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A green glazed vase with an illustrative face paired with a white teapot with a figural image of a Black woman.

Heritage Highlights: Women of Visions

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Functional ceramics by Mary Martin, a member of the Women of Visions artists collaborative.

Heritage Highlights

Rivers of Steel’s Heritage Arts program strives to represent the region’s diverse cultural heritage, from ethnic customs and occupational traditions directly linked to Pittsburgh’s industrial past, to new American folk arts and cultural practices emerging from the region’s diverse urban experience.  Usually passed down from person-to-person within close-knit communities, these cultural traditions are as varied as they are unique, each representing one aspect of what makes southwestern Pennsylvania’s heritage so rich.

In this month’s installment, Rivers of Steel’s Heritage Arts Coordinator Jon Engel met with Women of Visions, a local Black women’s art collective. The group, which is based in Pittsburgh, seeks to help Black women show their art through collaborative exhibitions and other programming. Many kinds of artists are represented in the collective, including heritage artists practicing traditional African-American arts. This year, Women of Visions celebrates their 40th anniversary, and four of their members spoke to Jon about their individual crafts and the way the organization has helped them as artists.

Women of Visions

An Interview by Jonathan Engel

Through their conversations with Jon, artists Christine Bethea, LaVerne Kemp, Mary Martin, and Janet Watkins share elements of their craft and reflect on the how the Women of Visions organization has shaped their careers while providing support, camaraderie, and inspiration to themselves and other members.

Christine Bethea—A tradition of Quilting

As an art quilter, folk quilter / storyteller, and traditional quilter, I do nearly all the genres associated with the art form. The majority of my work, I machine quilt. I did a lot of it by hand at one time but found that time, for me, was best spent in the design. One thing I do prefer from the traditional school is the use of fabrics taken from vintage clothing. In the past, that’s where women got their fabrics. They almost never bought their cloth new. Most of these fabrics are no longer manufactured, and so any quilt I make will be quite unique because of the blend of old and new.

A quilt with a white background, stripes on the left & right border and a colorful patchwork in the middle that reads "The Hill is our home."

“The Hill is Our Home” by Christine Bethea.


A quilt of a Black cowboy on a horse

One of Bethea’s favorite pieces, “Deadwood Dick/African-American Cowboy”. She says she especially enjoyed “researching the history of black cowboys, who I was told as a child never existed”.

Why do you quilt? How does it fit into your life?

I believe I was born to it. My grandmother quilted, and her mother before her. It was a kind of therapy for me, and most likely them too. You could forget all your cares concentrating on a quilt. It made my children crazy watching me quilt. I did it a lot during my divorce. My daughter even wrote a poem for school, which I will never forget: “My mother made a quilt. She built and she built and she built. She built a big square layer by layer.” I think my friends thought it was pretty old fashioned. I found my “tribe” when I took a class at Pittsburgh Center for the Arts with Louise Silk, and later joined an African American quilt guild.

I’ve learned that I’m a salvage girl. I’m a Dumper Diver and love all that is recycled and repurposed in the world. I do assemblage art as well. Nearly all the quilters I know are doing some other kind of fiber art or mixed media art.

Who taught you to quilt?

I used to sleep under my grandmother’s quilts as she made them, because she worked on them in her bedroom after dinner. We grandkids often squeezed in with her. She’d be sitting on her favorite chair beside her bed, quilting, and I’d have about half the quilt—the done part—over me. When I woke up in the morning, the quilt would be mostly finished, and I’d be completely covered. She had worked on it long into the night, and often when my eyes popped open, she was already in the kitchen cooking breakfast. Those days were magical, filled with stories about her mother, gardening, and watching her take a short break in her constant work to skin a whole apple without breaking the peel. I’d wait in anticipation, but she never failed to produce a perfect spiral. Afterwards, she’d always share a slice or two of apple with me. It was the perfect bedtime snack.

What does quilting mean to you and your community?

A quilt with a red border with a white baseball bat on each side that has blue fabric in the middle and a portrait in fabric of Roberto Clemente. It also has photographs of him on fabric, along with his name and number "21".

“Roberto Clemente” by Christine Bethea.

As with my grandmother, quilts have been made by African American women—indeed, women the world over—not only as a necessity to keep their families warm, but as a creative release. It was an art form that was totally their own. Something that was not controlled by a world who saw little value in them or their work. When you worked on a quilt, you knew it was all yours. Made by cloth you chose and wrought through hours by your own hands. Even today, women who are unable to sell their quilts say: “It would be like giving away one of my children.”

How has quilting changed over time?

Not too much. Thank God. Much of the same block styles, the choice in traditional fabrics (like muslin), and the construction of quilts is very much the same. There are new construction techniques, however. The long-arm sewing machine, which I thought was invented maybe 30 year ago, was first made in 1871. Of course, the new ones are faster, and the movement has been vastly improved, but sewing is sewing. You can only make it easier and faster. I think that’s the secret of its staying power. Once you pick up a needle and sew, you connect with women—and men—going back to the ice age.

a quilt depicting a street scene with lots of people, mostly Black, and engaged in lots of activities.

“Hey-Day on the Hill” by Christine Bethea.

How do you think quilting will change over future generations?

Actually, I don’t see it changing. This is one tactile artform that no one is in a hurry to modernize, not so much. Doing what was always done is part of the charm of quilting. It’s not hurting anything, its eco-friendly, and it makes people happy.

What does Women of Visions mean to you? What do you want for the group?

At a time when the art world made it clear you were not part of its artistic conversation, you had to go somewhere. For many women in Pittsburgh, that was Women of Visions. I wasn’t a member at the beginning, but I was there for 16 years of my life. They let me know I was an artist, and it was alright, and they didn’t really care what other people thought about it. We wanted to create. We needed to create.

If we do our job right as an organization, WOV should be looking ahead to get recognition nationally. We’ve been swimming in the same pool for a long time, which is one reason I became President. We were getting stuck. We needed to pass the reigns to the next generation of young women and African-American artists.

I hope [people] will say of my work: she was at the forefront of Pittsburgh women working with salvage, as an African-American quilter, and as a mixed media artist.

LaVerne Kemp—A Culture of Weaving

A light skinned black woman with platinum curly hair works at a loom.

LaVerne Kemp

My medium at any time might be weaving, quilting, felt making, crocheting, basket making, book making, spinning, or dying, but my main focus and education has been in weaving. My art is soft and tactile. It almost always relates back to my African American heritage and traditions by the colors, patterns, and symbolism in my work. For example, if I am weaving, I have to put my own spin on it, and you can always feel my culture shining through.

What kind of weaving do you do?

I make a variety of items because I participate in art shows, not as much as I used to, but I like to keep my options open. My artwork ranges from large scale wall hangings and trees to smaller home decorative pieces like table runners and area rugs to shawls, ponchos, and jackets. I use a variety of materials from wool and silk that I purchase from across the US to repurposed fabrics, yarns, beads, and buttons for embellishments. I might turn anything into a piece of art! I don’t like to waste and I’ve always been able to see the beauty in things that others don’t, even people!

How did you learn to weave?

A colorful patchwork coat with mixed geometric patterns

A coat by LaVerne Kemp, stitched from upcycled materials.

I have been weaving since I took an elective in college called Threads and Fibers, where we made baskets, macrame, rugs, etc. And it changed my life. I produced large wall pieces like my professor, Leslie Parkinson, and she talked me into taking a weaving class. Although the loom was intimidating, I progressed from weaving a sampler to a coat in no time. I never had an art class before college but I always knew that I had an artist’s spirit. I always felt a little different but very creative, like both of my grandmothers. I come from a family of people who all had their own businesses so the art helped me assume my place in the world. I know that I was meant to be an artist/entrepreneur. This was God’s gift to me, and I was determined to make it happen, and it has. My art is my passion! I have to “touch” it daily or it feels like something is missing.

How has weaving changed over time?

Weaving has been around as far back as Biblical times. It is how people made their fabric for clothing and everyday items such as tent covers and table coverings. My personal interest is in the African traditional cloth, with their colors and patterns and textures and the meaning behind the symbolism, and how they were and still are made. It used to be that the men did the weaving in certain cultures while the women took care of the daily chores and the children. I believe that has changed somewhat now. Different parts of the continent have various traditions and there are now more women weaving, as well as different types of looms that the weaving is produced on.

How does Women of Visions influence you? What do you get out of being part of the group?

A lux orange shawl with purple details adorns an older black woman.

A handwoven shawl by LaVerne Kemp.

I appreciate all art forms and, of course, all art can be inspiring in one way or another. As a teacher, I am always taking classes of some sort to keep it fresh and exciting for my students. I have tried glass making, ceramics, and even a little painting and jewelry making. Each Women of Visions member and each exhibition brings forth something new and creative in my eyes and I have the other women to thank for that. But I have decided to stay in my element and stick with the softer side of the art world, with my fiber.

I have been told that I am the only African American weaver in Southwestern Pa. I know of two others who have passed away, so this might be true. To that end, I am a part of history. I’ve also been told that Women of Visions is the oldest African American women’s art group in the country, so again we are history, and I am proud to be of it. More than this, I feel good knowing that I have influenced so many others in my exhibitions and through my teaching. I have used the gift I was given.

Woven strips of canvas with photographs and names layered with yarn and beads to depict a family tree.

“Rooted by Blood: The Journey of Ono and Hattie Bell” by LaVerne Kemp, with detail inset.

Mary Martin—Communicating through Pottery

A younger, medium toned black woman with two tone glasses and a pea green headscarf.

Mary Martin

I am primarily a ceramic artist, but I also work in metal, glass, and collage. Each medium informs the other. It’s like a call-and-response experience. This is part of my heritage as well. Music is just another means to communicate.

I love making functional pottery that is heavily adorned with carved or hand drawn lines, patterns, and textures. I love making teapots, bowls, cups, vases, etc. But I also make abstract pieces to express personal stories as well. I work using wax, underglaze, stains, commercial glazes. I work on the potter’s wheel and hand-build. I’m constantly being influenced by West and East African designs. I am strongly influenced by textile designs as well.

I also work in metals to create functional body adornment. Brass and copper mainly. And my collages are made of magazine imagery, papers, and paint.

 

Why do you, personally, make art?

I make art because I love to have a purpose. My artwork is a means to preserve traditions that would otherwise die out. Artists have a responsibility to preserve our traditions. We are meant to share our gifts with others. I believe that we are here to raise questions, but also to find solutions about life. Problem solving is such a large part of what I do. If there’s no struggle, I feel like the work isn’t complete.

How did you learn ceramics?

A black teapot with white concentric half moon circles that create a geometric pattern.

A teapot by Mary Martin

My educational journey has been very non-traditional. I grew up in a creative house. My father is a painter and a retired art educator for Pittsburgh Public Schools. I would watch him expressing himself in multiple mediums: watercolor, sculpture, and he also made handmade leather handbags.

I went to art school to study architecture at Rhode Island School of Design. We were discouraged from taking classes outside of our major, so there was only one ceramic class that I was able to take at RISD. After college, I grew frustrated with finding entry level work in local architectural firms. Looking back, those experiences really reflect the racism that still exists within that field locally, as well as nationally. So, my mother encouraged me to make an appointment to show my portfolio to Bill Strickland at Manchester Craftsman’s Guild. He told me that he didn’t have architectural work, but that I could choose any of the art studios to work as a teaching artist. I chose Ceramics and never looked back! It was a community environment where there were always at least four instructors in the space to teach different approaches to art making. I was mentored by Josh Green. He’s now the Executive Director of the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts.

Can you talk a bit about your ceramics tradition?

It was really interesting to discover that women are the primary artists working in clay in West Africa. I was really surprised to find this out, but I felt like I was part of a continuum, keeping that tradition alive. Like everything else, technology has replaced so many crafts that take time to create. It does feel like there’s a surge in folks wanting handmade art vs. factory-produced.

It’s a struggle to educate folks about the time it takes, though. I try to make pieces that are affordable by everyday folks so as not to cater to an audience that’s only wealthy. My works are appreciated by a wide variety of people. That excites me. I want everyone to have access to beautiful things, not just the wealthy.

I see my work as a continuum. It excites me to have a connectivity to an unbroken chain of artists with a common language. I know that some things that I make are subconscious decisions. It is exciting to discover an artist that connects with my work through the medium, process, content, or imagery. It’s that common language that runs deep as the rivers that Langston [Hughes] spoke about.

A teal plate with concentric circle and a hand depicted on it and a second plate in white with a woman with braided hair and a geometric halo.

Two plates by Mary Martin

Broadly, what role does Women of Visions play in your art life? What is the value of this collective to you — professionally, artistically, emotionally, whatever?

WOV has been a major influence on my artistic growth as an artist.

My mother was in an African American female book club with a member of the group, Jacqueline Poindexter Jordan. She mentored me as soon as I relocated back to Pittsburgh from college. My first show was that summer, as part of the Harambee Black Arts Festival in Homewood. I was recruited to join the group when I dropped off my drawings for the exhibit. I was seeking other African American female artists to connect with and this felt like it. At the time, I was their youngest member, and I wanted to learn how to navigate the art scene in Pittsburgh.

The group has always brought about opportunities to stretch my imagination, to step outside of my comfort zone, and to step into administrative roles that I’d never thought I’d do well in. It’s offered me opportunities to grow professionally, artistically, and spiritually. I’ve always believed in collaboration, mentoring, and purpose. WOV offered all of these aspects.

As a mother, a daughter, granddaughter, aunt, niece, etc. I also feel that this group has been a constant reminder of femininity. It is one of the few spaces that I inhabit where I can be myself and see myself in other black female artists. I live the life of a chameleon, forced to change skins depending on the space that I’m in. WOV makes room for me unlike no other place. It’s about purpose, reciprocity, growth and identity. We support one another in ways that don’t happen in the workplace: I’ve connected with the members of the group with long term relationships that have been nurtured for almost three decades. My marriage, my children’s births, are all mapped with WOV experiences in mind. I can track any of these experience by associating them with one another. That’s how integral this is in my life.

Janet Watkins—A (Second) Career in Ceramics

A black woman in a white shirt holds a colorful ceramic bust that appears as if it could be a self-portrait.

Janet Watkins

My passion for working with clay actually didn’t begin until after I retired from a 30 year career in banking. I was looking for an affordable hobby, then one day I noticed the beautiful church in my neighborhood posted a sign showing open studio pottery class.  I stopped in, paid the hourly rate, and after one hour of working with clay I was amazed at the possibilities. I enjoyed the clay and process so much. In that short afternoon I discovered what I thought was merely going to be a new hobby.

What kind of ceramics do you create?

I usually work with brown earthenware, red clay, and porcelain. The type of work I create is mostly hand-built, functional, sculptural, and unique gardening art.  I enjoy incorporating salvaged and discarded items into my work.  I will often use items such as old, recycled telephone wire for hair, screws, bolts, old buttons, scrap wood & metal parts for added interest and texture for my artwork.

An earthenware nude torso and head of a young black woman with shoulder length straight hair.

“Adolescent Girl” by Janet Watkins.

My passion for sculptural work comes from my early childhood time spent playing with dolls. And later in life, after retirement, spending time with my granddaughters making dolls out of playdough. I often find inspiration and attempt to repeat certain facial features of people I meet or just observe in conversation. I may talk with someone and notice they have unique or unusual eyes, nose, or face. There are often times when I will dream of a sculpture and wake in the morning, wanting to run to the studio and begin a new piece. It is so satisfying seeing the completed work. This form of art, I enjoy doing with my granddaughters, and I am passing it along to the two of them.

Why do you make art? What does it mean to you?

Coming up as a child both my parents were creative. Unfortunately, neither of them had the luxury of being able to be artists; they were much too busy working to make ends meet for me and my siblings. They raised us with the “can-do spirit”.  They didn’t have extra money, so whenever we needed something, we found ways to make it.  Example: when I got married, I made all of my bridesmaids’ gowns, the flower bouquets, and my wedding bouquets.  We made our clothes for special occasions, such as prom gowns.

My career in art started just a short three years ago and I am still learning different techniques.  I am what many would call a “shelf-made artist”.  I work out of the little church where I first discovered clay — there is a very talented group of potters who are always willing to teach and share information.

How did you join Women of Visions, and how has it affected your art?

Nine multicolored clay masks of women's faces

“Me Too Group” by Janet Watkins.

I knew about WOV for many years.  In fact, I attended several of their exhibits before becoming a member.  Two of the members visited my home and noticed a few items I had created. One member, Charlotte Kai, asked me if I ever thought of becoming a member of WOV.

