Muslim Association Board of Directors. Saeed Akmal is standing on the far right. Photo courtesy of the Islamic Center of Southern California.

For more than 20 years, Louis A.S. Bellinger was Pittsburgh’s only licensed and practicing Black architect. He is best known for designing the Hill District’s Pythian Temple — now more familiar to Pittsburgh residents as the landmark New Grenada Theater, which is being rehabilitated and adapted for new uses. 

Bellinger wasn’t the only acclaimed builder in the family, though. In fact, he came from a large family of builders, including his younger brother Walter. After converting to Islam and taking the name Saeed Akmal, the younger Bellinger expanded his repertoire from bricks and mortar and helped to build two significant Muslim communities — one in Pittsburgh and the other in Los Angeles.

Louis Bellinger’s story has cast a long shadow over the family’s story, especially his brother Akmal’s contributions. Historians of Islam in the U.S., however, have long recognized Saeed’s consequential role in African-Americans converting to Islam in the mid-20th century. It was a role that helped to make Pittsburgh a leading early center for Black Muslims in the U.S.

A family of builders

The Bellingers were builders. The extended family has its roots in South Carolina where Louis was born in 1891 and Walter was born a decade later. Their father George was a carpenter and so was their grandfather. Bellinger women married men who also worked in the building trades. By the turn of the 20th century, the Bellingers had settled in Charleston and had become part of the city’s Black middle class. 

“All did well in life,” wrote Bellinger cousin Mamie Garvin Fields in her 1983 family memoir, “Lemon Swamp and Other Places.”

Louis moved away to attend college in Washington, D.C. After graduating from Howard University, he taught school in Florida, South Carolina and Delaware. He arrived in Pittsburgh in 1919 and hung out his shingle as an architect. Designing and building the Hill’s Central Amusement Park in 1920 was one of his first known professional commissions. A dozen years later, he designed Greenlee Field

But this story isn’t about Louis; it’s about his younger brother.

Walter Bellinger/Saeed Akmal, seated far left. Undated photo courtesy of Tahara Akmal.

“Louis went away to Pittsburgh to become an architect and made quite a success there in the building business,” Fields writes. “He did so well until he sent for others to come up and work with him, his father and his brother Walter being excellent carpenters.”

The Bellingers became part of the Great Migration. 

Walter didn’t come directly to Pittsburgh though. He lived briefly in New York City where he worked as a longshoreman. There he married Margaret Ali, the daughter of a Muslim Indian immigrant. The couple’s first child, Glenn, was born in New York in 1919. In 1921 or 1922, the young family briefly moved back to Charleston before joining other family members in Pittsburgh in about 1926.

Reversion

Pittsburgh experienced two waves of Black migration from the South. The first occurred in the years before 1850 and the enactment of the Fugitive Slave Act. The second took place during the Great Migration, which reached its height just after World War I. By the late 1920s, Pittsburgh had a burgeoning population of Southern Black migrants converting to Islam.

Many Muslims don’t describe their journey from Christianity to Islam as a conversion; to them, it’s a return to a spiritual state into which they were born. They call it a reversion. Walter’s reversion began after his marriage to Margaret.

By 1937, Pittsburgh had 1,800 African-American Muslims “making it one of the largest Black Muslim populations in the country,” Patrick Bowen, a leading expert on the history of conversion to Islam in the U.S., writes in a 2018 article on the history of Islam in Pittsburgh. 

The Denver-based religious history scholar explained in an October 2022 interview that racism contributed to Pittsburgh’s large Black Muslim population. 

“That is a universal fact to what’s going on and why people are converting all across the country at that time,” Bowen said.

Walter Bellinger arrived in Pittsburgh at a time when Muslim missionaries based in Cleveland and Philadelphia were actively recruiting members. Anthropologist Robert Dannin described the 1920s as an intensive period of Islamic evangelism with charismatic leaders establishing mosques throughout the U.S. 

The Ohio River Valley and Pittsburgh became focal points. Walter Bellinger, who adopted the Muslim name Saeed Akmal, became a leading local and national figure. 

In South Carolina, the Bellingers were church people with ministers and lay leaders among their ranks, so Akmal was taking on a familiar role as a religious leader.

