“She died in that house,” Dolores Slater told me in a January 2023 interview. I had asked her about Ada B. Harris, widow of the beloved Pittsburgh numbers banker William “Woogie” Harris, and the house at 7101 Apple St. that historic preservationists have dubbed the “National Negro Opera Company House.”
Slater’s ties to the Harris family go back to the 1930s — her mother, Louise Harris, was the “common-law wife” of Woogie’s older brother George for 12 years. She had been legally married to Harold Slater, whose first wife had been Woogie’s daughter Marion.
There’s no doubt that the Apple Street house is one of Pittsburgh’s most important Black history landmarks. What is in question, however, is how (and by whom) that story is being told.
Slater and other Harris family members have said they have been excluded from the highly publicized efforts to rehabilitate the former Harris home on Apple Street. They have not participated in helping historians develop research questions about the house. Their knowledge was not among the information in a National Register of Historic Places nomination for the house completed last year. Had they been included, the nomination completed by the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation (PHLF) might not have declared that Ada Harris moved out of the house in 1967 after her husband died.
This is the story of how the historic preservation work failed to be inclusive and how it has produced, since 2007, stories about the house and the people who lived there that are detached from historical reality — a “complete farce,” as one woman who worked there as a housekeeper in the 1940s wrote to the PHLF.
Wearing my historian hat, not the typical writer cap that I sport for NEXTpittsburgh, I intervened on behalf of the extended Harris family members. They didn’t ask me to; as a historian who has practiced what is called “people-centered historic preservation,” I felt compelled to act before more junk and exclusionary history found its way to students, journalists and public policymakers.
I reached out to the PHLF and to Jonnet Solomon, the woman who has owned the former Harris house since 2000. I shared concerns related to me by the Harris family and the results of some of my research into Woogie Harris stemming from my work on the history of numbers gambling.
Solomon then asked the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC) to withdraw the application so that it could be corrected. On Feb. 6, the day before the PHMC was set to vote on recommending the nomination to the National Park Service, the agency that oversees the National Register, Solomon emailed me: “We have been removed from the agenda for tomorrow.”
I met Slater in 2021 after being introduced to her daughter by Angela James — another relative — whose mother had been married to Charles “Snotty” Lewis. After breaking up with George Harris in the 1940s, Slater’s mother married Lewis. Louise Harris died in 1960 and my initial contact’s mother then married Lewis. It’s complicated — the Harris family identity is part of the DNA of Pittsburgh’s Black history.
My January 2023 interview with Dolores Slater was one of several oral history interviews that I had done with her. Slater has a unique vantage point because she and her family were active participants in the world that Woogie Harris helped to make: Black Pittsburgh in the mid-20th century. The stories being told in the National Register nomination and elsewhere were their stories, too.
What PHLF is doing
The PHLF is one of several local and national historic preservation organizations involved in fundraising and advocacy efforts to slow the deterioration and restore the 1880s house that Woogie Harris bought in 1930. Other groups include the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Young Preservationists Association of Pittsburgh, which advocated for the inclusion of this historic asset on the National Trust’s 11 Most Endangered List for 2020.
“We have been an advocate of saving that house and restoring it for years. We have been involved in different efforts over the years,” said Karamagi Rujumba, director of education, development and advocacy for PHLF. “We are very involved from a support standpoint of the restoration. But it’s not our project … We are primarily in a support capacity.”
In 2020, PHLF helped to get the house at 7101 Apple St. included in the National Trust’s 11 Most Endangered Places list. The nonprofit also assisted Solomon in retaining architect Milton Ogot and conducted a feasibility study, with a grant secured by the Young Preservationists.
PHLF also wrote a grant application and submitted it to the National Park Service. In 2021, the federal agency gave PHLF $41,378 to complete the National Register nomination and oral history work. It’s all part of what Rujumba describes as advocacy and “educational work” to support Solomon and her project.
What PHLF isn’t doing
Historic preservation has grown far beyond documenting and saving pretty old buildings belonging to wealthy, and mostly, white people. As the field moved toward preserving the buildings tied to ordinary people and more diverse populations, preservationists began incorporating tools like oral history. They also began viewing more critically earlier histories that celebrated the accomplishments of wealthier and whiter people while marginalizing and omitting people of color.
This new “people-centered” historic preservation has been embraced by academics, consultants and national organizations like the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which for more than a decade has campaigned to “tell the full American story.”
Rujumba, the PHLF spokesman, stands behind the history presented in the National Register nomination. “We absolutely stand by it,” he told me. “We were satisfied with our application.”
PHLF asserts that the only reason it agreed to withdraw the nomination was to include more voices, including Harris family members who were previously excluded.
But there was a lot more missing from the nomination than diverse voices. Basic facts and accuracy were also missing.