In our group, we have many artists who work with several different mediums.  This inspires collaboration between artists. As a new artist, I am still in the experimental phase. I have an appreciation for each artist and the medium which they chose to create from.

Exhibitions are a wonderful opportunity to grow, learn, experiment and challenge yourself. Sometimes you may create something based on a theme or title which you are not passionate or motivated about.  This is exactly why I love being a part of this group.  It’s in this type of situation where you learn and grow.

We as artists all enjoy creating. However, it’s important for me to be able to share my work, get feedback from my peers, and sell my work. By selling, I can purchase supplies and make space in my studio for more work.

Women of Visions’ website states that “We envision that in the next decade, we can create a visual record that places us in the annals of American history”. What does that mean to you, to be remembered in history?

 We have a wonderful group of women from all different walks of life and different levels of work.  Some have studied and taught art and some, like myself, are self-taught and still learning.  I hope women, regardless of the color of their skin, can be encouraged and know you are never too old to begin a new career and learn something new.  As for the group, what we share is a strong love of art and a desire to see each one of us be successful in our art form.  We can be an example for all women for years to come.

A porcelain figure with her hands behind her back, flower on her dress and a small box sculpted out between her hips that holds a vase with flowers inside

A small figurine by Janet Watkins.


A bronze colored sculpture of a woman's hands crossed over her lap

“Sitting Girl” by Janet Watkins.


A red clay couple seemingly joined at the shoulder with closed eyes and smiles

“Soulmates Couple” by Janet Watkins.

Read more in the Heritage Highlights series. Our most recent story is on Mon Valley folk artist Kathleen Ferri

August Wilson’s American Century Cycle

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Denzel Washington and Viola Davis in Fences (Paramount Pictures)

A Look at August Wilson’s American Century Cycle

Brianna Horan

By Brianna Horan

The Carrie Carpool Cinema season kicks off this weekend with a duet of movies that were filmed in Pittsburgh: Fences on Friday night and The Dark Knight Rises on Saturday night. Both features have backdrops that will be recognizable to locals, but the setting is especially vital to the essence of Fences, a 2016 film adapted from the sixth play in August Wilson’s American Century Cycle and set in the Hill District, where the playwright was born and raised.

A collection of ten plays, each taking place in a different decade of the 20th century, the American Century Cycle depicts the struggles and triumphs of everyday life while demonstrating the impacts that slavery, Jim Crow, the Great Migration, and institutional racism have on everyday people. As in real life, the pull of the past and the hopes for the future are intertwined with the here and now in Wilson’s plays. Written and staged between 1982 and 2005, all but one of the plays in the American Century Cycle are set in the Hill District.

A black man in brown suit and gray cap with a salt and pepper goatee

August Wilson at the side of 1727 Bedford Avenue in 1999. His two-room childhood home is up the stairs at the rear right. Courtesy of the August Wilson House / augustwilsonhouse.org.

“The lessons, stories, laughs, cries, anguish, hope, fervor, pain, resilience, and love reflected in my Uncle’s body of work are as relevant today as they are poignant when they were written. They stem from the Black experience, but with universal appeal and relatability,” says Paul A. Ellis, Jr., Esq., nephew of August Wilson, and Founder of the August Wilson House, a local, and national historic landmark located in the Hill District of Pittsburgh. “Fighting for equity, an aversion to blight, equal citizenship, basic community resources and amenities, safety, empathy, effective representation, and fair dealing are all concepts not dependent on demographics, just humanity and equitable application. The Historic Hill District has a stunning history of beauty and targeted destruction—the proper outcome of its residents’ ongoing struggles is a complete restoration of economic and cultural vitality.”

Indeed, the forces at play in one of the central struggles of Fences, set in 1957, remain a contentious issue today. In the Pulitzer Prize-winning play and “Best Picture” Oscar-nominated film, 53-year-old Troy Maxson grapples with his frustration and disappointment about the limited prospects that were available to him as a talented baseball player because of the major leagues’ refusal accept Black players. He provides for his family as a sanitation worker, and fights for Black workers to be allowed to drive the garbage trucks as well as load them. Maxson’s resulting bitterness creates complicated relationships with his family and the way they live their lives. Last year’s announcement from Major League Baseball that the Negro Leagues’ statistics will be incorporated into major league records has highlighted the many ways that the experiences of Black and white players were very separate and very unequal, and continue to have harmful repercussions today.

Written and staged between 1982 and 2005, Wilson’s epic ten-play collection is considered to be one of the premiere achievements of American theater. His masterpieces earned two Pulitzer Prizes, multiple Tony Award nominations (and a win for Fences), a Peabody, and many other accolades. They also brought the Hill District—and unrepresented voices—to stages on Broadway and across the globe. The Pittsburgh Courier, the Crawford Grill, Satchel Paige, Wylie Avenue, Diamond’s Five and Ten, and other local landmarks all contribute to the lively character of the Hill District in the plays—as they did on Herron Hill before Pittsburgh’s urban renewal campaign in the late 1950s and 1960s condemned and demolished the homes of 8,000 people and 400 businesses in the heart of a nationally-renowned center of Black culture and entrepreneurship. When the Civic Arena and its surrounding parking lots were built on the cleared land of the Lower Hill in 1961, the remaining residents were physically cut off from downtown, leading to further isolation and lack of resources for the neighborhood.

Born in 1945, Wilson spent the first 13 years of his life in a two-room flat (later four rooms) with his mother and five siblings at 1727 Bedford Avenue, a red-brick multi-family, multi-use building. The Hill District of his youth was multi-ethnic (mostly Jewish, Italian, and Black), and he would later remember his childhood as “wonderful… As a family, we did things together. … We all sat down and had dinner at a certain time. … We didn’t have a TV, so we listened to the radio.” The family and neighborhood life that was happening around him all inspired his plays in a very personal way that millions of audience members would later be moved by. “I happen to think that the content of my mother’s life—her myths, her superstitions, her prayers, the contents of her pantry, the smell of her kitchen, the song that escaped from her sometimes parched lips, her thoughtful repose and pregnant laughter—are all worthy of art.”

Along with art, Daisy Wilson opened her son’s mind to knowledge by teaching him to read at age four. Wilson was a bright and creative student, but after a series of demoralizing school experiences—he faced daily racist taunts at Central Catholic, felt unchallenged at Connelly Trade School, and then was accused of plagiarizing a paper as a 15-year-old at Gladstone High in Hazelwood—he dropped out in tenth grade and educated himself by reading voraciously at the Carnegie Library of Oakland. Wilson often called himself a “graduate of the Carnegie Library,” and years later the Carnegie presented him with an honorary diploma. Wilson co-founded the Black Horizon Theater in his early twenties in 1968 a few streets over from his birthplace. The characters he wrote would be infused with the stories and voices of the people in the restaurants, barbershops, and streets around him in The Hill, preserving the neighborhood on paper while so many of its physical structures were being destroyed and its people and culture were being displaced.

Wilson’s childhood home on Bedford Avenue still stands today, just a few blocks behind where the demolition of the Lower Hill was centered. He visited the building for the last time in 1999, six years before his death in 2005. By then it was already derelict, and admirers of his work who came to visit this foundational place found a wreck rather than a site worthy of the playwright’s legacy. Wilson’s nephew, Paul A. Ellis, Jr., Esq., is leading an initiative to create just such a place as the Executive Director of the Daisy Wilson Artist Community, Inc., named for Wilson’s mother. The August Wilson House (AWH), which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is in the process of being restored by the nonprofit to its 1950s period of significance in Wilson’s life, but in keeping with his wishes it will be “useful” rather than a museum. In addition to celebrating the literary and personal legacy of August Wilson, the mission of the August Wilson House is to serve as an arts center to nurture the historic Hill District community and arts practitioners and scholars influenced by his work.

A crowd of theater-goers sitting in the round behind the August Wilson House.

An early fruit of the AWH restoration was this 2016 back- yard production of “Seven Guitars,” staged in the exact space August describes in the script, drawing on memories of his family life. Courtesy of the August Wilson House / augustwilsonhouse.org.

While the renovation work is in progress, the AWH has already begun hosting an annual August Wilson Birthday Block Party, which will take place virtually and in-person with Covid precautions this year on April 27. This year the artwork of ten local artists honoring the playwright’s legacy and influence will be unveiled, each one receiving a $1,000 grant. The annual Duquesne University / August Wilson House Fellowships are also underway—the inaugural Fellow Natasha Trethewey, who is a former U.S. Poet Laureate, a Pulitzer-Prize winner for poetry, and author of memoir Memorial Drive, attended the groundblessing ceremony for the AWH in 2018 and read one of her poems. The Fellowships are intended to allow nationwide artists of color to be artists in residence and “engage in literary, cultural, and artistic expression that advances their own work and serves the joint interests of the university and community.” The 2019 Fellow was Njaimeh Njie, a Pittsburgh-based photographer, filmmaker, and multimedia producer who created the public art project, “Homecoming: Hill District, USA.”

In addition to support from local and national foundations and donors, restoration of the August Wilson House is also supported by director and actor Denzel Washington, who is leading the efforts to bring all of the American Century Cycle to film. He assembled a $5 million donation in 2018 with contributions from Oprah Winfrey, Tyler Perry, Shonda Rhimes, Spike Lee, Samuel L. Jackson, Antoine Fuqua, and himself. Washington directed Fences and starred as Troy Maxson alongside Viola Davis as wife Rose Maxson (reprisals of the Tony Award-winning roles they played in the 2010 Broadway revival of the play). Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, which is set in Chicago but was filmed in Pittsburgh, debuted on Netflix in October 2020. The other eight plays of the Cycle will also be adapted.

Rivers of Steel is pleased that Ellis will attend Friday’s screening of Fences, and will deliver remarks that include an update about the August Wilson House restoration, and his experience with Washington during the filming of Fences.

This article was published to coincide with the screening of Fences at the Carrie Blast Furnaces. For more about the Carrie Carpool Cinema drive-in film series, click here

A black and white image of four white women, two in hard hats and respirators in front of a smoking steel mill.

Women of Steel: Steffi Domike

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Women of Steel, the production team from the 1985 documentary of the same name— (left to right) Beth Destler, Steffi Domike, Linny Stovall, & Allyn Stewart

Women of Steel—Steffi Domike

Brianna HoranBy Brianna Horan

When Steffi Domike graduated from college in 1975 with a degree in economics, so many of the jobs available to women at the time didn’t pay well. Not wanting to go to graduate school, she decided to move to Pittsburgh to work in the steel industry, which had recently been in the headlines for affirmative action policies meant to correct past discriminatory policies against hiring minorities and women.

“It was the beginning of the women’s movement, and there was this consent decree. It was national news that women could work in the mill, and I found that intriguing,” Domike says. “The idea of getting into the mills was a foreign experience, but not that bad. I thought I could try it, and it paid better than what my friends were getting with their college experience so I went for it.”

The mill environment at United States Steel’s Clairton Coke Works certainly embodied a place like no other she’d experienced. “I found it to be an interesting world to inhabit. The mill was a different kind of world. In fact, you’d walk in, clock in, go to the locker room, and then you would put on your disguise—your clothing—because it was head to toe,” she says. “I worked in the coke works so it was yellows—we had to wear yellow suits made of very tightly woven cotton as a protective layer against the coke oven fumes. And then there’s metatarsal arches on your feet, and then there’s a respirator, and then there’s a hard hat, sand safety glasses, gloves. There wasn’t a lot of flesh exposed. And then the scenery was a whole other world—it was like living on the moon. The jobs we did were like nothing else I’d ever seen. The machinery was unique to the industry, and the whole thing was a different world.”

Steffi Domike via Zoom screengrab.

Domike was born in the United States but grew up in South America because of her father’s work for the United Nations—so being back in the U.S. after so long also felt somewhat foreign at the time. Her job at U.S. Steel as a janitor and then electrician apprentice, along with her involvement with the United Steel Workers of America Local 1557 while she worked there, would end up rooting her career in activism and organized labor.

The 1974 Basic Steel Consent Decree that was a catalyst for Domike’s consideration of the steel industry was a settlement between nine of the nation’s steel companies that represented more than 75% of the steel industry. It was the result of suits filed mostly by Black steelworkers in the Alabama and Chicago area, and also at Homestead. With the legal backing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, it required companies to end longtime discriminatory hiring and promotion practices against minorities and women. They also had to pay more than $30 million in retribution, shift to a company-wide seniority system, and abide by a mandate to award half of all bids into trades & crafts apprenticeships to people who were Black, had a Spanish surname, or were women. The other 50 percent of these bids would go to white men based on overall seniority – not department seniority.

“Before the consent decree, folks who were hired were hired into specific departments and couldn’t get out, and the company would hire people into departments really based on their ethnicity,” Domike says. She describes the clear patterns she observed where skin color, last names, and family connections determined how grueling and demanding a person’s job in the mill would be, with little chance of moving to another department. “Whatever the skill of your ethnicity, or whatever the track was for your race… they would just track you. The consent decree sort of stopped that… What happened was the favored groups no longer had that pull. When I talk to people who are critical of affirmative action, I say, ‘Well, it really leveled the playing field for all white people as well.’”

For the first nine months of her employment at the Clairton Works, Domike was the first female janitor, hired to clean the numerous new women’s locker rooms and bathrooms that had been created across the massive plant. Her gender solved a problem that had developed when men were cleaning these facilities; they were an ideal place to lock the doors and take a nap on the job. “So when the guys’ bosses were looking for them they couldn’t find them, and the women couldn’t use the facility. So that became a small crisis within a crisis – and that’s why they hired me! I could clean the locker rooms and women could still use them,” Domike says. “I got an education, because even though I had a college degree I hadn’t done a lot of cleaning, and, you know, I needed to learn.”

Once she’d worked there long enough to be eligible for apprenticeship training in other areas of the mill, she started to bid on the different opportunities that were posted but was repeatedly passed over. After an electrical job to train and join the wire gang that Domike applied for was given to a white worker with seven years of experience, one of the grievance officers noticed the discrepancy between the hiring practice and the policies laid out by the consent decree. “He came up to me and introduced himself and said, ‘Hey, you put in for this bid and they hired the white guy, but the way the consent decree reads, they’re supposed to give 50 percent of the bids to Blacks and women and people with Spanish surnames. But it looks to me like U.S. Steel is trying to get around that by just putting one bid up at a time.’ So I signed a grievance, because he was trying to defend the consent decree, and I was fortunate enough to kind of go in on the coattails of that.” The grievance was settled by opening up the wireman apprenticeship job to both the first man who was hired and to Domike; training took place at the Duquesne Works, where the apprenticeship school was. “It was a really good job, because now I know something that people think is useful to know—how to put in receptacles and run wire.”

Domike also learned how to stand up for herself and other women who were simply trying to do their job in a male-dominated environment. Some of the women she befriended on the job were training and working as diesel mechanics, millwrights, and welders. “For the most part, the men didn’t really want us there. We’d been forced upon them [by the consent decree]… There were some people who wanted to make it really uncomfortable.” She said there were reports of assaults, a lot of harassment, and some women were even asked to sign papers stating that they weren’t capable of doing the work. Domike remembers a woman, the daughter of one of the plant’s managers, who returned to the locker room day after day in tears following her shift. “I finally got it out of her that the guys in the cable crew were so resentful of her presence that they tied her up during the day. They tied her hands together with the zip ties that they use now for handcuffs, and they tied her to a work box, a big metal box, and left her there all day.” Domike confronted the leader of the cable crew that day, and although she herself “got some wild eyes after that,” her co-worker was never tied up again. “What I learned—and I learned this from the other women, but also from some of the supportive guys, is how to stand up to a bully. And nobody likes a bully; they don’t even like themselves.”

Domike was active in a group of rank and file women in the U.S. Steel plants who formed an unofficial group that they called Women of Steel. They started putting out a newsletter of the same name in March of 1979, written by and for USWA women in districts 15, 19, and 20—Domike was a frequent contributor. A similar kind of publication had been established at the Edgar Thomson Works called Hear, Here. An article in the first issue of Women of Steel answered the question, “Why get together?” It stated that the group’s meetings were open to all steel workers, and their aim was to solve common problems together with their brothers, while pointing out that there are “special forms of harassment … reserved just for us.” Seventy steelworkers came to the first Women of Steel meeting to talk about issues that women face in the mills, like “arbitrary firings during probation, overcrowded and inconvenient locker and washrooms, harassment and denial of [Sickness and Accident] benefits during pregnancy, discrimination in job training and apprenticeships, and sexual harassment.” It called for local union women’s committees to further the “good stands” that had already been made, and to increase the equality and unity within the union.

