The Color Line
We shall never have a science of history until we have in our colleges men who regard the truth as more important than the defense of the white race.
—W.E.B. Du Bois
When the United States Congress chose a route for the National Road that passed through the river town of Wheeling, the development of western Pennsylvania and Pittsburgh’s claim to be “The Gateway to the West” were threatened. Pittsburgh’s position, however, was reinforced by completion of the Pennsylvania Canal system in 1934, a project largely financed by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, which attempted to mimic the very successful Erie Canal in New York State. The system utilized railway lines from Philadelphia to the Susquehanna River, river and canal to Hollidaysburg, the “Old” Portage Railroad over the Allegheny Mountains, and, starting in the town of Johnstown, a combination of the Comemaugh River and canals onward to Pittsburgh.
Railroad construction along the nearly flat Erie Canal route posed few challenges, but the Allegheny Mountains presented a formidable obstacle to Pennsylvanians. The “Old” Portage Railroad was not a real railroad, but an engineering marvel that employed steam engines to pull cars by cable up inclines that were too steep for a steam locomotive. Cargo and passengers had to be transshipped. A telegraph line was strung across the mountains in 1846, another precursor to the real challenge.
In 1847 Philadelphia and other towns within Philadelphia County subscribed to stock in the Pennsylvania Railroad in the amount of $4 million, enabling a daring venture. The California Gold Rush of 1849 turned enthusiasm for westward migration into an absolute frenzy. Over the next few years the previously uninhabited mountains between Hollidaysburg and Johnstown would test the mettle of financiers, civil engineers, laborers, and politicians. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania funded the construction of the “New” Portage Railroad, which was a real railroad, and the Pennsylvania Railroad used it to begin all-rail service from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh on December 10, 1852.
The Pennsylvania Railroad sought a faster route, control of the entire line, and enormous profits, and thus built a rail line parallel to the Portage line, tunneling through the mountain range at a cost of $450,000. The Summit Tunnel, 3,612 feet in length and situated 202 feet below the top of the mountain, was an unparalleled achievement in terms of organization, engineering, technology, and finance. The Portage line was abandoned. Beginning in February 1854, the Pennsylvania Railroad served the entire distance from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh with its own trains in as little as thirteen hours, a trip that took three or four weeks only forty years before then. This link in part underpinned the industrial explosion that occurred in Pittsburgh in the late nineteenth century. Pittsburgh became the center of the steel industry, and its glassmakers continued to innovate and dominate. Workers were attracted from the East Coast and from Europe. In time the union movement developed, as well as other opportunities for social and political change.
As mentioned in Chapter Six, Martin Delany was one of the workers drawn to the Pennsylvania Canal system in search of employment. The makeup of the population of Hollidaysburg, as recorded in the U.S. Census, reflects the enlistment of African Americans in local construction efforts:
Growth in Hollidaysburg stagnated when the Pennsylvania Railroad bypassed the town. Some blacks moved westward, as only whites could secure the stable employment offered in nearby Altoona by the Pennsylvania Railroad Company. Daniel Hale Williams, the pioneer of open-heart surgery, was born in Hollidaysburg in its heyday. His father, also named Daniel Williams, who worked on the Pennsylvania Canal system for over twenty-five years, met Martin Delany when both worked in Mifflin County, Pennsylvania, in 1830. After Daniel Hale Williams moved on to Chicago, he achieved Martin Delany’s long-held dream, that of becoming a doctor.
The Civil War had little effect on the daily lives of the Woodsons of Pittsburgh. The Reverend Lewis Woodson helped to reopen the college at Wilberforce; other family members concentrated on expanding the family’s financial base in and beyond the barber business. In 1864, Caroline’s name appeared in a business context for the first time. She was listed as a bonnet cleaner located at 15 Fourth Street in downtown Pittsburgh. Five Woodson businesses were listed in the city directory that year; business was good. The customer base expanded as African Americans who had fled to Canada as a result of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 returned, and as emancipated southerners began to trickle north.