I asked Rujumba if PHLF had collaborated with Harris family members — a class of people folks in the historic preservation field call a “descendant community” — and with Black history scholars and other subject area experts.
Rujumba called my question “insulting.” As for the descendant community, though PHLF got funding for oral history research, none of that was included in the National Register nomination. PHLF didn’t think there was any value in including oral history in the National Register nomination. “They are separate entities. One doesn’t relate to the other,” Rujumba told me.
Dr. Jeremy Wells is a former historic preservation professor at the University of Maryland and co-editor of the 2018 book, “Human-Centered Built Environment Heritage Preservation.” I asked him about the importance of collaboration and oral history in National Register nominations. Wells explained that oral history is essential to historic preservation research involving people in marginalized communities: African Americans, LGBTQ individuals, women, etc.
“What you find is a very strong correlation between people who have marginalized identities, marginalized racial and ethnic identities, as well as sexual orientation identities, that those histories are not recorded,” Wells said in a telephone interview. “But they’re well-known, but oftentimes no one outside of those communities has ever come and bothered to talk to them, to try to understand what those stories are.”
Woogie Harris and his family check several boxes as historically marginalized people, notably that they were Black and that they were involved in activities that society labeled as criminal, i.e., numbers gambling and racketeering.
The fact that Ada Harris died in the Apple Street house isn’t a small detail. The PHLF National Register nomination cut off the property’s so-called “period of significance,” the range of years preservationists believe reflect a building’s contribution to history, at 1967, the year Woogie Harris died. It’s an important detail because Ada continued living there until her death in 1972.
Historic things happening inside the house didn’t end with Woogie’s death. Ada retained ownership of Woogie’s Crystal Barber Shop, then located at 1605 Centre Ave. Ada Harris owned the business and all of its assets, including six barber chairs, 13 mirrors, barber sinks, and even the two neon barber shop signs prominently featured in many Teenie Harris photographs.
As for Ada Harris dying in the house, Dolores Slater isn’t the only person to recall Woogie’s widow living there after he died. Crystal Pass, Teenie Harris’s daughter, told me in a January telephone interview: “She didn’t move to the North Side. She died in that house. I mean she didn’t go nowhere.”
These memories are backed up by Ada Harris’s will, which notes that she was living at 7101 Apple St. when she signed it on June 23, 1972. In fact, two Homewood residents, not North Side residents, witnessed her signature. If that’s not enough, then there’s the August 1971 City of Pittsburgh Certificate of Occupancy for the Crystal Barber Shop at 1605 Centre Ave., leased by Ada Harris whose address was 7101 Apple St.
Bungling the history tied to Ada Harris’s death is one example of bad history in the nomination. Another is the PHLF historian’s recounting of the infamous day in 1930 when all the numbers gamblers seemed to have bet on a single number, 805. The story has become canonical in Pittsburgh Black history and the history of organized crime here.
Soon after the episode that sent numbers bankers scrambling to find the money to pay off all of the bets, stories began circulating about how Woogie Harris and Gus Greenlee were able to meet their obligations.
Some of those stories included tales of Harris and Greenlee selling cars and mortgaging their homes. In 1936, the Pittsburgh Bulletin Index wrote that the pair of numbers bankers “mortgaged houses, cars and jewelry … to pay off on the dreaded 805 ‘hit.’”
Writer Mark Whitaker repeated the legend in his 2018 book, “Smoketown.” In Whitaker’s telling, “Woogie and Greenlee pawned many of their own possessions and took out new mortgages on their Penn Hills homes.”
That’s the version repeated in the PHLF National Register nomination: “Harris and Greenlee took out new mortgages on their Penn Hills homes and pawned their luxury cars and other valuable personal possessions to pay off all the hits.”
Though Allegheny County land records include multiple property purchases, sales and mortgages for Greenlee and Harris, neither man (nor their families) mortgaged their homes in 1930.
Jonnet Solomon has a second chance to make things right. By withdrawing the National Register nomination, she can ensure that better research is done to repair the earlier work. And, she can reach out to the descendant community, members of the extended Harris family, to get at the full and accurate story.
Again, Wells offers some insights into why this is so important: “Oral history should really be a standard component of National Register nominations to get a more full history.”
It’s a history that will influence generations of students learning about Black history in Pittsburgh. And, it’s a story that will inform journalists writing about the house and Black history here. Finally, it’s a story that can help shape public policy decisions related to preserving similar sites in Pittsburgh, including the Crawford Grill No. 2 and bootlegger Joe Tito’s former Uptown home.
Perhaps most importantly, it affects the Harris family.
“That’s part of my family history and even though I’ve never been in there, it affects my mom,” Dolores Slater’s daughter Michelle told me. “It affects my dad …. You know what I’m saying? It affects people I know.”
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