Being an active member of her local union was another part of the appeal for Domike in joining the steel industry after college, where she had written her undergraduate thesis on cooperative business models. “The Steelworkers Union was and still is one of the largest and most powerful industrial unions in the U.S. and North America,” she says. “I wanted to learn about it, and the best way to learn about it is to get right in.” She represented her local in the USWA Civil Rights Committee, and ran for recording secretary in 1979, as well as contributing to the Steel Workers Stand Up newsletter. Women’s issues and obstacles to employment were not unfamiliar territory for her, either. At the same time that Domike was graduating from high school, her mother was graduating from law school. Despite her qualifications, she struggled to get a job in a law firm and instead found employment in the Internal Revenue Service with the aid of affirmative action programs at work in the government. “My mother was a pioneer in her own way. She fought all her life to be taken seriously.”

After five and a quarter years at U.S. Steel, the industry-wide shutdowns and lay-offs hit Domike’s job in 1981. By then, she had completed her wireman schooling but was just shy of completing the training hours needed to make top rate. “I got laid off along with everyone else, and everyone else was looking for a job. So what room there was for craftspeople in the market was pretty well taken up. It was really hard to find a job in the early ’80s,” she says.

Many Women of Steel members initiated unemployment campaigns, and created foodbanks in Homestead and McKeesport where “thousands of people” came for food. Domike was working for the Mon Valley Unemployed Committee while also studying filmmaking at the Art Institute and Pittsburgh Filmmakers. Along with three other women that she worked with at the MVUC, Domike created an oral history project called Crashin’ Out: Hard Times in McKeesport, which compared the decline of the steel industry in the 1980s with the Great Depression in the 1930s. “It was great sadness in our communities when, starting in ’77, the jobs dried up and the mills closed, because whole communities were just dependent on that constant job,” Domike says. “People, particularly men, hadn’t really planned for what they could do besides work in the steel industry… They felt sort of shunned. There were generations of families that had fathers, grandfathers, great-grandfathers, and uncles all working in the mills.”

Before long, Domike was producing documentaries like 1985’s Women of Steel, which chronicled the struggles that laid-off female steelworkers faced in the wake of the steel industry’s collapse, and The River Ran Red, which portrays the 1892 Homestead lockout and strike from the workers’ perspective. Her artwork and activism have brought attention to feminist, environmentalist, and labor themes. She is currently a labor educator at United Steelworkers. You can watch Women of Steel, The River Ran Red, and Out of This Furnace: A Walking Tour of Thomas Bell’s Novel, all produced by Domike, on YouTube by clicking this link. The playlist also features a recording of a recent USW program, “The Origin Stories of Women of Steel.”

Today, the United Steelworkers (USW) has an activist-arm called Women of Steel that evolved from the early women’s caucuses that demanded a seat at the table in the union. The USW Constitution requires that each local union with female members must establish a Local Union Women’s Committee. USW considers all of its female members to be Women of Steel regardless of their union-position or the industry or service that they work in.

Take a look at the University of Pittsburgh Library System’s highlights from its Steffi Domike archives, where you can page through a pamphlet that Domike wrote called Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions: Some Hints for Women in the Mills for Getting Through the Verbal Abuse, along with the first issue of the Women of Steel newsletter, and other pieces of her collections. Here’s a zinger: Question: “What does your husband think of you working here?” Response: “1. What does your wife think?” or “2. He likes the paycheck as much as I do.”

This article was published to coincide with Women’s History Month. For another article on women in steel, read Shining a Light on the Ciloets

A gray haired woman in a black sweater paints a pastoral scene. Behind her is a wall of her other paintings.

Heritage Highlights: Kathleen Ferri

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Kathleen Ferri painting, image courtesy of the artist, by Bob Donaldson for the Post-Gazette.

Heritage Highlights

Rivers of Steel’s Heritage Arts program strives to represent the region’s diverse cultural heritage, from ethnic customs and occupational traditions directly linked to Pittsburgh’s industrial past, to new American folk arts and cultural practices emerging from the region’s diverse urban experience.  Usually passed down from person-to-person within close-knit communities, these cultural traditions are as varied as they are unique, each representing one aspect of what makes southwestern Pennsylvania’s heritage so rich.

In this month’s installment, Rivers of Steel’s Heritage Arts Coordinator Jon Engel shares an in-depth dive into the life and art of local painter Kathleen Ferri. Ferri is a lifelong resident of the Mon Valley, born in Turtle Creek and now living in North Versailles. Her unique works provide deep insight into the Valley of the 20th century, from factory labor to family life.

Kathleen Ferri, Artist & Historian

By Jonathan Engel

Like most Europeans, the Orgills first came to the Monongahela Valley for the mills. They had been living in some English colony—the name of which is one of the few things that Kathleen cannot remember—where the state gave out land through lottery. The Orgills drew the worst, and so their patriarch made for America, specifically for an aunt already living in Lawrenceville. He quickly found employment in steel but burned his hands badly on the job. Now unable to work, he set sail back to his family. Meanwhile, his wife and children had suffered in the colony during a typhoid outbreak and boarded a ship to find him in America. As Kathleen tells it, with a laugh, their ships passed each other in the sea.

“Through people helping them,” she concludes, “they got back together.”

A colorful image of a neighborhood from an aerial point of view.

A painting of Braddock in the 1940s by Kathleen Ferri. 

Kathleen Ferri (née Orgill) is full of stories like this. “Before TV, families discussed ‘local history’ at the dinner table.” Mainly, these stories are about two topics: family and work. She is a historian of these things in the Mon Valley, a history she records in her vibrant paintings.

Kathleen was born in Turtle Creek in 1926 to two Westinghouse employees, who had met at the company’s East Pittsburgh office. In this story, Kathleen’s father is a dogged romantic hero turned down numerous times by her mother, a young secretary that found employment when most men were drafted into World War I. Shortly before their long-requested first date, Mr. Orgill, a strapping young football player, injured himself on the field. He arrived at the future Mrs. Orgill’s doorstep on crutches and covered in mud, not at all the image of the young gentleman she knew at work. Kathleen laughs again, noting that her mother did not like that very much.

Throughout Kathleen’s life, she also worked at Westinghouse, and at the local bank. Her son Vince worked at U.S. Steel’s Homestead mill. Others of her children and grandchildren have worked and lived throughout the Mon Valley. Thus, these family stories tell about more than just her own life, but about the social conditions of the entire region. When the Depression came, the Orgills—like most of Turtle Creek—were poor. Mr. Orgill worked only two and a half days at Westinghouse and sold sweepers on the side to make ends meet. Still, they made frequent trips to the Penn Avenue business district in downtown Turtle Creek. “During the ‘Depression Days’,” says Kathleen, “money was so scarce, we seldom could afford any new items, but we enjoyed ‘window shopping’ and dreaming of ‘better days’ coming.” These small-town streets and storefront displays were the beginning of a lifelong fascination with local scenes, which was tied intimately to an interest in the metal and manufacturing industries that supported that lifestyle.

A depiction of an open hearth mill at Carnegie Steel in Homestead, PA.

An undated Kathleen Ferri painting of the Homestead Works steel mill and adjacent trolley.

Picking Up the Brush

Kathleen did not begin painting until she was in her sixties. Whenever she tells this story, it is only ever one sentence away from a story about her late husband, Jim Ferri.

Growing up, Kathleen’s family often visited the local Italian grocery, Ferri Brothers’, which was founded in 1919. Ferri Brothers’ was a key community-gathering place. The first phone in town was installed there. “People would call in from Altoona,” Kathleen says, “‘Can you tell so-and-so her sister died?’” (Mickens, PGH City Paper, 2002). They frequently catered community picnics. The company truck was lent out to anyone who needed help moving.

When she was young, Kathleen met Jim, the owner’s son. One day at the store in 1942, Jim told her he was going to the join the army and asked Kathleen to write him. Reminiscing now, she remembers being skeptical and fiery—“Get out! The army won’t have you!”—but she also remembers crying on her walk home.

They did write. “His first letter was signed ‘Love, Jim!’—and I thought, my mother’s gonna’ kill me, I’m still in high school!” When he returned, the two were married. They raised four kids together and Jim worked in the store that his uncles ran.

A corner building with a busy street scene.

A 1986 painting by Kathleen Ferri, showing the Ferri Brothers’ grocery store in Turtle Creek, c. the 1940s.

He passed away in 1984. By then, their children had all moved out to find jobs elsewhere. Kathleen was left lonely and bored. At the encouragement of some friends, she made a social visit to a local senior center. There, she was convinced to stay for a holiday crafts class, making ornaments for the center’s Christmas tree. Told to do “anything”, she made her first painting: a five-inch disk with an image of Mickey Mouse, which she thought little of. After class, she was pulled aside by the volunteer instructor, Shirley Knezevich, who told her: “You are a natural-born artist, I can tell!”

Kathleen and Shirley forged a strong bond. Kathleen began attending Shirley’s classes to paint, staying after to tweak her works with the input of her friend. From the beginning, Kathleen’s paintings were almost always family scenes or scenes of the community. “I thought, well, paint what you know. So I started to paint the little town of Turtle Creek! I love that town! I know everybody and they know me!” Soon enough, she painted Wilmerding too. After that, East Pittsburgh. Then Trafford. Then McKeesport. Then Braddock, and so on. Kathleen has made over 70 deeply detailed paintings over the past 35 years.

Nearly all of these are rendered from a bird’s eye view, even at impossible angles. Still, they remain faithful to the towns’ layouts. Kathleen knows her subjects so well she can picture them from any vantage point. This is because, with few exceptions, she does not paint from photographs or from any other reference. She paints from her memories, especially her memories of being a child in the ‘30s and ‘40s.

Going Over the Faces

A church surrounded by industrial buildings with streetcars.

A painting of the Strip District depicting the 1940s era by Kathleen Ferri.

Kathleen’s works immediately caught people’s eyes. Not only do they carry a unique visual character, but they capture rarely seen views of the Mon Valley: views of not just industry, but also neighborly living. In 1987, Kathleen entered a painting of Turtle Creek into the Wilkins Township Art Festival and received best of show; in 1988, she showed two paintings at the Three Rivers Arts Festival; and by 1994, her painting of Ferri’s Groceries had won the statewide Senior Arts Festival’s first prize. In 1995, she was part of a large folk artists’ show at the Pittsburgh Center of the Arts, where then-director Murray Horne commented: “I walk through the gallery during the day and hear people commenting that they can do this or that. And it’s true, maybe they can do it too if they pick up a brush” (Norman, Post-Gazette).

Not long after, Kathleen sold the only painting she ever has. (She has, at several points, recreated paintings or sold prints of them, but she has not parted with any of the rest of her originals.) This was a painting of Pittsburgh’s Strip District, to the Heinz Foundation. It is characteristic of her works: a bright red cathedral is in the center, with boats, trains, cars, and little people all about. Many factories surround the church, spitting up fire. In the background, the original Heinz plant sits across the river, the element that intrigued the Foundation. As Kathleen tells it, she sold for a simple reason: the Heinz representatives were kind and described the Berlin Wall to her, so she could paint it.

 

A painting of a small amusement park with a roller coaster, merry-go-round, auto ride, a dancing pavilion and a pool.

A 1993 painting by Kathleen Ferri of Burke Glen, a former amusement park in Monroeville. The park operated from 1926 to 1974, just off the Old William Penn Highway.

Kathleen has never received any formal art training. She does not much consider painterly techniques like perspective, lighting, or anatomy. She prefers her own intuition. Her works have been called “childlike” or “primitive” but, really, they are personal. They thrum with the unique rhythm of her “good ol’ days” window shopping: place names, street plans, brick walls, and windows. Often, she calls her paintings “memory scenes”, and designs them as a resident might describe them in a story.

She recalled to me how she painted the Berlin Wall scene from details passed on by the Heinz people and the TV news: “There was tears of happiness, so I have to have tears of happiness in there. And they said there was people dancing in the streets, so I had to put dancing in. And you need to have music, you can’t have them dancing around the lunchbox, so I painted a German man playing music,” and so forth. “I’m not in a rush. As long as something’s recognizable, it’s good—and I can always just go over it a second time!” She can stay up all night, making little improvements just as she did in Knezevich’s class, redrawing clouds and faces.

In Kathleen’s paintings, people are mostly happy. They are happy under blue skies, at play in busy amusement parks like Kennywood or Monroeville’s Burke Glen. They are happy under red skies, at work in smoggy mills like Homestead and Edgar Thomson Works. They are happy in town, at business, and with family. The intimate connection between all these aspects of life is obvious, as is the deep familiarity everyone in town has with each other. Her people—often drawn simply, almost like dolls or toys—are in harmonious community with one other and with their surroundings. Kathleen’s artworks are not just key records of the Mon Valley’s underappreciated boroughs, but of Kathleen’s views of 20th century life. In contrast to the Depression, “steel mills, electric production, and boats on our rivers, and many trucks were the evidence of employment returned once more.”

While she gleefully blends small details like period boats and contemporary cars, she is careful to accurately pin down the precise geography and architecture of the town she is painting. She is not only preserving the visual appearance of these places but a loving view of how the people interacted in them. This has only become more crucial as time has gone on and economic forces have changed these towns.

A snowy painting of a old bridge with industry in the background contrasted with a modern photo of the scene.

Left: an undated painting of Dooker’s Hollow Bridge c. the 1940s by Kathleen Ferri. Right: a March 2021 picture of the Dooker’s Hollow Bridge construction siteby Mike Engel. Dooker’s Hollow Bridge spanned a gorge between North Braddock to East Pittsburgh until its detonation in February 2021. Construction on a new bridge is scheduled for later this month.

Hanging the Canvases

Like everywhere in the Rust Belt, Turtle Creek’s industrial economy crashed in the second half of the 20th century. While factories like Edgar Thomson and the Westinghouse Airbrake Factory still remain, they employ far less. As jobs changed, so did the forces and infrastructures that dominate people’s lives. Mill life shifted towards office life and company towns like Wilmerding shifted towards long commutes and large highways. The logic of existence was changing.

The Tri-Boro Expressway was built through Turtle Creek in the 1970s to connect it to Pitcairn. “You crawl after Pitcairn,” remarks Kathleen. During its construction, Ferri Groceries, along with most of the business district, was demolished. A new, smaller plaza was built in their place. A small Vietnam War memorial was erected where the store once was.

Ferri Brothers’ had been seized through eminent domain. Jim, having lost his job, worked various odd jobs. Kathleen got work at the bank. Though the Ferris survived, the way their neighbors related to each other was forever altered. According to the Census Bureau, the 10,600 people of Turtle Creek in 1960 had become 8,300 by 1970 and 6,000 by 2000. The population now hovers somewhere over 5,000.

“They took the whole town!” Kathleen says, naming the Isaly’s deli and local pharmacy as shops long gone. “[The redevelopment] was successful, but they tore down all the old reliables where you knew everyone”.

A then and now set of images of a brick building and an park space.

Left: a picture of the Ferri Brother’s Groceries building at 901 Penn Avenue in Turtle Creek c. the 1930s. Right: a picture of the lot where the building once stood, taken by Mike Engel in March 2021.

Kathleen’s painting of Ferri’s Groceries is one of the few relics of the store left. It preserves not just the’’ building’s façade, but the way of life the store was integral to, a more communal time when people were more known to each other. Many vanished places still endure in Kathleen’s paintings, and her memory. Perhaps because of this, she is careful to only paint things which she remembers well. Though also lacking formal training as a historian, Kathleen is a diligent one. In addition to her art, until recently, she gave lectures on local history at high schools and volunteered at the now-closed Westinghouse Castle Museum.

Contrasting views of the painting and photograph show both change over time and the unique birds-eye perspective of the artist's point of view.

Left: a painting of the town of Wilmerding by Kathleen Ferri, made in 1990 for the town’s centennial celebration. Right: a picture of Wilmerding Park by Mike Engel in March 2021. Note the famous Westinghouse Air Brake Office Building on the left of both, nicknamed “the Castle”. The Air Brake company was based from 1889 to 1985, and from 2006 to 2016, operated as a museum to local history. It is now being developed into a boutique hotel.