In 1868, the city directory mentioned six Woodson businesses. Three of the names were new to the roster: James, Granville, and Jemima Woodson, all children of Lewis and Caroline. James was a handsome young man with a beautiful wife, the former Anna Bird Moles of Baltimore. Granville Sharp Woodson, the youngest son, was possibly the most ambitious; when his name first appeared in the business directory, two barbershop locations were attributed to him. Granville had been named for a British abolitionist, Granville Sharp. Granville married Catherine Elizabeth Powell, whose father had taken his family to Haiti in 1863 to await the outcome of the Civil War and returned to Pittsburgh in 1869. Jemima, whose position was near the middle of the brood, operated a millinery shop; she never married.
With the crash of drumsticks onto the tight skin of snare drums, the blare of trumpets, and the slow rhythmic oompah of the tuba, it was hard for the celebrants to stand still. Music of the Great Western Band instilled the urge to march, dance, or just move through the crowd to greet friends and neighbors. The procession gathered at Water Street in downtown Pittsburgh on Tuesday, April 26, 1870, to celebrate the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. Chief Marshall of the Parade George D. Ware welcomed participants. He acknowledged the secretaries who volunteered to help publicize the event, including Lewis Frederick Woodson. After a dozen speakers praised the amendment, the parade began. Aides, including Granville S. Woodson, T. R. Roach, and five others, directed the procession. The parade traveled around the downtown area, then ventured across the Seventh Street Bridge to the North Side, then still called Allegheny City. It returned downtown via a suspension bridge and ended at Wood and Liberty Streets, near one of the Woodson barbershops. The parade typified the times; Americans were thankful for a great many things and frequently indulged in celebration.
The Fifteenth Amendment reads in part, “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” With this and the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments, the party of Lincoln, the Republican party, made equal rights of African Americans part of the law. The Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery, and the Fifteenth granted the right to vote to all males (it did not mention women). During Ulysses S. Grant’s administration, the law was actually enforced by federal troops garrisoned in the South. In 1877 Grant’s successor, President Rutherford B. Hayes, stepped back from enforcing the Constitution by restricting troops to military camps and allowing southern politicians to deny the right to vote and other rights to blacks. Blacks looked to the rule of law as their salvation, thereby celebrating laws the federal government would soon ignore.
Granville Woodson held onto the large intricately designed poster that was hung in his barbershop to advertise the parade. When another celebration was organized in 1873, he hung its announcement in the barbershop too. A great deal of social contact took place in barbershops; they were excellent places to advertise local events. The poster read, “Fellow citizens of Western Pennsylvania we invite you as brothers and companions in the long bitter years of servitude, which you and our ancestors have passed, to gather once more around your watchfires of Liberty.” On July 24, a Jubilee of Freedom was held in Friendship Grove in Pittsburgh. Chief marshall of the day Harrison Taylor spoke. Others, including Granville Woodson, also addressed the crowd but were limited to fifteen minutes each.
The celebration in 1873 was more solemn in tone than the 1870 commemoration, as it was becoming clear that not all of the expectations spawned by Emancipation and the three new constitutional amendments would be realized. Lives of African Americans in the South were still tied to the economies of cotton and tobacco. Lynching and intimidation underpinned a caste system that still limited economic opportunity. While Jim Crow practices in northern cities were not as perniciously enforced, northern blacks were nevertheless degraded. Despite these obstacles, and as their only alternative, blacks in the North and South established businesses, schools, churches, and social organizations. Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, and others led the emerging “nation within a nation,” realizing the vision Lewis Woodson had projected in his Augustine letters forty years earlier.
Lewis Woodson’s religious sensibility and his penchant for educational achievement were passed on to younger generations. George Frederick Woodson, a son of Lewis Frederick and Nancy Tanner Woodson and a grandson of Lewis and Caroline, attended Pittsburgh’s Central High School, Wilberforce University, and later Drew University in Iowa. Emma Woodson, one of the younger daughters of Lewis and Caroline, became an administrator at Avery College in Pittsburgh, a position she assumed when George B. Vashon, a graduate of Oberlin College, became principal at Avery.