“Akmal reiterated the call for Islamic propagation in the West and emphasized the importance of making mosques permanent fixtures on the American landscape,” writes Dannin in his 2002 book, “Black Pilgrimage to Islam.”

The 1930 U.S. Census recorded Walter and Margaret living in a rented Penn Township home with their seven children and another of Walter’s brothers, Henry. Walter was working as a carpenter building houses, and Margaret took care of their large family.

By that time, the household had fully embraced Islam and shed their Christian names and the Bellingers became Akmals. Walter became Saeed and Margaret became Rasheeda. Christian names like Glenn, Catherine and Louis were replaced by Farooq, Rasool and Aminah. By 1932, Rasheeda had died giving birth to a ninth child, who also died. 

After Rasheeda passed away, Akmal was left with raising four boys and four girls alone. He remarried in 1933, but that marriage disintegrated in 18 months. The couple divorced in 1937. 

“I heard he raised them,” Akmal’s granddaughter, Tahara Akmal, explained in a telephone interview. “My aunts were very instrumental in helping my grandfather raise the younger kids.”

Pittsburgh’s early Black Muslims

By that time, Pittsburgh’s Black Muslim community was creating formal institutions. In 1928, they formed the African Moslem Welfare Society of America. The nonprofit’s charter filed in Allegheny County included lofty goals: uniting Moslem people; educating them in Americanism and eradicating racial differences. In the late 20th century, the preferred spelling for followers of Islam became “Muslim.”

Early Muslims in Pittsburgh met in borrowed and rented spaces: homes, storefronts and even a synagogue. Itinerant imams initially led groups in prayer and religious education. Muhammad Yusuf Khan was an Indian who used Cleveland as his home base to establish Muslim missions in Pittsburgh, Youngstown and Cincinnati. A 1932 Post-Gazette feature on Pittsburgh’s Islamic community featured Khan leading prayers in the Hill District.

In the early 20th century, converts to Islam could pick and choose from a wide array of local and national sects modeled on masonic lodges and other Black benevolent organizations. Many Pittsburgh practitioners aligned themselves with a popular national sect known as the Ahmadiyyas. Khan, along with Wali Akram (also based in Cleveland), worked closely with Muslim converts in Pittsburgh and Braddock. 

Before becoming an Orthodox (Sunni) Muslim, Akmal was an Ahmadiyya; Khan officiated at Akmal’s second marriage in 1933.

By 1943, Pittsburgh had a firmly established Muslim community with Saeed Akmal as one of its leaders. He had earned the title “sheikh,” which means teacher, and was sometimes described as an imam. 

“He studied the tradition and tried his best to implement the practices,” recalled Tahara Akmal. People would write to her grandfather and her father once had a briefcase filled with these letters. “People were sending letters from different parts of the world saying, ‘Sheikh, I’d like to come to the States’ and ‘Sheikh, thank you for this.’”

In 1943, Akmal was one of 10 men and women who founded the First Moslem Mosque of Pittsburgh and he was the congregation’s president. The new congregation received its charter in 1945. Akmal also was an emerging leader on the national stage where he served as the treasurer of the Uniting Islamic Society of America. 

Uniting Islamic Society of America Philadelphia convention, August 1943. Saeed Akmal is in the front row, ninth from the right. Photo courtesy of Tahara Akmal.

At that time they were meeting in carpenter Ameen Ghani’s Hill District home at 10½ Townsend St. but they began searching for a permanent home. 

The FBI fully documented the mosque’s birth and early years. Concerned about sedition and speech the agency believed was sympathetic to the Japanese during World War II, the FBI had the mosque and its members under surveillance. 

“The subject organization has been attempting to locate a new meeting place and has made some inquiry as to obtaining a Jewish synagogue, which is located immediately adjacent to the present headquarters at 10½ Townsend Street,” a confidential informant told the FBI in 1944. No criminal cases were ever filed and the investigations were closed.

The mosque did find a permanent location in a pair of attached two-story brick apartment buildings at 1829-1831 Wylie Avenue. Akmal, Ghani and another trustee, Salaah Kaasim, bought the property in June 1944. They paid $5,000 in cash and got a mortgage for $4,000. Eight months later, they sold the property to the newly chartered mosque. 