These days, Kathleen lives in an independent living residence for seniors in North Versailles, not far from Shirley Knezevich. She spends much of her time writing up old family stories, having created a comprehensive Ferri family history with a photo album and paintings to accompany. She has no plans to sell any more of her artworks, which densely line the walls of her apartment. “They’re like my babies. You don’t produce a baby and then sell it.”

They still bring her great joy: “When I hear people try to describe my art, I say, ‘I don’t even know what you’re talking about!’ It just tickled my heart!”

A gray haired woman in a flowered jacket sits in a chair with three of her paintings hung on the walls behind her.

A picture of Kathleen Ferri, c. 2021, with several of her paintings behind her.

For this article, my father and I set out to photograph some of the places Kathleen painted as they look now. This proved difficult, as our pictures were somehow never as sharp or as real as her works. Not having lived in these towns as she did, we were earthbound, in earthier tones. Still, I am surprised to say: the colors are really there. In the sunset, industrial grays and tans become alchemical golds and reds. Another generation grows up among these buildings, in Turtle Creek and Rankin and Wilmerding and more, witnessing their own hues, making their own memory scenes.

Kathleen Ferri will turn 95 this July. She has four children, ten grandchildren, and eleven great-grandchildren.

Citations

Kirkland, Kevin. “Artist Kathleen Ferri is a Pittsburgh original”. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 21 March 2012.

Mickens, Julie. Interview with Kathleen Ferri. PGH City Paper, November 2002.

Norman, Tony. “School of Life: City’s self-taught artists get own show at PCA”. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 1995.

All images of artwork, along with the featured image of the Kathleen Ferri painting, appear courtesy of the artist. They were photographed by Bob Donaldson for the Post-Gazette on Tuesday, January 24, 2012, for the article cited above by Kevin Kirkland.

Read more in the Heritage Highlights series. Check out this interview with Turkish Calligrapher Benjamin Aysan or this interview with drag queen Akasha Van Cartier

Black and white professional women in hard hats pose outside a mill

Shining a Light on the Ciloets

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A few of the 148 Ciloets who visited the Johnstown Works in 1977.

Shining a Light on the Ciloets

Brianna Horan

By Brianna Horan

Having a friend at work can be a lifesaver—whether it’s a collaborator who makes tight deadlines a breeze, a confidante who can empathize with your workplace struggles, or a colleague who is happy to share her aspirational organization strategies to make your day run more smoothly. For nearly 80 years, an organization called the Ciloets has provided a way for women who work at United States Steel to forge these types of friendships while furthering their own professional and personal development and supporting charitable work.

A 1942 photo of 15 professional women gathered around a table.

The original Ciloets in 1942.

The origins of the Ciloets (pronounced “silhouettes”) began in February 1942, when a training program was established for the women employees of the Pittsburgh general office of U.S. Steel’s Carnegie-Illinois Steel Company. In the midst of World War II, these trainings were intended to teach these new hires about the steelmaking process and the various aspects of the company’s businesses. Fifteen women were invited to attend a series of lectures for 14 weeks, and also toured U.S. Steel’s Edgar Thomson (Braddock), Homestead, McDonald (Ohio), and Vandergrift steel production plants. The experience gave the participants an invigorating sense of familiarity with the technical background of their daily jobs, and create bonds of friendship between the “classmates” that they were keen to nourish. In that spirit, these women decided to meet once a month for dinner—and because they wished to continue to expand their knowledge of U.S. Steel’s workings, they invited a member of company personnel to be their guest speaker at these gatherings.

U.S. Steel continued to offer the 14-week training course and learning tours, and each subsequent class of participants was invited to join these dinners. Eventually it was decided that this club needed an official name, and “Ciloet” was formed from the initial letters of the training course’s name: Carnegie-Illinois Office Employees Training. Three objectives were also identified at the time: “1. To continue to merit the confidence implied in our selection for training, 2. To preserve the bonds of friendship formed in our studies and travels together, and 3. To provide for other USS women who will follow a means for both fellowship and fun.”

As time went on and the U.S. Steel training course ceased in the mid-1940s, the Ciloets invited 15 women from the Pittsburgh General Office to join their ranks two times a year. Instead of monthly dinners, they began meeting in a company conference room to hear from corporate executives. As the Ciloets’ 50th Anniversary program from 1992 notes, “Over the years, our guest list reads like a ‘Who’s Who in U.S. Steel.’” In addition to learning about their work environment, the Ciloets also learned about the Pittsburgh community from an array of invited guest speakers. Some of the guests in the 1950s were a prominent Pittsburgh surgeon, an FBI narcotics agent, the manager of Kaufmann’s Department Store’s book department, a handwriting analyst, and the president of Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation.

While these meetings provided a social element, the Ciloets’ continued to plan two special dinner events each February and September that allowed them to connect at some of the city’s most premiere venues, like Oakmont Country Club, the Duquesne Club, Edgewood Country Club, Top of the Triangle, Grand Concourse, and many more. In the early decades of the club’s existence, these chances to mingle outside of work were much appreciated by members, as pointed out in the Ciloets’ 50th Anniversary program: “For although the work setting for these women was more advanced than that found at other places of employment in the city, it was nonetheless a place designed where work was done in a staunchly formal environment. Though it was not unusual on a limited basis for secretaries to exchange greetings of the day with their co-workers and converse on the telephone with business associates, the friendly atmosphere of today’s office was not present. It is, therefore, no surprise that the Ciloets cherished their time together and did everything possible to make each meeting a pleasant memory that they could long remember.”

A bus full of women in white hard hats and greens.

A snapshot of the 1977 trip to Edgar Thompson and Clairton Works.

And just as the tours of steelmaking plants had been one of the most memorable elements of the original training program, the Ciloets continued to organize trips to U.S. Steel facilities as a core part of their programming each year. Visits rotated between daytrips to local plants, and longer trips to tour operations and offices in Washington, D.C., New York City, and even Košice, Slovakia when U.S. Steel bought a steel company there. Members learned about the history and development of the facilities, the technologies and processes that were carried out, and got to put faces to the names that they corresponded with by phone.

In 1970, the Ciloets voted to begin a new charity initiative as part of their annual programming, which would come to be known as Charity at Home Project. In its origins, the project collected funds and gifts to give to children and patients in need at different organizations throughout Allegheny County. In 1978, the Ciloets began raising funds to support laid-off and unemployed steelworkers and their families as local mills began to shut down. Food certificates, money, holiday gifts, clothing, and other donations were distributed to families in need.

In more recent years, the Ciloets have continued to focus on furthering the interest and knowledge of the women employees of U.S. Steel in various business operations, functions of the Corporation, and in business matters generally. Providing a means of fellowship for members through social and educational functions remains a foundational part of the organization, as well. Eventually, membership was opened up to all women employees at U.S. Steel, beyond only the headquarters. Ciloets who retired were also permitted to retain their membership and participate in the meetings and events.

The Ciloets’ membership has often exceeded 300 active and retired women of U.S. Steel over the years. Today, the organization has 154 members who meet two times in the fall and two times in the spring. As U.S. Steel has made cutbacks in employment and closed facilities in more recent years, the Ciloets put a hold on their mill tours amidst the changing dynamic. Layoffs at the company have made it difficult for the Ciloets to maintain an active employee as the club’s president, but a core group of retired members have continued to organize programming. Because of the Covid-19 pandemic, the group has not been able to meet since December 2019, but they hope to be able to safely gather in the fall to reconnect and reminisce.

Six women gather holding signs showing various Ciloet logos

Ciloets at the 75th Anniversary of the organization in 2017.

An Interview with Four Ciloets

Since the club’s earliest days, U.S. Steel also designated an advisor to the Ciloets who could offer guidance on the administration of the organization and the programming selections. Until 2006, the Ciloets’ advisors had all been men.  That year, Lisa Roudabush was asked to speak to the Ciloets to share her perspectives as U.S. Steel’s general manager of processed products. Before then, Lisa hadn’t heard of the Ciloets, but after meeting with the club, she decided to become a member and take over the advisor role, which she held until her retirement from U.S. Steel in 2015.

Lisa and three other retired Ciloet members talked with Rivers of Steel via Zoom earlier this month to share the history of the Ciloets and their own recollections of working at U.S. Steel. Below are excerpts from their conversation, which has been edited for length.

Ciloet Members and Career Snapshopts

Bonnie Galla worked in administration for the audit division of the accounting and finance department at U.S. Steel’s Pittsburgh Headquarters for 47 years, from 1967 until retiring in 2014. She has been a Ciloet for 43 years; she joined in September 1978 and has served and chaired different committees. She is a past president of the organization from 1997 to 1998.

 

Donna DeBone worked in U.S. Steel’s personnel services and human resources department for 35 years at the Pittsburgh Headquarters from 1964 to 1999, when she retired as the Manager of Human Resources. She has been a member of the Ciloets for 53 years; since joining in 1968 she served on various committees, and became very active after her retirement to chair committees, coordinate mill trips, and serve as the organization’s president.

 

Marylin Roberts worked in administration, employment, and training at U.S. Steel Technology Research Center in Monroeville for 37 years, from 1966 to 2006. She has been a Ciloet for 46 years; since joining in 1975 she has served on committees, and as treasurer and president of the organization. Marylin is currently the membership chair for the Ciloets.

 

Lisa Roudabush worked in plant operations and management at U.S. Steel for 33 years. She began working for the company in 1982 as a student co-op at the Research and Technology Center, and after graduating from college progressed through management roles in that division and at the Gary Works and Mon Valley Works. In 2006, she was appointed as the first woman plant manager of the Clairton Coke Works, and in 2008 became the first woman general manager of the Mon Valley Works. She retired in 2015 as the managing director of quality assurance. She joined the Ciloets in 2006 as a member and as the organization’s advisor. Today she is a retired member and has been president of the Ciloets since 2017.

Interview Excerpts

Can you talk about how the Ciloets organization came to be in the midst of a male-dominated industry, and how that might have changed over the years?

Lisa Roudabush (LR) : When you think that in the 1940s, there was a women’s organization at a very male-dominated, manufacturing company—in essence, one of the first women’s affinity groups. And now you see a lot of affinity groups in companies nowadays—women’s organizations within in companies, and U.S. Steel had one since the ’40s, which I think is tremendous. And it was certainly a tremendous opportunity for women to explore the company outside of their area, and learn about the company from executive speakers. The mill trips were, I think, one of the biggest components of the Ciloets organization where you got to go and see how the steel was made, and meet a lot of people in the company that maybe you wouldn’t otherwise—whether you were a male or female, actually, you wouldn’t have had that opportunity.

I came in in the early ’80s as an engineer, and again there were not many female engineers at the time. I think that there’s been a lot of growth in [the employment of] women. The plants are still very male dominated. I was the first female general manager of the Mon Valley Works, I was the first female plant manager of Clairton, so that was unique, I guess, but it’s still male dominated, though there were a lot of parts of the organization that have really flourished and promoted women.

Bonnie Galla (BG): In audit, when I started, it was all male. There wasn’t one woman. And when I retired, I have to say at least half or three-fourths were women management on the workforce there. I think more towards the end of when I worked, you saw definitely more women coming in to different positions… When I started there were six administrative assistants in the department, and those were the only women. Eventually, as those six retired, I would take over their positions. Then I was the only admin for the audit department, and we had offices, probably when I started, in 14 different cities that were under headquarters. Then, when I retired, we only had the headquarters office left, in Pittsburgh.

Donna DeBone (DD): I started in 1964 and, as I mentioned earlier, I started in the personnel services department at headquarters as a secretary. I was attending evening school at Pitt working toward a degree at the time, and I did complete those degree requirements as time went on. The personnel services department was a very large department at the time, covering many aspects of personnel and labor relations, and there were very few women in management at that time in the department. After several secretarial positions, I was moved to an entry-level management position, and again, both in our department, personnel, and throughout the corporation, there weren’t a lot of women, even at the entry level.  Because U.S. Steel—and I would expect also with Alcoa, Westinghouse, they were all desirable corporations to work for—we actually had women who came in with college degrees onto secretarial positions, and some of them ended up on executive secretarial positions. But the doors were beginning to open for women, and when I was promoted to the position of Manager of Human Resources a number of years later, there was only one other female manager in the personnel services department. She was an older woman; she worked in the training area.

So, as I look back at my own career, I’ve seen a lot of change in that 50-year period. But also looking at it from the perspective of having worked in the personnel human resources department, I look back at how hiring changed. U.S. Steel had traditionally hired into the corporation for management positions at the management trainee level, and they were looking for people with the technical degrees, the science, engineering, business, financial degrees. And back in those early years, women weren’t really majoring so much in those fields, so it was difficult with the recruiting. As I look back to my high school years, the women who excelled in the math and science areas generally went into teaching. That was the way they could use this field that they loved. But slowly things did begin to change, both within and on the outside, so the company was looking on the inside to move women to advance. They were attempting to hire more women. There was a lot of competition for U.S. Steel on the outside as they were hiring, too. These women that had the technical degrees were being recruited by other companies also and, I don’t know how Lisa feels, but we found that sometimes the steel industry wasn’t as attractive, maybe, to women in those early days as some of the other companies. But, the company began to move women over the years, advance women that were in the corporation—Lisa gave some examples of what has happened over the years, and she certainly is an example of the changing role of women in the corporation.

There is one interesting story—I think we’ve all heard it and maybe just quickly can tell you—there was a woman who, this goes back to the ’50s, she is deceased now, but she spoke several times with Ciloets to tell us of her hiring experience with US Steel. She had a law degree and she lived in the Cleveland area, and she applied for a job in the Cleveland law office. The attorney who headed up that office wanted to hire her, but he told her that he could not hire her as an attorney, but he could hire her as a legal secretary, and he would give her work in the legal field, which he did. And he actually became her mentor. She spent the rest of her career with U.S. Steel; she ended up in Pittsburgh in the headquarters’ law department as a senior general attorney, so it was a story that we were always interested in that kind of showed the change that occurred over the years. I think she was an assistant to the general council, so she reached a nice level within the corporation. 

Were there ever discussions in terms of hiring certain quotas, that you wanted to make sure that a certain number of women were considered for certain positions, or overall a certain percentage of the workforce should be female—was that ever a topic of discussion?

LR: … I don’t know that there was any quota per se, but certainly during the ’80s there were a lot of women that were being hired in all departments. I remember when I started, as a management associate, our class of management associates were very diverse with lots of women. But a lot of women didn’t stay in the steel industry. It is especially tough in the plants, in plant operations and plant maintenance, and working shifts was not as appealing, and you know, women had opportunities when there were very few women who were engineers; they had a lot of opportunities at different places that maybe, as Marylin said, had a nicer work environment, for lack of a better term. It’d be one thing working downtown in an office setting. It was a little bit different in the mill—a little bit later in terms of increasing amounts of women in the organization.

Marylin, could you share what your experience was like in research?

Marylin Roberts (MR): I started at U.S. Steel in August of 1966, and when I was hired, I worked in the employment office for quite a few years there. It was basically bringing in people to be interviewed. I did a lot of testing for the clerical part of it. I’d always been in an admin position at the research center. During the years working there, I got into a position where we had a group of ladies that were hired, and they were more or less put into a secretarial group, so they were trained then to move on to the different divisions—the technical divisions. So, when there was a position opened in the division, they would interview these five or six ladies that were already being groomed to be going out into those positions—which makes sense, because if an individual retires or leaves, or whatever, she gets married, then they’re hiring from within and they’ve already had some training as far as the procedures and the things they would have to do and be responsible for in any secretarial position. And then as some women would go out to an area, then they would look at the process of hiring new female positions. … When they would come in—not a lot, but there were several ladies that really wanted to move on. They were going to night school, they were getting in position to hopefully get their degree in some type of an engineering background. A lot of these ladies would go into a technician job, and still continue their education and then once they got their degree, they could move on to another position in the organization, which was very—I think they were great in wanting to pursue their career that way.

I actually, for my 46 years that I worked at research, I never worked in technical division. It was always through the administration part, and then my job when I retired in 2003, I was the training coordinator for research, organizing, coordinating, setting up for the engineers. And I really learned a lot—even in a clerical position, and I think that’s what the Ciloets really was a great organization for. At that time back in the ’40s, for these women who were in the clerical field to really try to understand what the engineers were doing, either in their office as an engineer, and out at the plants. So, back then that’s how it really started. These ladies wanted to know more about what they were doing in the office working for these engineers. And over the years, [women with technical positions] came into the organization. They took in people from the plants. So we had a mixed group of people that we had friendships with them, but we also learned among a lot from them, too. It was a nice career that I had at U.S. Steel. I wouldn’t have given it up for anything. It was wonderful, and like I said, staying in the field that I was in, I was very happy in the jobs that I had in research.