Avery College, located in Pittsburgh, was founded in 1849 as the Allegheny Institute and Mission Church. Its benefactor was Charles Avery, a wealthy white businessman. He had made his fortune by successfully pursuing a number of ventures and reinvesting his profits. He sold patent drugs and potions and later cotton. Avery also invested fortuitously in copper mining in Minnesota. A devout Methodist, he began a pattern of philanthropy. Charles Avery died childless in 1858, leaving a fortune of $800,000 (at a time when the average house cost about $1,000). After providing generously for his wife, the bulk of his fortune was designated to assist disenfranchised African Americans. The largest sum was targeted for resettlement of African Americans on the West Coast of Africa. A nearly equal sum was used to further the education of African Americans in the United States and Canada. Specific grants were made to Avery and Oberlin Colleges. The Avery Trust funded school operations, school expansion, and new school construction both before and after the Civil War. Wilberforce University was another Avery recipient. Avery College educated members of the Woodson family and their neighbors, but it ultimately failed to grow in stature, as no other great benefactors were attracted. Its leadership lacked inspiration and vision. At the turn of the century, Avery College acquired a hospital and nursing school component; but again failing to attract strong leadership, it closed in 1911.
Despite the lack of specific documentation, it is certain that Charles Avery and Lewis Woodson crossed paths. Though Avery supported African American immigration to Africa, he also generously supported Oberlin College, a predominantly white school that admitted blacks. Avery was not a patronizing segregationist, but rather a true humanitarian, interested in tangible solutions to the pervasive dilemmas of his time. Had he and Lewis Woodson been able to communicate as brothers of the same mission, each would have been astounded at the harmony of their ideas.
VANISHING CONNECTIONS TO THE PAST
Lewis Woodson died in January 1878 at his home at 15 Fourth Avenue. His death was noted in all the Pittsburgh newspapers then in print. The Pittsburgh Commercial Gazette’s obituary made clear reference to Lewis Woodson’s ties to the Underground Railroad, which would have gone unrecorded had he died before the Civil War ended. Granville was the executor of his father’s estate.
Nearly one hundred years later, historian Floyd Miller called Lewis Woodson “the first [African American] to articulate a genuine nationalist-emigrationist creed and place it in a coherent ideological framework” and labeled him a contender for the title of “Father of Black Nationalism,” a title to which Martin Delany also had some claim. Miller discovered that Woodson was Delany’s teacher and mentor, identified Woodson as the real “Augustine,” and surveyed the magnitude of his achievements. Certainly recognition should be assigned to both of these great men. The contributions of those who led the free black community in the United States in the 1820s, 1830s, and 1840s have been largely overlooked by historians. Men like the Reverend Morris Brown and the Reverend Lewis Woodson took enormous risks and sometimes had to act in secret or assume aliases (and sometimes, as in Brown’s case, had to run for their lives). Black leaders like Martin Delany and Frederick Douglass emerged only a few years later, but in a quite different era. When they met with U.S. presidents, the first blacks to do so, their stature was recognized. Yet Delany and Douglass certainly knew whose footsteps they followed.
Lewis Woodson made an impact far beyond his writings. His talent and drive were evident early in life. He did not owe his accomplishments in the field of education to white paternalism. In that respect he presented African Americans with a model for self-reliance, never despairing or accepting mediocrity as an alternative. Yet the events surrounding the writing of the Pittsburgh Memorial and the founding of Wilberforce University strongly suggest that Woodson maintained constructive relationships with some whites. Those relationships were nurtured with some measure of secrecy, and the identities of Lewis Woodson’s white collaborators have certainly been lost. He actualized a tremendous passion for justice and equality. He was, assuredly, a wonderful father. He firmly believed in the rights of all, at a time when politicians regularly compromised them. Separatism was for Lewis Woodson not a preferred path but a necessity for survival.
In 1879, only a year after the death of his accomplished son, Thomas Woodson died in Jackson County, Ohio, at the grand old age of eighty-nine. His grandson the Reverend Thomas Wesley Woodson was executor of the estate. Thomas had previously disposed of his land, and remaining assets were divided among the family.
Thomas Woodson’s life is largely unimaginable. In a word, it was triumphant, but any single word ignores its complexities, its contradictions, and its entanglement in America’s greatest dilemma. As a boy, Tom could not have appreciated his special circumstances. Did his banishment initially cause great despair? Did he place banishment behind him by force of inner strength, or did the prospect of freedom and the appeal of westward movement leave little time for contemplation of his loss? Was his attraction to Jemima, a woman much darker than he in complexion, an act of defiance? Was the seamless bond between Thomas and Jemima Woodson a carnal attraction or a mutual commitment to the elevation of an imperiled race? Or was it both? Did Thomas and Jemima largely escape the harshness racial prejudice, or did they lose two sons because of their work on the Underground Railroad? How did a life marred by family separation at a tender age become filled with the love of so many wonderful children, in-laws, and neighbors? What allowed this legacy of achievement and fulfillment to prevail?
