Dr. Adam Cilli, assistant professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh at Bradford, has published his first book, which is an exploration of members of Pittsburgh’s Black middle class from 1915 until 1945.
Cilli’s book, “Canaan, Dim and Far: Black Reformers and the Pursuit of Citizenship in Pittsburgh, 1915-1945” and published by the University of Georgia Press, is based on work he began for his doctoral thesis in history at the University of Maine.
“I grew up in Beaver County, and when it came time to pick a topic for my dissertation, I knew I wanted to do something about Pittsburgh,” he said. He also wanted to look at how African Americans experienced life in the city during the first half of the 20th century.
While quite a bit had already been written about the Great Migration, most of the scholarship in this area had dealt with working-class migrants who had traveled from Southern agricultural areas to urban-industrial centers.
A librarian suggested he search for a new angle in the archives of the Pittsburgh Courier, a leading Black newspaper. Cilli began poring through the issues for 12 hours a day, becoming fascinated by the people who founded and wrote for the Courier itself.
“I began to wonder about the lives of the people who were writing these stories,” he said. “How did they deal with racial inequity at this particular moment?”
Beginning with journalists at the Courier and moving on to social workers with the Urban League and activists with the NAACP, he studied the larger network of middle-class Black activists who formed a lesser-known aspect of the Great Migration.
Members of this Black middle class were often migrants as well, born and raised in the upper South with an education from a historically Black college or a segregated high school, Cilli said. Because Black professionals in the South had fewer avenues for employment, they also migrated to northern cities, often moving from one to another looking for professional opportunities.
These Black reformers became important in the formation of racial advancement centers, such as the Urban League, which helped Southern migrants adapt to life in the industrial North. These centers provided social safety supports that buffered migrants against structural inequities related to employment, housing and health care.
“The Urban League worried about physical inequalities, the NAACP focused on Civil Rights issues, and the Courier’s role was like a Jim Crow watch dog,” Cilli said.
Cilli followed how these reformers formed a bridge between Black steelworkers and the growing steelworkers’ union in Pittsburgh, forced Pittsburgh schools to employ Black teachers, expanded Black political power and reshaped racial discourse.
He said that for many of these journalists, social workers, medical professionals, scholars, lawyers and other professionals, their time and efforts in Pittsburgh were a lesson in organizing – one that they took with them as they moved to other cities, where they also developed crucial social safety supports and waged war against anti-Black stereotypes while pursuing a broad vision of economic and political citizenship.