What’s the balance of how much of a professional development organization versus a social organization the Ciloets has been for its members. With the opportunity that the organization offered to tour different plants and locations, it must have been a way for members to see all of the different experiences that were available at U.S. Steel. In what ways did it help women or change the course of their careers?

MR: I think a lot of the ladies really strived to get ahead if they could, and it was hard because, like I said, some of the secretaries back then that even wanted to be a technician—they actually had to be able to lift [a certain number of] pounds. They were going to be out in the lab area working with the other engineers and other male technicians, and I saw quite a few move on—either staying in that job or moving on to a position as an engineer.

 LR: The Ciloets really … started out as a group of women who got an opportunity to take a training class to learn about steel, and that was set up by the company. They loved it so much and learned so much that they kept it together and spread that to other women. And the fact that the educational piece—we always had at a minimum two U.S. Steel speakers a year. The discussion was on topics of the company: what they were doing, the big projects, how they ran their organization—and the women in the audience were, one, very interested in learning about the organization; number two, asked amazingly great questions. They were very knowledgeable about what was going on at U.S. Steel.

The mill trips again were another opportunity where you may be working with a mill or a plant, or other offices as Donna or Bonnie had mentioned, that were scattered all over the country but you never got an opportunity to meet face to face. Well, here was an opportunity where the women went to Chicago, they went to Washington, they went to New York, they went to Birmingham, Alabama—they went to all the plants and got to see how the steel was made. They got to interact with the people that they probably only heard of.

A group of mostly women in white hard hats stand in front of a chemical plant with a sign board behind them that says Welcome Ciloets

The Ciloets trip to U.S.S. Chemicals at the Haverhill Plant in 1986.

But the other big thing about the Ciloets was that it was a pretty big organization. At one point we had way over 300 members, and it was run by the women… All the meetings were organized by women who volunteered for these leadership positions and committees And there were some very large, complicated organizational activities that were done by the Ciloets. Charity work, just the set-up of the meetings, the set-up of the mill trips. And it gave these women an opportunity to be in a leadership role, and maybe learn those aspects that they could take back to their jobs. To have to speak publicly, and interact and network with lots of different organizations and people both within the company and outside the company to bring in speakers. So, I think the Ciloets gave women that outlet to expand their leadership skills in an area near work, but kind of outside of work as well. A lot of this stuff was done on your own time.

When you think out about the different committee positions and leadership roles with the Ciloets, and starting out as members as well, what are some of your favorite memories—whether the connections and friendships you made, or speakers that you heard from that really changed your perspective on things? The mill trips sound like they were really unique, one-of-a-kind experiences as well.

BG: I have to say, I think the mill trips were just above and beyond, and Donna chaired them for many, many years. I used to help her. I remember [when I] worked in headquarters, and [other staff from headquarters would visit the auditor office in Gary] and say, “Gary Works is a city within itself,” and you just couldn’t picture how huge this place was. Then, when we did a mill trip there and I got to see it. It sits on the lake, surrounded by these other steel tech companies, it is just massive. It’s beyond what you could even imagine. And then also going to the [Monongahela River] Valley and seeing them make the steel and pouring the steel out of the big ladles; and that was so huge, and you can’t even imagine these men currently and back in the day doing this. That was very impressive, but I don’t even know if they would even take people through today with the safety rules. We were fortunate enough back then that they would take the women through. I don’t know if they would do that anymore. And also, the railroads, I have to say the topography of going through the Valley and how the train moved, and moved the product to the different plants—that was interesting, because growing up in the Valley, you don’t even realize all this until you actually go and tour these places and see it. So those were interesting, and I think of the camaraderie with the women to this day.

A group of women in greens and white hard hats in front of the Gary Works sign.

The Ciloets outside of U.S.S. Gary Works in Indiana, 1999.

In finance and auditing, you might not necessarily need to know how to make steel, or how railroads move things from one place to another—but when you got back from a mill trip and had that wider knowledge, how did that effect how you did your work?

BG: Typing your reports, and some of the stuff you’re typing you’re not sure what it means, but then you tour the plant and they explain things to you, it all comes together and makes sense. It was a learning experience.

DD: I can tell you that our members always looked forward to hearing where the trip was going to be. That was the big question—where the trip was going to be this year. We always tried to announce it months in advance. Our program year ran September through May, and we generally took the trip in spring, usually in April. We alternated between a one-day, local visit to a U.S. Steel facility in the area, and a weekend trip for the following year. For the local trips, we visited all of the plants, so those that are still in existence—Irvin, Edgar Thomson, Clairton, National, Homestead, all of the area plants were visited probably several times over the many years. We went to Youngstown, Johnstown, Lorain—we even went underground—U.S. Steel has some employees at the Annandale Archives in Boyers, PA, so we did have an opportunity to do some things that other people just didn’t have an opportunity to do.

On the weekend trips, we generally left on a Thursday afternoon, spent Friday visiting the facility, hosted by the organization, usually a wonderful day. Then we would spend the rest of the weekend wherever we were visiting. These weekend trips were to Gary, Indiana; Fairfield, Alabama; Minnesota Ore Operations. In addition, we had government affairs offices in Washington, D.C., and Harrisburg, so we visited there. There were financial offices in New York City, so that got us to New York. Bonnie mentioned the two international trips; those were done in recent years. When U.S. Steel bought the Steel Company of Canada we went to Hamilton in Ontario and had a wonderful visit at the plant that day. Again, hosted by all of the management people that were working at the time. We were actually there when they were in strike, but we had a great visit. We spent the balance of that weekend at Niagara on the Lake, which is a delightful little theater town up there, and we were able to visit Niagara Falls. The other international trip was a 10-day trip to Slovakia. U.S. Steel had bought the steel company in Slovakia in Košice and we spent probably about a week visiting Vienna and Prague, and we spent quite a few days driving across the lovely countryside there in Slovakia and had a couple of just great days with the people at the plant at Košice. In addition to the tour of the plant and a walking tour of the town, they hosted a number of events. They included spouses in some of the events, and they had some delightful Slovakian entertainment for us. So, again, there are examples of the support that we had from the corporation even on these international trips.

A large group of women pose for a group photo.

The Ciloet trip to New York in 1997 to visit the financial offices.

I think the other thing about the trips that I always found wonderful and I think others will probably agree is that we were traveling with a great group of women. These were women who were coworkers and friends, and I think that made the trips extra special also. I know there are so many good memories of the trips, and talking about the friendship and the fellowship—in the original objectives of the organization, that first group of women, one of their objectives was to provide for other U.S. Steel women who will follow a means for both fellowship and fun, so I think the trips really helped accomplish that. As I said, I think there are many wonderful memories that we all have of the times that we shared on those trips.

I might add too, that in planning these trips, we did not use travel agencies. We did plan all of the details of the trips. It took a lot of effort by a lot of people, and the women who are participating today were all involved and were always willing to share the work, the responsibilities. But again, it was fun working together. I think we stayed together quite a few years doing this, so I guess we always enjoyed it, and it added to our getting to know each other better.

In fact, I really did not know Marylin and Bonnie all that well before I retired. I knew who they were, but we really didn’t know each other that well. And, I always kid Bonnie; she was nominating chair the year I retired. I retired in March, and I tell her that I was home doing some housecleaning when the phone rang, and it was Bonnie and her co-chair of that nominating committee that asked me to be president, so that sounded good after a day of doing house work. But it was really through involvement at Ciloets that we’ve become friends. We know each other’s families, we do other social things together, so I think a lot of friendships were forged over the years through Ciloets.

MR: What I liked about it too was that there were times we had socials, [and] you would see these people at work all the time, but you never saw them in another type of situation. We would have amateur hour, we would have … groups get together and do some singing or whatever. We saw these people at work, and we saw them at the meetings, and on our trips, but to see another side … Even the advisors would get involved in some of our social activities and join in with the ladies. Very good memories of every aspect of the Ciloets, from being involved, and that’s important. You have to be involved in order to understand and grow with the organization, which I think we all have grown and learned a lot, met a lot of people. Like I said, I worked at research, and I really didn’t know anyone from downtown or even at Muriel Street when I had to deal with these people by phone. And once we were all together as far as in the Ciloets organization, we became a family and really, like Donna said, with not only work, but Ciloets have maintained a wonderful friendship with so many wonderful, wonderful people. It’s been great.

What led each of you to want to get into the steel industry? Did any of you have any family connections of people who immigrated here to work in the industry?

LR: Well my grandfather was actually an employee of U.S. Steel; he came over from Slovakia as well,  actually from the Košice area where [U.S. Steel] bought the plant. My uncle worked down at National Tube, my other uncle was an accountant for U.S. Steel. My dad actually worked for U.S. Steel for a while. I think if you were born in Pittsburgh, you probably knew for somebody or were related to somebody that at one point worked for U.S. Steel. None of that actually got me, necessarily, into U.S. Steel. I think, a lot on the union side, yeah they would bring their sons and other relatives in preferentially maybe through the union, but on my side, I just became an engineer, I happened to like metallurgy, and then I happened to go to U.S. Steel, but I did have a legacy of U.S. Steel in my family. I don’t know that it necessarily prompted me to begin a position there and stay there for so long. And I met my husband at U.S. Steel … We met at Research playing volley ball of all things—not working together at all, different sides of the spectrum in terms of the operation. But certainly we moved with U.S. Steel, and U.S. Steel made it very easy for us to be a couple, and a couple working at U.S. Steel.

DD: Yes, actually. My grandfather also worked at Edgar Thomson, and he also came from Slovakia, so there is that history in my background also. But I think what really drew a lot of us to U.S. Steel—it was a major employer, and it was a very well-respected company. It was a company that contributed a lot to the Pittsburgh area in many ways. In the theater programs over the years, you always saw U.S. Steel as one of the major contributors. The Foundation did a lot in terms of contributing to many aspects of the cultural life of Pittsburgh. And I’m sure there are people that worked for Westinghouse and Alcoa—there were a number of large corporations that probably had employees that felt the same about those corporations also. It was certainly a place where people wanted to work, at least I think women. It was a big employer of men, whether or not it was their first choice of employment, I don’t know if that was always the case. But it was a major employer in the Pittsburgh area, so a lot has changed in that respect now; but back when we were hired, it made an impact here in the city, the corporation.

Can you talk a bit about your hours, and what your work day, work week was like in terms of stress levels and things that were on your plate for the day, the projects you worked on? Without being too personal, in terms of salary was something that was able to sustain you comfortably? And if you’d want to share details about the everyday parts of your workday, like the things that you ate for lunch, or what you wore to work.

DD: I think one of the things that made U.S. Steel a desirable place to work was that it did pay employees well. Women that came into the organization even on secretarial jobs, I think salaries were very competitive. The other companies again—there were others that were also excellent employers, but that, I think, definitely is one of the things that made the corporation so attractive to people.

Those of us working at headquarters, and I think also at Tech Center, when I first started, headquarters was across the street from where Kaufmann’s had been at 525 William Penn Place, and we had a large employee cafeteria there, so most everyone ate in the cafeteria. But when we moved into the new building, they did not include an employee cafeteria. So the cafeteria was always a place for socializing and seeing employees also. U.S. Steel had, at headquarters, had, we called it the “Andrew Carnegie Athletic Association.” It was an employee organization that sponsored many kinds of events and activities. They actually, way back, did golf weekends and many other activities. So, it was a good place to work for many reasons.

MR: The reason I think I decided to pursue a job opportunity at U.S. Steel—it wasn’t far from home, I could get there very easily, and fortunately I did get the job there. It was nice working at this location, the research center in Monroeville. We didn’t have to pay for parking; you could just park your car and go into work. The type of socializing, as far as the Tech Center was concerned, we had a Tech Center Club that we all—you didn’t have to belong to, but the majority of us did. They had a bowling league, they had a golf league, they had a volleyball league… There were always other activities going on that brought us together outside of the office. And as far as our lunch bag, we were fortunate that we had always maintained a cafeteria, and U.S. Steel would subsidize part of that cafeteria as far as the expenses. So, Tuesdays were prime rib day, and you could get a prime rib dinner for $2.50. It was just a wonderful place to go to every day. Sure there were stress times. There were deadlines you had to meet. But, we worked together as a team in the office that I worked in, and we got through what we had to do. But also, making good friendships and good memories of U.S. Steel.

BG: We always had to dress. I mean, there were no pants, and I don’t remember what year it was—Donna might remember this, but they were talking about women wearing pantsuits to the work place, and that was the big deal. And when the chairman of the board’s secretary wore pants, that was our cue that we were allowed to wear pants to work and that was a big deal! And then down the road, it was many years after that, you could come to work casual. So, I saw from the very dressed—heels, nylons, to pantsuits, to casual.

DD: I retired in 1999, and we were just beginning to be able—I think it was on Fridays, that you were permitted to wear pants. So my career really was spent dressing up coming to work except for a few days probably within that last year. That certainly changed over the years, but I enjoyed that. Now when I think back, I’m glad I worked at a time where we dressed up when we went to the office.

MR: I know out at research, especially on a Friday, if one of the engineers had to be called into a meeting in Pittsburgh, they better have a suit jacket and a change of dress pants to go downtown. Because one time a person went down just in their blue jeans and whatever, and they were… we had to make some changes that dress down day, casual day should be khakis and a shirt. You looked nice.

LR: … It was funny, because downtown people would [have casual day], and in the mills they thought it was a little silly to have an event like that because jeans was our daily wear. Jeans and then you changed out of your jeans into your fire-retardant greens, you know. For me, I was in a lot of different roles. When I was downtown you dressed up more.

Certainly later in my career but at a time when I had a lot more responsibility, days were very long. They were 12-, 16-hour days. The plant could be like that all the time, working on weekends. Even coming home and still working, emails and such. So, I mean, when you’re in a position of leadership at any corporation, those are the kinds of hours that you’re going to have to put in. One different thing about working in the mill is the calls. You get called any time of the night, especially if somebody has an injury, if there’s a hiccup in the operations at all, you would get a phone call. And there were times when it was something you could handle over the phone, and there were times when you would go into the office. That was particularly tough when you’re juggling that with a spouse and children, but you make it work. So, the work for managers in the mill, they’re there right with the union guys. They’re working the same hours, but probably more, a lot more responsibility.

When I was running the plants in the Mon Valley, every day I was responsible for the health and safety of 3,000 people, and there’s a lot of stress there. So there’s, safety, there’s quality, there’s environmental—especially in the Pittsburgh area that’s very prominent. And then there’s still operations and costs. So, it’s a very stressful, it’s a very stressful job. And then there’s positions where it’s maybe not as stressful. At Research, if you’re just an engineer, maybe 8 or 10 hour days, but there was a lot of travel. Every job comes with its set of stressors, its set of responsibilities, and usually that ebbs and flows in your career. Anyone, when it’s crunch time and you have to get a report out, or you’re doing union negotiations. Everyone has their times when they’re working significant hours. But there’s a lot of fun, too. Steel gets in your blood, and you just love it.

That sounds like a lot to keep on your mind all the time. Lisa, being the first woman to hold some of the plant management roles that you did, do you think employees interacted with you differently than they did with your male predecessors? Did you run into challenges?

LR: First I was the plant manager at Clairton, and then I was the general manager of the Mon Valley operations. I honestly don’t think I did [run into challenges]. At the time, between myself, and actually having a husband who worked there in some of those plants, I knew a lot of the people before I started. When I went to Clairton though, I had no idea how to make coke or anything like that, and when I went in I was very honest with the guys and I said, “Look I don’t know anything about making coke. Here’s my skills, and this is what I bring to the job, and I will learn. I will learn very fast, and I will let you teach me.” And they did. I guess, listening—making sure you’re listening, taking in a lot of information to make decisions. I think I was very collaborative and respectful of everybody and their knowledge. I didn’t come in like, “I know everything and I’m going to be the manager.” I think that maybe that helped me, and that was my style. I certainly had men tell me what I should do from a style standpoint, and I politely just ignored their advice. I don’t feel I ever was discriminated against, at pretty much any time in my career. If anything, I was given more opportunities, I believe. I don’t know, maybe I was just blind to that, but I really enjoyed my time at the mill. But I did—I brought my skill set there and I was able to fight for the plants and advocate for the plants in my role. And I, I don’t know, maybe you’d ask other people, but I was an engineer all the time, I loved solving problems, I was very quality-oriented and it was a lot of my background in quality and research, and that was what I brought to that role. I think being a mother actually helped in management skills as much as anything else.