With the deaths of Thomas and Lewis Woodson, connection to earlier times was broken. The break was dramatically and unexpectedly compounded in at least one family line when in 1880, Granville Woodson died at the age of forty. His father, grandfather, and great-grandfather had lived long lives, but his was cut short. Granville left a wife, Catherine, and one son, Howard Dilworth Woodson, who was then four years old. Granville’s brother-in-law, Lemuel Googins, was the executor of his estate. Googins had married Granville’s sister, Harriett. He managed property Granville Woodson owned, including five houses on Roberts Street in the Hill District. The rent collected supported Catherine and her son and paid for Howard’s education.
With Granville’s death the wellspring of verbal links to the past was certainly lost. Only that which he and his father had impressed upon his wife could then be relayed to Granville’s only child. Only if they had informed her of the ownership of various papers that the Reverend Lewis Woodson left to his children could she then tell her son where to look when he came to age to learn of his heritage.
Catherine soon remarried. Her husband, Jesse Grey, was the offspring of a wealthy white businessman and his African American mistress. This particular robber baron was born in the British Isles and was a friend of Andrew Carnegie. Howard Woodson grew to manhood in the Hill District home of Jesse Grey. Catherine and Jesse Grey produced three daughters.
Like his older Woodson cousins, Howard Woodson attended Pittsburgh’s Central High School. The building in use when Howard attended was near his home in the Hill District and was the first to be built as a high school in Pittsburgh. Central High School started in 1855 in a rented space on Smithfield Street near the current location of Kauffman’s Department Store. The first class consisted of thirty-four boys and girls. In 1868, the school moved with 170 students to larger accommodations. The new space quickly became insufficient, as enrollment more than doubled, to 370 students. Education became a prerequisite for meaningful employment during this time, when a growing number of middle class families began to frown upon child labor. In September 1869, construction of a new building commenced with considerable fanfare. The new school, built for 600 students, contained an auditorium with an ample stage, a library, special rooms for chemistry and physics, office space, and fourteen classrooms. Howard Woodson entered the school in 1892.
Students of all ethnic backgrounds attended the school. Aside from the Anglo-Saxon and Irish majority, others were sons and daughters of Italian, Slavic, and Jewish immigrants who had recently arrived in America. Only a few African Americans were students there. Most teenagers in Pittsburgh continued to work in factories; high school was a mark of privilege. Howard Woodson maneuvered through the tensions and joys of adolescence, focusing on a good education. He “showed ability in mathematics, and won the respect of both students and faculty,” according to The Colored American Magazine and graduated with high honors.
A NEW CENTURY
In 1897, Howard entered the Western University of Pennsylvania, now known as the University of Pittsburgh. The school had been established in 1787 as the Pittsburgh Academy. Howard set his sights on a degree in civil engineering. America enjoyed a booming economy at the end of the nineteenth century. Absorbing the optimism of the era, he prepared for a successful and challenging career by obtaining skills that were in great demand. The industrial might of the nation was not evident in every corner of the American landscape, but it was very apparent in Pittsburgh. Steel mills belching gray clouds of smoke and the fancy horse-drawn carriages carrying industrialists to the mansions of Shadyside and Sewickley symbolized America’s ingenuity, competitive spirit, and rapid growth.
The university, then located in Allegheny City (now called the North Side), grew rapidly. It benefited from very able leadership in the person of Chancellor William Jacob Holland, Ph.D., Sc.D., D.D., LL.D. During Holland’s ten-year tenure, a medical school, a school of dentistry, and a law school were added. Holland also greatly expanded graduate studies. The enrollment grew from 95 students to 691; this growth occurred before the school acquired the more attractive and convenient campus it now occupies.
