicians feel like the royalty they were at a time when they were not treated that way in the white world. And upstairs, young musicians got their classical training from Mary Caldwell Dawson and were empowered through music. The condition the Opera House stand in now is problematic, but offers an opportunity for this rich history to come alive again.

The YPA is leading a fundraising project which aims to restore the National Negro Opera House to its original beauty in the hopes that it will continue to be a place where young people can come to learn and empower each other. At the peak of the Opera House’s use in the 1960’s, the black community in Pittsburgh was self-reliant, vibrant, cohesive, and healthy. Color lines drawn across many aspects of city life have led to a different narrative playing out for these communities today, and that degradation can be seen mirrored in the dilapidated state of the opera house.

The theory of loose parts states that “in any environment, both the degree of inventiveness and creativity, and the possibility of discovery, are directly proportional to the number and kind of variables in it;” this leads to acceptance of the lie that “creativity is for the gifted few: the rest of us are compelled to live in environments constructed by the gifted few.” When we look at a project like the restoration of the Apple street house, there is an incredible opportunity for the community to take part in the recovery of their own history, and the reclamation of the loose parts that make up their neighborhood. Through this approach, neighbors could work together to build a new center for the education of their children and grandchildren, commemorating the rich history of black Pittsburgh through music.

 

Works Cited:

Glasco, Laurence Admiral, and Federal Writers’ Project (Pa.). The WPA History of the Negro in Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2004. Web.

Hamill, Sean. “Two Decades Later, Razing of Syria Mosque Still a Sore Topic.” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Mar. 2016.

Jones, Diana Nelson. “Preservationists Hope Plaque Is First Step toward Rebirth of Storied Homewood House.” 2 May 2007. Web. 16 April. 2016.

Jones, Diana Nelson. “An Irrepressible Voice.” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. N.p., 1 Aug. 1999. Web. 4 Mar. 2016. <http://old.post-gazette.com/magazine/19990801opera1.asp&gt;.

Paradise, Jack L. “Mosque Editorial Triply Wrong.” Letter to the Editor. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. July, 11, 1991.

Ruck, Rob. Sandlot Seasons: Sport in Black Pittsburgh. Illini Books ed. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993. Web.

Soja, Edward. Thirdspace: Journeys to Lost Angeles and Other Real-and-Imagined Places. Cambridge MA: Blackwell Publishing Inc., 1996. 68. Should you use footnotes (and MLA is weird and prefers in text citations,

Spears, Charles. “La Julia Rhea Gets Singular Recognition.” Pittsburgh Courier 30 Oct. 1937: 9. Print. 2

“Syria Mosque.” Pittsburgh Music History. N.p., n.d. Web. 4 Mar. 2016. <https://sites.google.com/site/pittsburghmusichistory/pittsburgh-music-story/venues/syria-mosque&gt;.

The National Negro Opera Company Collection 69.1019 (1993): 36. Special Collections in the Music Division of the Library of Congress. Web.

Trotter, Joe W., and Day, Jared N.. Race and Renaissance : African Americans in Pittsburgh since World War II. Pittsburgh, PA, USA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2010. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 13 March 2016.

Verdi, Giuseppe, and Antonio Ghislanzoni. Aida: An Opera, in Four Acts. New York: C.E. Burden, 1900. Web.

 

 

 

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