Can you tell me what being a Ciloet has been like in more recent years? What kind of topics and speakers are you hearing from during your meetings? Are the mill trips still happening in non-pandemic times?

LR: We haven’t had a mill trip in maybe about five years. The last one that we went to was local in Monroeville. And a lot of that had to do with the economy at the time, and the changes in U.S. Steel. In more recent years, we have had the opportunity to have speakers from the new members of U.S. Steel that have been brought in as a lot of our people had—you know, there’s shake up in the organization. So it was really interesting, I think, to hear a new CFO, a new HR, and in fact we had several HR turnovers. There was a woman that was in charge of the commercial department, there were some very higher-level women that were part of this new regime of executives, so it was neat to hear their perspectives, because a lot of them came from other companies. And U.S. Steel had a long—a long, long, long tradition—of just promoting from within, raising people from the time that they were right out of high school or even college, up to their executive ranks. There was a large loyalty factor, there was a large grow-within factor, and in more recent years, since several years before I retired, so maybe the last eight to ten years, [they started] bringing in people from outside. And I thought that that was probably the most interesting things in terms of speakers. And what was nice about them was that they all agreed—they knew very little about the Ciloets, but they all agreed to come and speak with this organization, and it was really nice to hear their perspectives.

A plastic bag, a notebook, pen, key ring, a calculator, all with the Ciloets loto

Ciloets items from the Rivers of Steel Archives.

This article was published to coincide with Women’s History Month. Stay tuned for more stories highlighting women in steel and in southwestern Pennsylvania.

The images from the article are from the Rivers of Steel Archives.

Birding from Explorer

By Blog

By Angela Biederman, Chief Deckhand  |   Featured Image: Angela Biederman birdwatching on the Explorer riverboat.

“Birding from Explorer” is an ongoing series of articles by Angela Biederman, Chief Deckhand on the Explorer riverboat.  A relatively new birder, Angela shares her observations of migrating birds, as sighted from the boat’s home dock on Pittsburgh’s North Shore, near the headwaters of the Ohio River.

Angela BiedermanA Tale of Two Ducks: Canvasbacks and Redheads

The month of February brought so many migratory birds through and to Pittsburgh’s three rivers that, short of offering an extensive calendrical list of sightings, I might hardly know where to begin. I even considered opening this installment with the simple introduction: Brace Yourselves. Rather than opt for a chronological retelling that might quickly disinterest readers, I decided to focus on two diving ducks that are in the same genus and are a similar-looking species: Redhead (Aythya americana) and Canvasback (Aythya valisineria) ducks. Reasonably sized flocks of these ducks migrated through within a week of one another, and stayed for about three weeks.  Prior to their arrival, I had not seen either species before in my life. Part of the reason I wanted to narrow down this article to two diving ducks was because my very first sighting of the Redheads made me initially think—before looking in any field guide—that they were possibly Canvasbacks. I had seen Canvasbacks in Captain Ryan O’Rourke’s Birds of the Three Rivers onboard, but Redheads are not in that compilation (side note: I’m happy to say there have been several diving duck species spotted this winter that will have to be added to that book!). It wasn’t until I opened Peterson’s field guide to Birds of Eastern and Central North America and saw a duck very similar to Canvasbacks that helped confirm what had just flown in.

an illustration of the two birds

Canvasbacks and Redheads in Peterson’s field guide

Once I saw Canvasbacks and Redheads side-by-side in the field guide, I was quickly able to see the difference between the Canvasbacks I thought I saw, and the Redheads I knew I was looking at. This process of comparing similar species might be helpful for anyone new to birding, who wants to get started, or is curious about things to make note of to help you distinguish between similar kinds. After the arrival of the Canvasbacks, I did some additional research on both species’ behavior and history, like the overhunting of Canvasbacks that decimated their populations, which was inspired by conversations and articles that carried a lot of overlap and piqued my curiosity to find out more. Hopefully some things I learned about the four migratory flyways spanning North America, and related issues like hunting regulations and conservation efforts, can be revisited more in depth down the road.

I first saw a total of 27 Redheads (17 male, ten female) in the late morning of February 8th, off the starboard side of Explorer, making their way towards the stern to eventually settle near our floating dock. I can’t recall what I was even doing when along came this raft of ducks I had never seen before. (Another side note: a group of ducks has many collective nouns, including “raft”, “paddling”, “brace”, “flush” and “team”. I’m sure there are more, but I plan on randomly testing out these terms and we’ll see what sticks.) The Redheads came in and got close enough for me to take some good photos, and get a good look to help me to identify them. I watched them for a while as they almost immediately started foraging for food; they were quite lively and fun to watch, until most of them calmed down, and tucked their bills in their back to snooze.

Ducks with rust colored heads and yellow eyes

Male Redhead Ducks


Brown and white ducks with black on their heads and a gray bill

Female Redheads

Before I had ever even seen any Canvasbacks, I could tell from the images in the field guide that the birds behind the boat were Redheads. One major indication was the males’ backs and sides were not predominately white like they typically are on male Canvasbacks (which gets its common name specifically from the males’ canvas-colored back). Redheads have a much grayer back and sides; as well as a rounder, more rufous, and lighter cinnamon-red head. A Canvasback’s dark, chestnut-red head is more sloped, and their bill is longer and black. Another feature of Redheads that’s very distinguishing is not just the shape of their shorter bill, but also its color: it’s bluish gray, with a whitish ring preceding a black tip. The black and gray tails of Canvasbacks and Redheads are similar, as is their all-black chest; but another distinguishing trait is their eyes: the male Redheads I saw had yellow eyes, and while the eyes of both sexes of Canvasbacks are yellow for the first 10 to 12 weeks, they soon become a piercing bright red for the males, and a dark brown to black for the females.

While most of these indicators apply to the males (also known as drakes), a couple apply to the females, or hens: namely, the head and bill shape and bill coloration, which was the best way I was able to distinguish the female Redheads from female Canvasbacks. Canvasback hens have plumage more akin to their male counterpart, with a lighter back and sides, a slightly darker chest, and a suggestion of pale rust on their head and neck. The Redhead hens are overall brownish, with a suffused light patch near the base of their bill. 

On February 11th, three days after I first saw the Redheads, the Canvasbacks arrived. In fact, this day was like hitting the migratory-diving-duck or bird-spotting jackpot.  It was the afternoon, I was in the pilot house of Explorer, and noticed a bunch of spots on the water relatively close to shore in front of the Carnegie Science Center submarine. This area of the river is right in front of the boat launch under Heinz Stadium, where I see Double-crested Cormorants, Ring-billed Gulls, Mallard Ducks, and Canada Geese almost every morning on my way to work. It is also where I have gone birding to get a glimpse of some other recent migratory ducks, like Ruddy Ducks or ol’ miss Melani p (what I affectionately started calling the female Surf Scoter that was here for a couple of weeks in November). I couldn’t identify the ducks at all from the boat, but could tell that some of the spots were very white (Canvasbacks? I wondered), and others were quite dark.  I walked a newly purchased field scope to the boat launch to get a better view, and identified the following ducks, all of them divers: Redheads, Buffleheads, Common Mergansers, roughly ten to 15 Canvasbacks (that were definitely Canvasbacks, and more came in over the weeks), Ruddy Ducks, and Greater and Lesser Scaups – the latter two being other species in the Aythya genus and ones I had not previously seen. In awe, I watched these seven species of male and female diving ducks (there were only two female Ruddy Ducks – I still have not seen a male) in this congested little area for well over an hour.  I took many photos and videos, two of which can be viewed on Explorer’s Facebook page, and here are a select few:

Two ducks with dark heads and white backs

Redhead and Canvasback drakes

I have since learned that this combination of so many different diving ducks is actually quite common for some wintering waterfowl. In the non-breeding season, Redheads, Canvasbacks, and scaups (which, again, are in the same genus) often flock together, occasionally along with wigeons and American Coots. Incredibly, their numbers can climb into the tens of thousands.  One of the most interesting things I read on  All About Birds  is that Redheads are so “exceptionally gregarious” they will sometimes alight at hunting decoys before hunters have even finished setting them up. 

Within a day or two of witnessing this highly social flush of ducks in all of their speciated variety, I was catching up with my father on the phone and telling him about it. My father—a life-long outdoorsman, and man who has gained more wisdom from decades of hunting, fishing, farming, and gardening than from what a formal education could afford—told me that at one point Canvasbacks’ population numbers were so low due to overhunting that restrictions were established so they didn’t become extinct. Canvasbacks use their bill to strain seeds from mud; they ingest a lot of lead shot and are especially affected by lead poisoning in areas that are heavily hunted (fortunately this threat has somewhat diminished since lead shot used for waterfowl hunting was federally banned in 1991). Curious to find out more about the health of their populations now, and to what degree they were overhunted, I did some digging that led to some very interesting finds.

Canvasbacks get their scientific name, Aythya valisineria, from Vallisneria americana, or wild celery, which is Submersed Aquatic Vegetation (SAV) that happens to be extremely sensitive to climate- and pollution-related changes in water quality. Canvasbacks’ habitat locations have shifted in part due to the loss of this SAV in areas where it once flourished (such as the Chesapeake Bay—a bottleneck on the Atlantic Flyway), but much of their habitat degradation occurred well after the overhunting that happened in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Here is the relationship: the wild celery diet of Canvasbacks resulted in their meat being believed to be the tastiest of any duck, which made them the favorite targets of commercial market hunters that supplied large cities of the North with fresh meat. The most sophisticated consumers sought to dine on this luxurious duck meat, and a pair of Canvasbacks would have cost more than one hundred of today’s dollars—clearly a dinner for the rich and well-off. Mark Twain even described Canvasback as one of the “quintessential American foods” he missed while traveling Europe. Demand for this duck meat drove commercial market hunters to bring their populations to extremely low levels, and these endeavors were aided by the industrialization of market hunting and America: after 1865, shotguns, railroads and refrigeration made killing and transporting large quantities of Canvasback meat viable. I also read about punt guns, sink boxes, and handmade or hand-carved decoys made by the Chesapeake Bay hunters—and even Native Americans 2,000 years ago—that all assisted in attracting and capturing this prized wild game.  

After decades of overhunting, and recognizing birds travel across state lines (and countries and continents), the Weeks-Mclean Act of 1913 was implemented to transfer the regulation of waterfowl management from states to federal governments to help protect and revive Canvasback populations. Without enforcement, however, these regulations has little impact; this led to the Migratory Bird Treaty Act in 1918, which outlawed commercial market hunting and provided funding for enforcement. Recreational hunters became a significant interest group, and provided support for waterfowl conservation, along with other programs such as the Migratory Bird Hunting & Conservation Stamp (commonly called the Duck Stamp). I also read that other organizations such as the National Wildlife Refuge System and Ducks Unlimited, as well as Federal Farm Bill programs, have all aided in wetland conservation, and thereby the revitalization of Canvasback populations. Canvasback populations are still largely affected by breeding ground conditions, particularly wetlands such as marshes and the fascinating Prairie Pothole Region of Canada and the northern Midwest. When these wetlands are unavailable due to drought or other environmental factors, Canvasback hens will delay or skip nesting altogether, which is why populations had again declined during the 1930s drought that caused the Dust Bowl. Canvasback populations fluctuated through the 20th century, and dipped very low again in the ‘80s. Fortunately today, numbers have rebound, their population is stable, and about 700,000 ducks were reported in 2017, with a slightly lower estimate for 2020.

After learning all this, I felt grateful to have seen Canvasbacks passing through here. While I thought they had all left over the weekend before the river started flooding on Sunday, I took a little jaunt downriver on the trail this week and saw maybe half a dozen floating around Peggy’s Harbor. It’s been at least a week since I’ve seen any Redheads, but their reputation isn’t sitting well with me: I learned the hens are major brood parasites, which means they lay their eggs in all kinds of other ducks’ nest (such as Canvasbacks’) which negatively impacts the original ducks’ hatching numbers. Regardless, I hope to see both species come through again, along with all the others I’ve seen this month, which I look forward to sharing more about in posts to come.

Until then, here is the most recent video I took of Canvasbacks (with a pair of Lesser Scaups, and an uncommon female White-winged Scoter), filmed Friday of last week right before I was about to leave the boat. I was stepping onto the gangway, saw them off the stern, and decided to unlock the door, head back in, and grab some binoculars to watch them for a while. The river was extremely calm, the afternoon was quiet, and it was a rare moment I took to just sit and observe. Most of the time, I am busy with other things, and just get sidetracked (sometimes for a while) by a sighting.  It was a moment I loved, and hope it encourages you to head to one of our riverbanks, look for what’s happening on the water, and see what you can identify. 

A wide angle view of the river with the West End Bridge with a group of ducks downstream.

Canvasbacks off Explorer’s stern

Author’s Note: A correction was made on March 10, 2021. Thanks to one of our readers, I was informed that my previous statement referencing “the lead shot ban” was somewhat misleading: lead shot is not federally banned for all hunting and fishing purposes. In 1991, lead shot for the use of hunting waterfowl was federally banned, but not for all hunting ammunition and fishing tackle.  Some states, like California, have banned the use of lead in any ammunition, largely because lead poisoning from ammo is one of the biggest reasons California condors remain on the endangered species list. Other states have taken similar initiatives. On the last day of the Obama administration, a federal ban was issued for hunting with lead ammunition in national parks and wildlife refuges, but former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke of the Trump administration lifted this ban promptly in March 2017.

A new lead ban was introduced to the House of Representatives on January 21, 2021.

Here are the most current shot regulations for hunting waterfowl and coots in the U.S.

If you have any comments or questions on this or future articles, please do not hesitate to reach out!  I am still very new to birding, and am bound to make some mistakes; but I truly welcome any corrections or feedback! Please email me directly at abiederman@riversofsteel.com, or send us a message on the Explorer Facebook page.  Thanks for reading!

Angela Biederman began working for Rivers of Steel as a part-time deckhand in March 2018.  About a year later, she became the full-time Chief Deckhand, and is responsible for maintaining Explorer year-round.  She began working for Rivers of Steel out of interest for the conservation of Pittsburgh’s rivers, and experiencing its landscape in novel ways.  She holds a Master in Fine Arts degree with a concentration in Ceramics, as well as a BFA in Ceramics.  She continues to make art of various media from her home studio.

This photo essay is the third in a series of articles by Angela highlighting her sightings of migratory birds.  All the images of the birds were photographed by her, usually through a set of binoculars with her phone. Your can read her prior post from February here and her first post from December, 2020 here.

Lori Hepner's work projected on the hoist house with the Carrie Deer adjacent

Conversations About LightPlay

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Conversations about LightPlay is a mini-documentary about the 2020 LightPlay exhibition at the Carrie Blast Furnaces.

Conversations About LightPlay

A mini-documentary about the LightPlay Exhibition at the Carrie Blast Furnaces 

In September of 2020, Rivers of Steel presented the LightPlay exhibition at the Carrie Blast Furnaces. This multi-sensory experience invited audiences to intimately explore this National Historic Landmark at night, leading them into locations previously restricted to the public—to discover light and sound installations created by local artists and engineers—works that examined the history, culture, and physical boundaries of the site.

This project evolved organically out of the incredible feedback we were hearing from folks who had seen the exhibition, so we decided to capture their thoughts about it. What emerged was a mini-documentary that offered more than testimonials—it shares insights and allows artworks to live on beyond the short run of the show, offering new points of view about what was created, what it means for the historic site, and how it impacted exhibit-goers, and artists as well!

For more information about the LightPlay exhibition, contact Chris McGinnis, director of Rivers of Steel Arts.

A Black drag queen poses with children's books while wearing a animal print dress and a matching fancy hat.

Heritage Highlights: An Interview with Akasha Van Cartier

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Drag Queen Story Hour with Akasha Van Cartier

Heritage Highlights

Rivers of Steel’s Heritage Arts program strives to represent the region’s diverse cultural heritage, from ethnic customs and occupational traditions directly linked to Pittsburgh’s industrial past, to new American folk arts and cultural practices emerging from the region’s diverse urban experience.  Usually passed down from person-to-person within close-knit communities, these cultural traditions are as varied as they are unique, each representing one aspect of what makes southwestern Pennsylvania’s heritage so rich.