Chancellor Holland accepted and instituted coeducation. He admitted sisters Stella Mathilda Stein and Margaret Lydia Stein, who graduated in 1898. Their graduation reflected the emerging struggle for gender equality. At the end of the nineteenth century, women had not yet gained the right to vote, but they had managed to raise their status through the temperance movement by declaring superiority over a despised class, alcoholic men. They also proclaimed women’s education as a necessity for a healthy society. Howard was the second African American to graduate from the university. Later in life he maintained a healthy affection not only for the city of his birth but for the university. There can be no doubt that he encountered some unpleasantness there, but on balance it served him well.
After graduating, Howard Woodson traveled for a few months in the South and West. Upon his return in August 1900, he accepted a well-paid position at the Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company, one of Pittsburgh’s premier enterprises. He then worked for the Pittsburgh Coal Company as an assistant engineer and transitman. Howard’s ambitious restlessness and the fact that he worked only until each construction job was finished, meant that he changed jobs often. In 1904, he secured a larger paycheck at Orient Coal & Coke Company in Uniontown, Pennsylvania, and the next year he worked as a draftsman for Cambria Steel Company in Johnstown. In 1905, he began work as a structural draftsman for the American Bridge Company in Chicago.
Howard Woodson changed jobs yet again in Chicago, taking a position with Daniel H. Burnham & Company, where he earned a yearly salary of $1,664 as a structural engineer. After the Great Chicago Fire in 1871, real estate developers looked to maximize the value of downtown property by building taller buildings. Within a few years, the sons of Elisha Otis created the hydraulic elevator, and Daniel Burnham and John Root designed the first all-steel skeleton, nine stories tall, for the second Rand McNally Building, which was completed in Chicago in 1890.
Howard Woodson went to work for Daniel H. Burnham & Company after the firm won the contract to design the structural steel components for the railroad station planned for Washington, D.C. Howard designed the roof structure. Union Station is an engineering marvel and a beautiful expression of American verve and confidence. Woodson’s residence in Chicago was propitious in several ways. He was able to work with the most talented men in his field and was challenged with one of the most difficult and conspicuous projects of his time.
By then well established and well connected within his profession, Howard Woodson married Paulina Golden Writt of the Homewood section of Pittsburgh. Paulina, one of the five children of John and Susan Writt, was raised in a large house on Susquehanna Avenue. Her father was a caterer. The origins of the Writt family are not known, but they intermarried with families who had lived in Pittsburgh for generations.
REACHING THE GOAL
Howard moved to Washington, D.C., in 1907, securing a position with the Treasury Department to design government buildings. As the need for such services grew, Woodson’s job evolved into that of procuring engineering and architectural services from private firms. His initial workplace was in the Treasury Building, immediately east of the White House. At the time very few African Americans held professional jobs in the federal government. Civil Service regulations gave Woodson a measure of protection unavailable in private industry. Though co-workers occasionally tried to dislodge him from his employment and on one occasion made a huge fuss over his use of the men’s room, Howard Woodson, small in frame but large in resolve, stood his ground. Jesse Grey, his stepfather, maintained connections with powerful Pittsburgh scions who looked out for Woodson’s interests when asked to do so.
Howard Dilworth Woodson’s first child, Granville Writt Howard Woodson, was born in 1909. Howard and Paulina used all of the family names they could. (The use of more than four names was considered gauche.) The second son, Paul Dilworth Woodson, arrived two years later. Paul is, of course, the masculine form of Paulina. In naming the first two children, all of the parents’ names were used except for Paulina’s middle name. Howard’s father’s name, Granville, was added for good measure.
The proud father turned his attention to making Washington a permanent home. He bought land in a remote corner of the city, Far Northeast Washington. This land, near the top of a steep hill, afforded a modest view of a narrow valley formed by Watts Branch, a creek that empties into the Anacostia River. Howard bought the land cheap, as no city water service was available at the site. In 1914, he began building houses. Woodson placed his home on the crest of the steepest part of the hill. He built five other houses at the same time, selling them for a profit.
Howard faced the same dilemma Thomas Jefferson faced at the top of Monticello. He designed an oversized well and placed a large water tank in the attic of his house to supply water for the six houses he constructed. In 1923, city water service finally reached the site. A portion of the hilltop was leveled to install the service more easily. Howard designed and developed five additional houses farther down the hillside and elsewhere in the neighborhood between 1915 and 1918. At the same time he continued to work for the federal government.
