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CHARLES “TEENIE” HARRIS, Linda Starkey handing bouquet to Shirley Chisholm, surrounded by Delta Sigma Theta sorority members, including Christine Jones Fulwiley on left, Vivian Mason Lane, and Marcia Davis, in Loendi Club, March 5, 1972 (black and white: Kodak Safety Film). | Carnegie Museum of Art, Heinz Family Fund

 

FOR GENERATIONS, AFRICAN AMERICANS in cities across the country relied on local black-owned newspapers to provide coverage of their communities and perspective on national news. Photography played a major role in telling the stories and bringing the African American community to life. For more than four decades, photojournalist Charles “Teenie” Harris (1908-1998) documented the latest happenings and major events in the historic Hill District for the Pittsburgh Courier.

charles-teenie-harris-self-portrait-in-studio-circa-1940-carnegie-museum-of-artThe Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh acquired nearly 80,000 images by Harris (shown in a self-portrait at right) in 2001. His career as a photojournalist began as America was emerging from the Great Depression and lasted throughout the Civil Rights and Black Power movements.

According to the museum, the archive is the largest collection of photographs in the world documenting a single black community. Harris concentrated on the city’s Hill District, a storied black neighborhood. His images provide a comprehensive record of the black urban experience in Pittsburgh, capturing the culture, spirit and humanity of the community. The archive depicts celebrations, historic events, candid everyday moments, and institutions central to the African American community, including churches, schools, fraternities, sororities and other civic organizations.

According to the museum, it is the largest collection of photographs in the world documenting a single black community. Harris’s images provide a comprehensive record of the black urban experience in Pittsburgh, capturing the culture, spirit and humanity of the community.

The legendary Pittsburgh-born photographer’s first image appeared in the Pittsburgh Courier in May 1938. Harris work was published in the newspaper for more than 40 years. He retired from the black-owned publication, now called the New Pittsburgh Courier, in 1976, and it is believed his last photo was printed in the newspaper in 1983.

His photographs of Owl Cab, a black-owned, segregation-era taxi company founded because yellow cabs wouldn’t serve African Americans, document how civil rights issues affected the community. Harris was also dispatched to breaking news events beyond the city such as the 1943 race riots in Detroit. He also trained his lens on important local figures, artist Mozelle Thompson, the Black Panthers, black police officers, and local elected officials, among them.

 

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CHARLES “TEENIE” HARRIS, Seated, from left, James F. Clarke, Thelma Lovette, Theodore “Ted” Brown, K. Leroy Irvis, and William Finch; standing: Leroy Wilcox and William E. “Bill” Miller, gathered during primary election campaign, April 1958 (black and white: Kodak Safety Film). | Carnegie Museum of Art, Heinz Family Fund

 

A NEW EXHIBITION AT THE CARNEGIE MUSEUM demonstrates how Harris became an eyewitness to local and national politics and pioneering political change. “Teenie Harris Photographs: Elections” is co-curated by three native sons with unique connections to the city—Harold Hayes, a former local TV news anchor; actor and political activist Michael Keaton who grew up in the Pittsburgh area; and Councilman R. Daniel Lavelle, who currently represents the Hill District.

The Harris collection reflects Lavelle’s family history and generational ties to the community, including an image from his grandparents’ wedding and a photo of Thelma Lovette, a political trailblazer in the city who gave her blessing when he first decided to run for the city council in 2009.

Over the years, Harris captured voters, political rallies, and activists fighting for the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Many national figures visited the Hill District. The images document Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm in the neighborhood (four years before she was the first woman and first African American to run for president), and Harry Truman, Richard Nixon, and John F. Kennedy, campaigning in the district.

Marimba Milliones, president and CEO of the Hill Community Development Corporation, is drawn to a 1956 image of Truman stumping for Adlai Stevenson in the heart of the Hill district, at the intersection of Centre Avenue and Dinwiddie Street, surrounded by a dense crowd.