An Interview with Akasha Van Cartier

A black drag queen with curly hair hold a lip stick pen to her temple.

 

By Jonathan Engel

Artists pull influence from everywhere—and heritage artists can build community around anything. The subject of this month’s Heritage Highlights is Akasha Van Cartier, the Last Lady of Pittsburgh, an accomplished drag queen with twenty-one years of experience. Originally from Canfield, Ohio, she has performed all over Pittsburgh, including at the Warhol Museum and the Carnegie Library as part of her Drag Queen Story Hour program. Rivers of Steel’s Jon Engel spoke to Ms. Van Cartier about her personal history with drag, her many inspirations, and the ways this community operates through performance.

I came into my own.

How did you first get started in drag?

My first show was at a Youngstown State AIDS benefit. I was one of the last minute throw-ins, because of an accident that had happened. It was my first time experiencing drag, but I realized how much of a difference I could make and how much I could give back to the community.

Interesting. So you were a last minute throw-in, how did you get involved in that show?

I had done some choreography for some of the queens in the show, and I also knew some of the make-up artists. One of the queens had gotten hurt and I knew what was going on, so it was the decision of the casting director that I was going to take her place. I was originally going to school for music education and dance performance, so I think I was going to school to eventually be a drag queen.

Do you remember the first time you would have heard of drag?

The first time I heard of drag, I was around 14 or 15 years old. I started venturing out because I had discovered who I was at a very young age, so I ventured out into finding out more about things. It wasn’t like you could go to a library or, y’know, go online and go to a hookup site or stuff like that, you had to actually know someone and explore situations. And I found a bar that I started going to in Youngstown, Ohio at an absurdly young age-

(laughs)

Because it was in Youngstown, Ohio, it was a frightening experience. But at the same time, it was one of the most relieving and enlightening experiences to realize you’re not alone, there’s an entire community of people out here that are just like you and support you in everything that you do. You just had to find them, and not a lot of people have that opportunity.

Moving to Pittsburgh was… it was my Queer As Folk moment. When I originally moved here, I thought, y’know, I was moving into the life. I didn’t know that it was going to be not Queer As Folk. [Editor’s note: Set in Pittsburgh, Queer as Folk was a Showtime drama that revolved around a group of gay friends. It ran from 2000 to 2005.] Which—I was surprised, but I was pleasantly surprised because, you realize, after a certain point of time, you weren’t ready for Queer As Folk after coming out of Youngstown, Ohio. And I feel like Pittsburgh was that next step up, coming from a very small town to very small town ways in a larger city setting.

After that first show, how did your career develop?

After that show, it was a very quick progression. Because of the money that we had made, I had turned up on the front page of the city newspaper the next day, which was a Sunday—which my parents noticed while they were getting ready for church.

Ahh.

So that was a situation. But things progressed pretty far and fast from there, because it was like, who can say what? You’re now open and you’re out and you’re living your truth and your freedom. People can say what they want but that doesn’t take away from who you are and what you do. I just sorta’ came into my own and realized, everyone’s not going to accept everything, but if you do it and you believe in it… you do you and let them do them.

A Black drag queen in black ruffles and styled wig.

The queens in my family, we’re not just queens.

Are there any other institutions or specific mentors who you learned a lot about drag from?

I was very much a drag orphan. And I think that was sort of by choice, but sort of because I was a ruthless child and I had a really bad attitude. So a lot of people didn’t know how to take me, because my truth was mine and I needed to force it upon everyone else. Which I realize now, that’s not the case. That’s my truth and no one else needs to understand it or deal with it.

But there were significant people who very much affected my drag. I would say, from the Ohio scene, there were queens like Linda Lacee, who would then eventually be in the Pittsburgh scene. And now she’s a male performer in the Ohio and Pittsburgh scene, so she has experience in performing and theater. Samantha Styles was the first ever queen to paint my face and introduce me into what glamor in drag was. I had inspirations like Maxine Factor and Aaron Steel! They were people who taught me how to perform and how drag isn’t just dancing on stage in women’s clothing, it’s musical theater. It’s a part of acting. It’s being a smaller part of the entertainment industry, just on a local level.

When I moved to Pittsburgh, I sort of floated around. I got a feel for things in different families, who taught me different make-up techniques, different bodying techniques. I’m the USA of drag – it’s just a melting pot of knowledge that’s been gained to make me a better person.

You described yourself as kind of a “ruthless child”—I wonder, how does that effect the way you interact with younger queens? Do you try to be a mentor to them?

I do have an extensive family tree of queens underneath me that I’ve taken in as my children. And I do encourage drag on many levels. But at the same time, I am that cautious person who believes that your outside life influences your drag life. So if you don’t have that together, then your time in drag is not now. Because that’s going to affect your performance quality, what you bring to the stage, and what people see. Those feelings in our actual life do come across in our performances and what we do as entertainers.

The queens in my family, we’re not just queens. We’re people that have gone on to be nurses and people who are still in school to get engineering degrees. I believe in investing as much time into their drag as into their male lives, because, at the end of the day, it’s the boy behind the mask that’s making it all happen.

Can you describe a little bit what you mean by families?

A drag family is a chosen family that you find that inspires you to do better than you thought that you could do, that instills the factors and the morals of what you can be and have the ability to be over what people expect you to be. They’re the people who have your back when you feel as if blood family has turned against you or you have nowhere else to or you can’t talk to someone else about this situation. They’re that backbone that you can lean on. Any problem, big or small, male or drag, we can handle, because we’re a solid unit that works together.

Before the entire, like, pandemic, I used to try to have, at least once every two weeks, a family dinner. It would be a barbeque or just a large dinner where we all just got together and talked about what was going on in our lives, had a good time, y’know, enjoyed each other’s company. That way, we knew we were still on the same level. If there were any problems, we talked those problems out. Someone wore bad hair? We talk that out. We talk about them. If we talk about you, we care about you. If we’re not talking about you, that’s when you should be worried.

A black drag queen in purple light.

I sort of felt like a local superstar…

Pivoting subject matter a little bit, what about drag appeals to you? What makes you want to do drag?

Drag appeals to me, in general, because I went to school to dance and sing and do music, to be on Broadway. And drag was like that next step down from being famous. Because everyone wants to audition for that part and everyone wants to do that, but only so many people want to do that local aspect. I sort of felt like a local superstar, and that was amazing to me! It was a way to step out of the homeliness and homebody of who I usually am into something much greater.

What communities would you say you perform for? And how does your performance engage that community?

Recently, there’s been not much community to perform for, because of the pandemic. But I’ve performed for many communities because I’ve done many local bingos and brunches, which caters to more of a heterosexual sort of crowd. I’ve done Drag Queen Story Hour for multiple years, which caters to infants to 13, 14 year olds. And then I’ve also performed in the bar scenes, which caters to our college scene to 35…so I’ve catered to infants to ninety-nine playing bingo and above.

I’d like to believe I give an overall sort of wholesome drag that can be accepted anywhere, as entertainment and as theater.

The consistent interest that I think I’m hearing is the desire to do a theatrical performance, would that be right?

Yes, because, when you think about musical theater, when you think about Broadway—that’s what we want to bring to the stage. That Broadway, “we can’t take our eyes off of you” because—are you singing? Are you not singing? Is your costume appropriate to what you’re supposed to be giving? Is your hair swept the right way? When the music comes in proper, does the fan blow your outfit and hair properly? All the production! And if you produce that properly, it can change the entire aspect of what you’re trying to portray.

That’s really interesting to me because, I’m used to thinking about drag as, like, make-up and wardrobe and, y’know, personal kind of stature—

I think of drag from a pageant aspect and, when I think pageantry, I think they give you that large stage for a reason. Stages are meant for Broadway and grand productions, so why wouldn’t you utilize that to the maximum potential? To where people are going to talk about you for years and years to come?

A black drag queen in an A-line red dress with white polka dots reading to kids.

In order to see a better future, for the future of drag, the future of the people around me… I have to change what I’m doing and how I’m doing it.

So you mentioned Drag Queen Story Hour – could you describe it a little bit?

Drag Queen Story Hour is a program where we are drag queens for education. We read stories to children, and adults. We have interactive games, interactive songs, puzzles. We provide an interpreter for sign language as often as possible. It is basically a program to stimulate the children into learning and paying attention to what we’re saying. At the same time, it teaches the adults different ways that they can implement these things at home in order to grasp their children’s attention. To teach them [the children], at an earlier age, how to deal with different aspects of life that they generally wouldn’t be able to experience on an everyday basis.

The program came from queens in New York, who started it, and it just branched out from there. Because there were a lot of queens who didn’t just want to be seen as RuPaul’s Drag Race show queens. They didn’t wanna be seen as just entertainers in the nightlife scene, but they wanted to bring drag into the mainstream and show, we’re not something to be feared. We’re no different than a clown at a birthday party, a dragon at a birthday party. This is just the chosen “princess”, or theme, that we’ve been asked to provide.

I wonder if you could talk a little about why you think it’s important or valuable to expose children to drag, specifically?

Being that I grew up in a religious situation and I was able to branch out and find myself from there, I was told at one point in time that it was sad to take children to Pride because that’s “brainwashing” them. Yet, at the same time, people take their child to church every week, all year long, and they find that as “teaching” them. But it’s not on the same level. So, when I look at it, I think the children need to learn there are differences, there are people out there who are not exactly like you.

They need to be educated, that way they can properly respond to the situations in life that are going to be around them. We need to learn about each other’s diversities and differences, struggles and pains that we’ve gone through to become who we are, because that’s the only way, at any point in time, that we’re all going to be on an equal level of taking care of each other.

I think that’s a really good answer—

That really sounded like a pageant answer.

(laughs) It did! But that’s not a bad thing!

I have a niece- well, she’s like my goddaughter. She was looking at someone in a magazine and said, “Mommy, why is that boy wearing a dress?” And [her mother] said, “Well, Auntie Kasha does, and what’s wrong with that? What’s the difference?” And she said, “Auntie Kasha wears the big eyelashes!”

She’s only five years old, and she realizes, and she asks questions. Her mother is open enough to sit down and explain to her, and be like “OK, so, Auntie Kasha’s a little different.” I remember when, the first time my goddaughter came over to my house and I was there as a boy. She said, “Are you Auntie Kasha? ‘Cause you like Auntie Kasha”. We tried to convince her I was Auntie Kasha’s brother, it did not work.

(laughs)

And ever since then, she’s accepted it. She’s just like “Hey, that’s Auntie Kasha, she’s different sometimes, but I like Auntie Kasha.” It doesn’t mean as much to the children as it does to the adults. And it’s all about what the adults are showing the children. They’re following the lead of the people they are being raised by. I think that, in order to raise a better generation, we have to be better people. And that’s what I try to do!

I know I had my rough years in drag, and I definitely had my troubled years in drag, where I was a terror and people were afraid of me and I had an attitude, but I learned! In order to see a better future, for the future of drag, the future of the people around me, well then, I have to change what I’m doing and how I’m doing it.

That’s when I started reading to children and getting my life together. And I can say it’s one of the best things I’ve ever done.

A Black drag queen wearing sunglasses in a dark room.

Everything stems from that first brick that Marsha threw!

I want to talk a little about the history of drag. Specifically, I wanted to ask, what communities did drag develop from? And why might those communities have developed drag?

I would have to say that, for me, the drag community comes a lot from the melding of musical theater, drama, a lot of the ballroom, and vogue scene… I don’t even know if I’m allowed to say this, but, for me, drag comes from Black culture. It comes from a point of having to hide your identity in order to expose who you really were. It comes from a factor of being appreciated for what you do and not how you do it, because…

There’s 170-plus white queens, and there’s 15 Black queens, and it becomes one of those points of, are you being bumped to be that token Black queen for this show? Because I’ve noticed, ever since the Black Lives Matter movement happened, my requests have gone up, as well as my daughters’. Because people started complaining, if you don’t have one Black queen in this show, that’s of color, we’ll boycott your show. And that’s not why we want to be booked. That’s not why we want to be acknowledged.

There’s always a battle and a struggle, and it’s always in the forefront, but it’s in the background of people’s minds. There’s that struggle in the factor of being seen but not seen.

At the same time, the dancing and the entertainment factor, and the dramatics of voguing and expression that’s inside of that dance also influences and brings out an entirely different flavor to drag that’s celebrated through all cultures of drag. From iconic moves like death drops and, y’know, the girls throwing themselves on the floors, and dips and spins—these are things that would not exist, were it not from the adventurous factor of the voguers, who were Black and Latino queens.

So, for me, a lot of it is a cultural representation in an art form that I feel we brought to life that was taken over and manipulated by white people, as many other things have been. And that’s really the nicest way it can be said.

Across both queer and Black histories, what function has drag played in the lives of queens, both historically and now?

Well, you could it take from the standpoint of the Stonewall riots. They were the first ones to throw those bricks, stand up and say “we’re not gonna take this anymore, there needs to be a change and if violence is the way to make that change, or realize that that change needs to be made, then that’s where we’re going”. I believe that, literally, everything stems from that first brick that Marsha threw! [Editor’s note: Marsha P. Johnson was a Black activist and drag queen from New York City who participated in the Stonewall riots and, according to some accounts, started them.]

When you think about where drag has come from then, it’s strayed a lot from the path of the activism and the standing up for the community that it should be, into pettiness between queens. And as an older queen, it sort of makes me back off the scene, because it’s not the reason that I got into the game and what I want to see continue to prosper.

A Black drag queen with a bare midriff decending stairs with arms open.

They want a show and I’m here to give you a show.

We’ve talked a lot about history at this point. How do you think drag might change over future generations? How do you see it evolving?

I don’t feel that drag will ever stop evolving. It’s for everyone, it’s by everyone, regardless of age or gender. Get up, dress up, have fun. No one can tell you what your drag is, no one call tell you what your drag isn’t, no one can say that your drag is invalid or not worth being drag, because there’s always one fan for everyone out there.

So I think that there’s no limit for where drag is going to expand to or where it’s going to go. I just know for a fact that history repeats itself, so the girls better get ready for that new wave of old school drag. Because us old girls are coming back!

(laughs) I think that’s really promising. What do you feel is the most interesting, or satisfying, part of doing drag to you?

For me, I’d have to say, it’s literally the joy that it gives people. They’ve come here to have a good time. When you can see them, and their eyes light up while you’re on stage, and they’re just soaking up every movement and every word that you give, you know that they’re thinking of nothing else except for the fun that we’re having right here, together. I see that in the eyes of the children when I read to them and we sing songs and play. I see it in the eyes of the people at bingo! They want a show and I’m here to give you a show.

What do you think is the best performance that you’ve ever put on?

(sighs) The best performance that I’ve ever put on? Wow.

I would have to say, my proudest performance—I’m not sure if it was the best performance I’ve ever put on!— but the year I won Miss Pittsburgh. I did a dominatrix performance, but it was a complete dance and spoof number. And I won Miss Pittsburgh, which was the biggest title that you could achieve in Pittsburgh, and I was only 18 years old.

So I had to just come into the scene, and I took the biggest pageant that I could, and it was the greatest moment for me, because I realized I had made it. But that takes you back to that local celebrity. I felt like I was the Michelle Obama of Pittsburgh.

It was an amazing moment and a confirming moment that, maybe you are doing something right and maybe you are making a difference. And now, here we are, y’know, a good 18 years later than that, and I feel like I have made a difference.

 

Read more in the Heritage Highlights series. Check out this interview with Turkish Calligrapher Benjamin Aysan.

A Black man rakes down manganese from a pile.

John Hughey & the Legacy of Black Workers at the Carrie Furnaces

By Blog

By Ryan Henderson, Interpretive Specialist

Ryan HendersonJohn Hughey & the Legacy of Black Workers at the Carrie Furnaces

A Segregated Workplace & A Segregated City

As a major hub for metal production at the turn of the 20th century, Pittsburgh attracted workers not only from across the United States, but across the globe. Though work in the mills was difficult and dangerous, it was plentiful; the mills that lined the three rivers would hire men with little to no experience, with no shortage of positions waiting to be filled. While the first British and German settlers of Pittsburgh came with iron and other metal working knowledge, the successive waves of immigrants who followed often did not have backgrounds in iron or steel. Indeed, international newcomers to the region often spoke little English, let alone had familiarity with metallurgy. Still, these immigrants were able to find a place in Pittsburgh society and began to carve out niches for themselves within the workplace. As a result, Pittsburgh rapidly became a multicultural and multiethnic metropolis during the late 1800s and early 1900s. The many ethnic neighborhoods, churches, and cultural institutions that form Pittsburgh today are a direct result of this era of domestic and international immigration to the city.