Howard Woodson bought his first automobile, an Essex touring car, in 1922. The Essex had no permanent windows except the windshield. When rain threatened, the family fastened “windows” made of a semi-clear plastic-like material to the doors. They traveled to Pittsburgh in the Essex each year to visit relatives and to keep tabs on the Roberts Street rental houses Howard had inherited from his father.
Paulina eventually bore five more children, but three of them died as infants. Harold Merriman Woodson, born in 1916, and John Stanton Woodson, born in 1918, survived. Paulina was a housewife, attending to her children’s needs and caring for her well-appointed home. The family raised chickens in the backyard, as did many of their neighbors. When not consumed by household tasks, Paulina played piano; she was a fine musician.
Paulina Golden Writt Woodson died in 1924. Her oldest son, Granville, was then fifteen, and the youngest, John, was six. Howard Woodson went on without his beloved wife. Granville soon went off to college; John helped out by regularly shopping for groceries.
A 1925 Studebaker served as the next family car. The Studebaker was an enormous piece of machinery and sported the newest feature in the automobile industry, a radiator, placed in the floor behind the front seat. In 1926 Granville entered the University of Pittsburgh, his father’s alma mater. Harold and John spent parts of a couple of summers with their mother’s sister, Emma Writt Richards. The Richardses had two boys, Writt, the oldest, and Robert, who was John’s age. Harold and John also visited their grandmother’s house on Camp Street in the Hill District.
Howard’s mother, Catherine, was self-assured and resolute. She was an attractive woman with a serene appearance but was not easily humored. Her grandchildren remembered her frequent comments about white ethnics embodying a measure of resentment or hostility, most directed toward the Irish.
Ever since the Irish began to immigrate to America in large numbers in the 1840s, relations between the African Americans and the Irish were filled with stress. Jobs were the central point of contention. During the Potato Famine of the 1840s, the Irish came to America hungry, illiterate, and willing to work the most menial jobs. Over time Irish immigrants managed to push African Americans out of many fields of employment. Many of the nineteenth-century urban riots in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and other cities were the result of Irish and African American tensions. The most deadly riot in American history occurred in New York in 1863, when Irishmen resisted being drafted into the Union Army during the Civil War. The freedom of African American slaves was understandably not a high priority for them. Over 1,000 people were killed in the New York riots.
Catherine Grey knew that most immigrants wanted, more than anything, to discard their ethnicity to become Americans. She resented their ability to make the transition. When she shopped for groceries, she often asked the clerk for items, giving ethnic-oriented descriptions. “I’ll have some Irish potatoes,” she would say, knowing well that the potatoes had never crossed the Atlantic Ocean. Or “Is that Polish sausage?” The clerks were probably annoyed, but nevertheless Catherine seemed to feel she was evening the score.
Catherine Powell Woodson Grey traveled to Washington in 1928 to visit her son and grandsons, staying a few weeks. During this time she told Harold and John the family oral history. Standing on the small wood-plank back porch, she told the boys that Lewis Woodson, their great-grandfather, was an industrious, serious, and successful man, highly respected in Pittsburgh in his time. She told them that Lewis’ father, Thomas Woodson, was a prosperous Ohio farmer and the son of President Thomas Jefferson. Catherine said that she heard the history and legacy of Thomas Woodson from Lewis Woodson; her pride in association with him was evident. She must have been equally proud of her son.
Catherine Grey was able to trace her own maternal grandfather’s family to Joseph Williams, who was born in 1760. She was a cousin of Dr. Daniel Hale Williams, who performed the first open-heart surgery. She was immensely proud of these histories and connections. She no doubt found strength in them and considered the oral histories she passed on to her grandchildren the most valuable gift she could impart.
Howard Woodson had invested some of his savings in the stock market, so the crash of October 1929 was not fondly remembered in the Woodson household. All of his money was not in the stock market, however, so he was able to take advantage when an attractive piece of real estate in his neighborhood, a corner lot at Deane Avenue (now Nannie Burroughs Avenue) and 49th Street, became available in 1930. Within a few years he built a gasoline station at the busy intersection. After a few years of nonfamily management, Paul, then twenty-six years old, began to operate the enterprise.