“When we look at this picture, it shows the critical mass of people that were involved and engaged in political activity at that time. There’s clearly an understanding of how powerful one’s vote is in this picture. It shows a level of concern and interest and excitement,” Milliones says in a video about the exhibition. “I love the fact that people were engaged in their local politics and national politics.”

“When we look at this picture, it shows the critical mass of people that were involved and engaged in political activity at that time. There’s clearly an understanding of how powerful one’s vote is in this picture. It shows a level of concern and interest and excitement.”
— Marimba Milliones, Hill Community Development Corporation

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CHARLES “TEENIE” HARRIS, Harry Truman campaigning for presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson and running mate Estes Kefauver, at intersection of Centre Avenue and Dinwiddie Street, Hill District, October 1956 (black and white: Kodak Safety Film). | Carnegie Museum of Art, Heinz Family Fund

 

In a statement about the exhibition, Keaton said: “I grew up and got my start in Pittsburgh during a time when Teenie Harris was active, and he is one of my favorite photographers. What I find most impressive is the way he worked as an insider, documenting the communities around him, particularly the political struggles of African Americans during the ‘60s and ‘70s. Voting rights gains made during this time are under threat across the country, so I jumped at the opportunity to look at this critical issue through Teenie’s lens.”

A huge 1962 image of K. Leroy Irvis, the first African American speaker of the house of Pennsylvania, standing in a voting booth, covers a wall at the end of the exhibition. This particular Harris image really resonates for Hayes, the former news anchor.

“He really left his mark. He got in it in the late 1950s and he had so many successive terms in the Pennsylvania legislature and, you know how Pennsylvania politics are, that isn’t easy to do and then to rise to speaker. That’s a great image…,” says Hayes, in the video.

“Particularly in the African American community, you have to think about what it took to get the right to vote and I think a lot of people take that for granted. You look at K. Leroy Irvis casting a vote and that should remind the African American community how incumbent it is to vote. Think about what it took to be able to have the right to vote and how many people marched, and how many people were jailed, and how many people died for that right and you can’t really take that for granted in all good consciousness. So I hope that the exhibition particularly a picture like this reminds everybody, particularly this year, in an election year, it is your duty as a citizen to vote. Make your voice heard.” CT

 

“Teenie Harris Photographs: Elections” is on view through Dec. 5, 2016.

 

WATCH A VIDEO about the exhibition featuring the curators discussing the significance of his images.

 

BOOKSHELF
Featuring an introduction by photographer, curator, and professor Deborah Willis, “Teenie Harris, Photographer: Image, Memory, History” was published in cooperation with the Carnegie Museum of Art. “One Shot Harris: The Photographs of Charles ‘Teenie’ Harris,” was released the year after the museum acquired the Harris archive and includes an essay by Stanley Crouch. A brief volume, “Spirit of a community: The photographs of Charles ‘Teenie’ Harris: An Exhibition,” accompanied the inaugural Harris exhibition at the museum and features 30 photographs.

 

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CHARLES “TEENIE” HARRIS, K. Leroy Irvis, the first African American speaker of the house of Pennsylvania, standing in voting booth for 15th District of Fifth Ward, Pittsburgh, November 1962 (black and white: Kodak Safety Film). | Carnegie Museum of Art, Heinz Family Fund

 

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CHARLES “TEENIE” HARRIS, Two men, including police officer Sidney Wilson on right, assisting centenarian Duke Finch at a polling place, c. 1945-1950 (black and white: Kodak Safety Film). | Carnegie Museum of Art, Heinz Family Fund

 

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CHARLES “TEENIE” HARRIS, 10 men standing behind banquet table with food and miniature
flags, in front of banner inscribed ‘Republicans promised all this but Roosevelt really delivered ‘Come and get it’, c. 1944 (black and white: Agfa Safety Film). | Carnegie Museum of Art, Heinz Family Fund

 

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CHARLES “TEENIE” HARRIS, Vice President Richard Nixon and Pat Nixon greeting crowd from car, including Harold Irwin, Centre Avenue, Hill District, October 1960 (black and white: Kodak Safety Film). | Carnegie Museum of Art, Heinz Family Fund