However, while many Pittsburghers are familiar with the positive legacy of this era—pierogis, the Jazz culture of the Hill District, the Little Italy district of Bloomfield, heritage groups like the Tamburitzans dance troupe—there is a darker, often unacknowledged element to Pittsburgh’s multiculturalism and industrial culture. While each successive wave of newcomers added to Pittsburgh’s growing diversification, they existed within a firmly established ethnic and racial hierarchy. Those earliest, Anglo immigrants enjoyed power and privilege at the top of this system, while those that came after them—Italians, Poles, Slovaks, and others—had to work to gain entry into this power structure. The same ethnic neighborhoods that Pittsburghers treasure today are, in some part, the result of segregation on cultural lines, self-imposed or otherwise. This hierarchy affected not just social life but working life as well. Access to certain industries was in some cases reliant on having the right ethnicity, with some jobs in the mills restricted to those with certain backgrounds.

While many Pittsburghers suffered discrimination under this system, no group had a harder time finding entry into Pittsburgh’s industrial working class than its Black citizens. Black Pittsburgh was largely segregated from traditionally white parts of the city and, additionally, Black workers found it difficult to enter into predominantly white professions. For much of the latter part of the 1800s, Black workers primarily were known in the mills as strikebreakers, hired by management to help end labor disputes. Some of these strikebreakers, though not all, had become skilled laborers after being forced to work in iron production under slavery, allowing management to go around the specialized skill sets of their striking workforce.

A Black with a hook is dwarfed by a ladle of molten iron.

Ladle being settled into place for transportation.

The use of Black strikebreakers in this manner was a calculated choice on the part of management, as it increased tensions along racial lines. Unions in the late 19th century would not accept Black workers for this reason, as well as racist reasons more generally. This, in turn, proved to be a self-defeating mechanism for unions, as their refusal to admit Black workers created a ready-made strikebreaking force any time labor disputes broke out. At the same time, management continued to marginalize Black workers by electing to exclude them from many positions at mills, keeping them from being able to solidify power within mill culture and carve out a niche for themselves the way other ethnicities had. When they were employed, it was in the worst conditions, being given the most dangerous and unpleasant jobs.

Following the Homestead Strike of 1892 and the victory of management over labor, the issues surrounding union membership became somewhat moot as the union system collapsed for nearly 40 years. This did not help Black workers however, as their usefulness to steel and iron companies diminished with the less frequent need for strikebreakers. While their services would occasionally still be called upon, Black workers in this period saw what little place they had in the mill continue to erode, even as the city’s Black population continued to grow as a result of the Great Migration.

As the previous generation of Black workers had never truly been able to create a system of ushering newcomers into jobs the way other ethnic groups did, many of these new immigrants entered the workforce in other sectors. It was not until after the reformation of the union system in the late 30s and, more importantly, the end of World War II that Black workers were able to enter Pittsburgh’s industrial workplace in great numbers. Following the passage of the various legislation friendly to unions in the early 1900s and, several decades later, the conclusion of World War II, unions began to truly re-enter the iron and steel industry, forcing companies to recognize them once more. This time, unions accepted Black workers into the fold, in part to avoid the issues with strikebreakers that had affected them in the past.

A Black man is drenched in sweat while working.

A worker bending a metal bar into a hook for various tasks at the mill.

John Hughey

An example of the life of a steelworker and ironworker post-WWII can be found in the story of John Hughey, who was employed at the Carrie Furnaces from 1947 through 1982, when the mill ceased production. Mr. Hughey was born in 1925 in Rankin, PA, a community that surrounded part of the Carrie complex. John’s father had moved to Pittsburgh in 1919, coming from South Carolina. He had been recruited by a man who spoke of better jobs and opportunities up north, and the possibilities that would come with working in the booming steel industry in Pittsburgh. Seeking that better life, John’s father moved to the Pittsburgh area, where he was placed in the Edgar Thomson Works in Braddock. What John’s father had not been told was that he would be coming to break a strike. While John’s father found employment for a period as a strikebreaker and gained new skills in the mill, he was dismissed shortly after the end of the strike. Though John’s father was an able worker, he was not white, and Black people with ability did not have mobility in this period.  He became instead a door to door salesman, but the steelworking spark in the Hughey family did not end with him.

It was John who would become a lifelong metalworker, starting at the Carrie Furnaces at 22 years of age. Many young men in this era, including John’s other family members, worked for at least a few seasons in the mill. Many whites in Pittsburgh followed a kinship method of entry into the mill—their father would ask the superintendents to hire their sons, with multiple generations working in the same location. John did not have this same opportunity, and instead walked six minutes to the nearby Carrie to apply for a job. He was hired on the spot, to his surprise, making about $1.85 an hour.

Though John was unaware at this time of the politics surrounding the Homestead Works, this was consistent with the general hiring practices at Carrie. Carrie was the iron side of the Homestead Works, producing the liquid iron that would be transported across the Monongahela River to be turned into steel. Ironmaking, as well as producing coke, was generally considered to be the “worst” job within the steelmaking process. Ironmaking and coking are dangerous, smelly, and extremely dirty. As a result, these jobs were relegated to those individuals who were of ethnic and racial backgrounds that were at the bottom of the socially-constructed hierarchies that existed. In the early part of the 20th century, this meant Eastern Europeans. After Blacks entered the mill system in large numbers following WWII, this meant them. Two men, one Black and one white, both applying to work at the Homestead Works, would likely find themselves steered in different directions.  The white man, especially if he was of Anglo descent, would find himself turned toward the steel side of the river. The Black man, almost always, would find himself pushed in the direction of the Carrie Furnaces.

A Black man lifts a sledgehammer, as if to swing it.

A worker lifts a sledgehammer.

Indeed, even the internal work divisions within Carrie were segregated. On the second night of work, John found himself “promoted” out of the position he was hired to and into the furnace division at Carrie, responsible for duties such as the actual tapping of the furnace. Without any training—a standard practice at the time—John was made into the second helper on Furnace #2.

John had no idea what was going to happen, standing around for hours before being directed to help with the tapping of the furnace—watching with both fear and awe as liquid iron came rushing forth; the 2,700 degree metal flowed like water a few feet away from him. John had been given only an asbestos coat for protection. He had no hardhat, worker’s greens (fire resistant clothing), or other heat equipment, only his street clothes.

Though John kept on as an ironworker, he later noted that this shock treatment was typical for the industry, where 20 men would be hired at the beginning of the day, and 15 would quit by the end, winnowing out all but the hardest men. John would later come to realize that his placement and lack of gear in the hot and dangerous furnace division was also no accident.

At the time he was hired, John guessed that the furnace division was 99% Black, and severely underfunded with safety equipment. Many men’s street clothes burst into flame in the cast house, and burns and blisters were common. Workers there had to buy their own gloves, and any protective equipment they needed. The maintenance division, on the other hand was composed of electricians, painters, carpenters, and other skilled workers and was almost 99% white. These jobs were considered prime positions, avoiding the dirtiest and most dangerous work, and for years were effectively whites only. They often had safety equipment bought for them; workers in the furnace division, meanwhile, would not receive basic gloves from the company until the 1970s. Other divisions also were heavily segregated, with John recounting that the Trainsmen’s Union, separate from the Steelworkers Union, explicitly banned Black membership until the 1950s.

At the time of John’s hiring, the Steelworkers Union was far from equal. “Last to be hired, first to be fired” applied to many Black workers, as they were purposely left until the very end to be hired into positions, and found themselves the first to be laid off in slow economic periods. In theory, the union system should have provided a kind of equality under its regulated system of benefits and advancement, but many Black workers did not experience the same successes as their white peers.

For example, the union ostensibly guaranteed a standardized wage system within the mills that would see a Black and white worker who started at the same job at the same time paid the same. However, it quickly became apparent that while white workers would eventually advance out of these starting positions, many Black workers were left to fruitlessly bid for higher paying, more sought-after jobs.

Work culture for the men who worked in the mills was unique but was still a reflection of the racial attitudes of U.S. society. While working in the dangerous conditions of the mill frequently left men with a sense of camaraderie that transcended racial lines, this was often not able to overcome long simmering prejudices that existed outside the mill’s walls.

This only began to change with the hard work of men like John, who fought to ensure rights for Black workers in the industry. In fact, John and other Black workers at Carrie found themselves in a unique circumstance created by the segregation between the two sides of Homestead; Carrie was, for much of its history after WWII, a majority Black mill. In the peak production period post-WWII, a large proportion of Carrie’s working population was Black, with over 90 percent of unskilled labor and 60 percent of the overall labor force being composed of Black workers.

A Black man in a button down shirt and sweater, sitting in a museum.

John Hughey

Years later, John recalled that Carrie was almost uniquely liberal in the Mon Valley, and while there was certainly tension in the mill, many important positions at Carrie were, nonetheless, held by Black men. All of this meant that John and other Black workers had a much clearer path to holding union offices through millwide elections. In 1949, a mere two years after starting at Carrie, John became a union grievance officer, one of the men responsible for taking issues to management to be resolved on behalf of union members. Five years later, in 1954, John became head grievance officer for Carrie, a position he held for many years.

Though John had to hold this position while also working a full time job in the mill—something uncommon for many grievance officers—he helped to lead several important fights that improved the lives not only of Black mill workers, but of all men who worked at Carrie. He and others pushed for company provided safety equipment, winning things such as greens and better heat gear. The union also pushed for dental and eye care, unheard of in the steel industry, and carried out a strike for better pensions. At Carrie, John helped lead a drive from 1954 that lasted almost 20 years until 1971 to have seniority count as the determining factor for advancement, rather than race.

The union at Carrie made many small advancements over this period leading toward success, to the extent that by the time a consent decree made mandatory changes to the steel industry to protect the rights of minorities, Carrie was already meeting proposed industry-wide standards. Indeed, by the 60s and 70s, Carrie had more minorities in trades than any other mill in the Mon Valley; in contrast, just across the river at the connected Homestead Works had a mere 1%.

John’s hard work, and the hard work of all those fighting for equal treatment, had a tangible effect. John and others noted a difference particularly after 1971, finally achieving a breakdown of the walls that had kept Black workers from certain jobs in the mill, and having ability counted over skin color. These men fought hard to create a better life and workplace that had eluded Black Pittsburghers for so long, and their legacy as pioneers in the field lives on today.

The accompanying photographs are part of the Rivers of Steel Archives. 

If you like this article, you may want to read Josh Gibson Gets His Dueanother story that examines the Black experience as part of the culture around our region’s industrial history. 

Birding from Explorer

By Blog

By Angela Biederman, Chief Deckhand  |   Featured Image: Angela Biederman birdwatching on the Explorer riverboat.

“Birding from Explorer” is an ongoing series of articles by Angela Biederman, Chief Deckhand on the Explorer riverboat.  A relatively new birder, Angela shares her observations of migrating birds, as sighted from the boat’s home dock on Pittsburgh’s North Shore, near the headwaters of the Ohio River.

Angela BiedermanMigratory Bird Sightings

There have been several sightings of notable migratory waterfowl from the Explorer riverboat since my initial post in December. While the Surf and White-winged Scoters haven’t been seen since my last report, the female Red-breasted Merganser made the shallow waters near our floating dock home for a while. She was around for almost a month, from mid-December to mid-January, and seemed to become quite comfortable in her migratory layover. I’d often see her out diving for food, even in the worst of weather; and saw her climb out onto shore one time, seemingly less spooked by me than she was at first. Similar to Surf Scoters, Red-breasted Mergansers breed much further north, from Alaska and across northern Canada to Newfoundland, summering only as far south as the Great Lakes. During migration, they pass through the continental U.S. to coastal waters. They winter all along the eastern and western coasts, and along the Gulf Coast, preferring saltwater during the coldest months.

Red-breasted Merganser on Shore

Red-breasted Merganser on Shore


Female Red-breasted Merganser

On December 28, while watching some Pied-billed Grebes near our floating dock through binoculars, another diving duck came right into my zoomed-in view. This new duck was brown with a dark cap, and had light markings on its cheeks.  My initial view of it—and excitement!—made me think the Surf Scoter had returned! But on that afternoon, this duck was in no mood for foraging, and was mostly snoozing with its bill tucked into its back feathers. Its position made it difficult to clearly see any facial markings or its bill to identify it for sure. The views and photographs I did get of it made me question whether it was, in fact, a Surf Scoter.  I had detected some slight variations and went home to look through my growing collection of bird guides.

Specific traits I noticed were “off” about this diving duck were its tail, facial markings, and bill. I had watched the Surf Scoter a lot, and the differences between it and this diver were subtle, but undeniable. Investigating further, I came across the Ruddy Duck. While the breeding male is very distinct, the females (and winter or non-breeding males) look very similar to female Surf Scoters. Some main differences are that Ruddy Ducks have longer tails; females have light cheeks with a dark stripe (giving the illusion of white cheek patches); and their bills are slightly more curved, and blue to bluish-gray depending on the time of year and sex.

First sighting of female Ruddy Duck

First sighting of female Ruddy Duck


Female Ruddy Duck off Explorer’s stern

I saw the Ruddy Duck and Red-breasted Merganser several times over the next week and a half or so, with the Ruddy Duck also taking a preference for the pool around our floating dock. It seemed the least shy of all the diving ducks I had been spotting: it would swim very close to the stern and hull of Explorer, dive if it saw me move inside or come out on the decks, but wouldn’t necessarily swim away. The last time I saw the Ruddy Duck was January 6, and by that point it seemed that it and the merganser had become the best of friends. I saw them swimming side-by-side off the stern of Explorer for a good ten minutes, and managed to capture this video:

The latest exciting sightings happened all in one day, on January 28. I had just sat down to lunch when I noticed several mostly-white birds swimming up the Ohio River towards the stern of the boat. I got up, grabbed the binoculars, and could barely believe my eyes: FOUR Long-tailed Ducks were swimming upriver! As reported in December, I had seen a lone female Long-tailed Duck, but didn’t know if I’d ever see one again. The first of the four was male, with a very distinguishable, long black tail. The other three were females (or perhaps two females and a juvenile), which were fairly easy to recognize because of the one I had seen two months ago. I managed to capture some photos and videos, and enjoy that I was seeing this species again. In a matter of minutes, a tow boat that was heading downriver startled them into flight. I tried to follow them up towards the bow but lost sight of them.  Those few minutes were the only time I saw them.

a black and white duck in the water

Male Long-tailed Duck


four ducks in a line

Four Long-tailed Ducks

Later that day, five more diving ducks were spotted in the middle of the channel of the Ohio. They turned out to be Common Mergansers, distinguishable from the Red-breasted Merganser mostly by some variations of plumage and the shape of their crests.  Female Commons have cinnamon-red heads and a flatter, single crest—which are cleanly demarcated from a bright white chest. They also have a white chin and slightly broader bill at its base. The Red-breasted Merganser has a more faded red head and spikier, double crest—with less definition from her chin to her grayer, mottled chest.

two birds in the water

Female Common Mergansers

In this grouping of mergansers, there were three males and two females.  Before this, I had not seen Common Mergansers to my knowledge (again, birding is something I’ve only recently started doing), or any male mergansers. These five mergansers were around for most of the afternoon, but definitely kept their distance. They mostly rested and foraged in the middle of the channel, or closer to the opposing south shore. Common Mergansers are hardy in winter, and often stay as far north as open water permits. They are fairly common in freshwater lakes and rivers, but rarer in saltwater or brackish water, so they typically don’t head for the coasts.  I did see the Common Mergansers the next day, but one of the males was gone. I haven’t seen any of them since that second day, and wonder which waters they flocked to.

Male Common Mergansers


Five Common Mergansers

Angela Biederman began working for Rivers of Steel as a part-time deckhand in March 2018.  About a year later, she became the full-time Chief Deckhand, and is responsible for maintaining Explorer year-round.  She began working for Rivers of Steel out of interest for the conservation of Pittsburgh’s rivers, and experiencing its landscape in novel ways.  She holds a Master in Fine Arts degree with a concentration in Ceramics, as well as a BFA in Ceramics.  She continues to make art of various media from her home studio.

This photo essay is the second in a series of articles by Angela highlighting her sightings of migratory birds.  All the images of the birds were photographed by her, usually through a set of binoculars with her phone.