Howard bought another Studebaker in 1930. Paul and Harold drove the car to Pittsburgh in 1936 to vote in the presidential election, since residents of the nation’s capital could not vote for president. The next year Harold wrecked the Studebaker, leaving his father without an automobile for a while.
A NEW DEAL FOR REAL
President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal made the elimination of slums and the creation of decent, affordable housing federal government mandates. Much of the land housing authorities and redevelopment agencies bought, using powers of eminent domain, was occupied by African Americans. Whole communities were destroyed, and the fabric of African American urban life was unsettled by the process. Small businesses were closed and their clientele displaced. The Pittsburgh Housing Authority bought the five houses Howard Woodson owned on Roberts Avenue, and the Pittsburgh Redevelopment Authority bought the Bethel A.M.E. Church on Wylie Avenue. The buildings were certainly not slums, but the governmental agencies nevertheless demolished them.
Public housing was constructed on the Roberts Avenue site. The church relocated to nearby Webster Street. Despite promises to redevelop the Hill District, much of the vacant land created by government-funded demolition was not built on for forty years. During those years no taxes were collected on the land. Many of the high-rise housing projects built in the 1950s throughout the nation were torn down after being occupied for only three decades. After fifty years of government intervention in urban neighborhoods, the benefits were difficult to discern, and the experience of the Hill District is arguably the nation’s worse example.
From the time Howard Woodson completed the houses on Fitch Place, he began a relentless advocacy for improved conditions in his Far Northeast Washington neighborhood. Early on, he became secretary of the Northeast Boundary Civic Association. Though Howard Woodson never knew his grandfather Lewis, his penchant for public service seemed to emulate his grandfather’s drive. Howard even became the secretary of organizations he joined, much like his grandfather.
Washington was governed by three commissioners, appointed by politicians; residents did not enjoy democratic government. Washingtonians voiced their concerns through civic associations. Woodson was not only active in his local association but was a leader of the Federation of Civic Associations, as its first vice president and later as the chairman of its Public Works Committee. Howard knew all of the commissioners of the District of Columbia and all the House and Senate District Committee members as well. He maintained a special friendship with Senator Everett Dirksen, a powerful Republican from Illinois. On two occasions Howard Woodson traveled back to Chicago to vote.
Howard pushed for construction of schools to meet the needs of the rapidly growing population of his neighborhood. He demanded increased police protection, specifically requesting the assignment of African American police, while taking care not to denigrate white policemen. He requested street lighting and tree planting. As an engineer, he thoughtfully assessed the need for road construction and flood control. Howard and his associates in the Federation of Civic Associations knew the District of Columbia budget as well as or better than the commissioners.
Washingtonians did not have the voting right, and Howard Woodson felt disenfranchised; as a result he often wrote editorials for the local daily newspapers, usually under the name Howard Dilworth, using his middle name as his surname. As a federal employee he needed the sheild of an alias when criticizing either the federal or local government. His grandfather, the Reverend Lewis Woodson, had used the pen name Augustine between 1837 and 1841. Thomas Woodson used the alias Tom Corbin, possibly as an outgrowth of Underground Railroad work. Blacks had not secured the freedoms enjoyed by others; consequently generation upon generation of Woodsons were obliged to find in creative ways to keep the fire burning.
After retiring from the federal government, Howard continued his civic roles. He took on many private design contracts as a structural engineer. As patriarch of the burgeoning Woodson family in Washington, he spent time with his five grandsons and two granddaughters. He bought his last automobile, a sleek four-door Packard, when he was sixty-five years of age.
Jesse Grey died in 1932. Catherine lived with her children during the balance of her life. She lived in Washington with Howard from 1933 to 1935. With the onset of senility, residence with a daughter in Ohio became the better choice. She died in Ohio in 1936, fifty-six years after the death of her first husband, Granville Sharp Woodson.
Howard Woodson’s sons attended segregated public high schools in Washington. Granville and John attended the venerable Dunbar High, an academic school. Paul and Harold attended Armstrong, which emphasized manual trades. Granville and John, the oldest and youngest, respectively, were the tallest, 5′ 11″ in height. Paul and Harold grew to 5′ 9″ like their father. The boys were dark in complexion, with the exception of John, who has a medium brown complexion. All of them were more muscular than their father; all were strikingly handsome.