According to Sarajemeela Martin, who wrote a 1979 history of the mosque, it was a pivotal moment in Pittsburgh and American Islamic history. 

Historians have described the First Moslem Mosque of Pittsburgh as the nation’s first formally chartered institution by native-born Americans. 

Martin finds additional significance in the Wylie Avenue property purchase.

“These were what, second-generation freed people,” Martin said in an October interview. “Most of them didn’t even own a car or a house and to have the audacity to go charter something was just — next to buying a building, which they also did, was quite an achievement for people.”

First Moslem Mosque of Pittsburgh, 1829-1831 Wylie Avenue. Photo by Charles “Teenie” Harris courtesy of Carnegie Museum of Art.

For Akmal the builder, buying property, filing charters and renovating buildings for new uses was part of his daily routine. He had been doing business as Bellinger Builders for several years before filing the paperwork making the business name official. Though little survives of his work in Pittsburgh’s construction trades, some hints remain in Pittsburgh Courier articles that detailed his well-regarded renovation work on some of the city’s most popular jazz clubs, including Stanley’s in the Hill District and the Skyrocket Lounge in Homestead.

The mosque that Akmal helped to establish still thrives in the Hill District. In 1984, it moved one block west on Wylie Avenue to the old Carnegie Library. The original mosque was demolished but the congregation still owns the property. 

Current First Muslim Mosque of Pittsburgh on Wylie Avenue. Photo by David Rotenstein.

The move to Los Angeles

In 1950, Saaed Akmal took a job with a former Pittsburgh architect living in Los Angeles. “He has been supervising some construction work for Oscar Liff Sr.,” wrote Pittsburgh Courier columnist Hazel Garland in May 1951. 

Akmal’s move to California is recognized by Islamic history scholars as a significant event. 

Bowen described the move in his 2015 book: “Saeed Akmal … moved out to Los Angeles where he became involved with the local immigrant-majority community, thus depriving the East Coast and Midwest of an important leader.”

Some of Saeed’s children followed their father to Los Angeles and their home became a popular meeting place for the city’s growing Muslim population. Tahara Akmal has a copy of a typed history of the Islamic Center of Southern California. It has a small section on her family’s contribution to building the East Hollywood institution: “People used to meet at their homes and celebrate their holidays, Eids and social events. There was one such home, the Akmal families … who were raising their children to become muslin [sic.] and used their home for meetings.”

Saeed Akmal died in 1966. His granddaughter was just a few years old and has fragmentary memories of visiting him. Now a hospital chaplain working in Washington, D.C. and finishing a PhD, Tahara Akmal began discovering her grandfather’s contributions in her studies.

“When I went to seminary, I actually saw his name — his name popped up in some of my texts for my classes,” Akmal said. “So I really got to know him after his death as opposed to growing up with him in my life.”

Akmal fondly talks about the time when she really discovered how important her grandfather was. She was struggling to make ends meet during a divorce. Her children had been enrolled in a private religious school in Pasadena and she was about to pull them out and send them to public school.

“They called me and asked me to come and talk to the school head,” Akmal began. “And I told her I just can’t afford it, you know, I’m going through a divorce, it’s just myself and the three kids.”

The school’s administrator replied, “Do you know who your grandfather is? Do you know that he was instrumental in building the mosque and from there, the schools …You will never have to take your children out.”

Sunlight on Saeed Akmal

Except for Sarajameela Martin’s slim history of the Pittsburgh mosque and pricy academic volumes on the history of Islam in the U.S., Saeed Akmal’s contributions remain unknown to most Pittsburgh residents. 

The many histories of the Black experience in Pittsburgh mostly ignore the city’s significant Black Muslim community and, by extension, Akmal’s time here. Even the works documenting his famous architect brother fail to explore the Bellinger family’s rich and complicated history beyond the ballparks and buildings attributed to Louis Bellinger.

Tahara Akmal believes more people should know her grandfather’s story: “He did a lot to help establish Islam in America and I think that’s significant.”

Pittsburgh’s Martin agrees. “When you don’t acknowledge it and you erase it, that’s the biggest disrespect in town, you know, like you don’t exist. You’re nothing.”