Harold and John put their youthful energies to work creating a tennis court on the west side of the Fitch Place house. Friends joined the endeavor, including Odell and Wendell Shumate, the brothers of John’s girlfriend, Minnie. When Howard saw that the boys were serious, he engaged a local man who sold vegetables from a horse-drawn cart. A scoop was attached to the horse by a harness to remove dirt, leveling part of the hill. The brothers worked on the project intermittently, so months passed before the tennis court was finished. It proved to be very popular and received much use.
After receiving a degree in civil engineering from the University of Pittsburgh, Granville worked for the Department of Interior, designing improvements and managing construction projects. President Roosevelt formed the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in order to relieve unemployment created by the Great Depression. In 1935, 500,000 young unmarried men were placed in camps to build roads and make other improvements all over the nation. Often, Department of Interior personnel designed projects which were then built by the CCC. Granville designed new roadways and the placement of monuments and plaques for the Gettysburg battlefield to accommodate increased tourism. He worked at other Pennsylvania sites, including the Pymatuning Reservoir in the northern portion of the state. Granville married Jane Lewis of Pittsburgh, whose father was publisher of the the Pittsburgh Courier, at the time among the most notable of the nation’s African American newspapers.
The Department of Interior moved Granville to Tuskegee, Alabama, in 1940 to prepare the site for construction of an airfield. African American pilots were trained there in preparation for action in World War II. He worked with the notable African American architect Hilliard Robinson on the airfield project. Granville entered the army but suffered from asthma and was relieved of military duty soon after joining. He worked for the Budd Company in Philadelphia during part of the war, then went to Liberia in 1943 to assist with the construction of an airport there called Roberts Field. Short-range fighter planes were ferried to the North African front via South America and Roberts Field. They lacked the range needed for a more northerly crossing of the Atlantic Ocean. Roberts Field was built to facilitate that traffic.
Howard Woodson married again in 1943. It was the second marriage for Audrey Wright also. Howard expanded the rose garden and the western end of his tiered lawn. Audrey convinced him to dispense with the tennis court, declaring that she had not been engaged to “run a country club.” The posts that held the net were uprooted, and the area was seeded with grass. The “boys” were all grown by then and off to various spots around the world.
In 1947, Granville returned to Washington, D.C., where he planned school construction for the D.C. Public School System. He was enticed back to Liberia in the 1950s, taking his son Granville, as his marriage by then had fallen apart. Draining swamps to rid the nation of malaria was one of his primary duties. Unlike many African American college graduates of his generation, Granville actually practiced the profession for which he was trained. Thousands of college-educated blacks worked as letter carriers or bus drivers until segregationist practices eased further. Shortly after his final return from Liberia, Granville married a German woman, Herta Ellenbogen.
Paul Woodson briefly attended St. Augustine College, a historically black college in the South, then worked as a carpenter, building houses in Highland Beach, Maryland, a resort community. He operated his father’s service station for a while, then entered the Army Air Force. Paul was based at Tuskegee in Alabama, but was trained to maintain engines at the Pratt and Whitney factory near Buffalo, New York.
After the war, Paul married a well-known nightclub owner, Ann Montgomery, who was fifteen years his senior. He became acquainted with many popular entertainers of the day, such as Lena Horne and Pearl Bailey, as well as prizefighter Joe Louis, whose manager settled in Buffalo with more than his rightful share of Joe’s money. Paul co-managed the business, a combination of nightclub, lounge, and hotel, in central Buffalo. The joint was jumping; the Little Harlem Hotel was a center for entertainment, political deal-making, and illegal lottery operations. Paul and Ann, who remained childless, lived ostentatiously, but not beyond their means.
Harold Woodson, who married early in life and started a family, did not attend college. He joined the Marines in 1944. Though he worked as a mail clerk, he came closer to combat than his brothers. His African American unit was assigned to the South Pacific, first landing on Tinian, in the Mariana Islands, 1,000 miles east of the Philippines. The adjacent island, Saipan, was first taken after fierce combat claimed the lives of 27,000 Japanese and 3,000 Americans. Americans shelled Tinian heavily from Saipan before landing there. Harold’s unit landed on Tinian in early August after the primary battle was over, but Japanese soldiers had hidden themselves. Three months of dangerous hide-and-seek maneuvers were necessary to ferret out Japanese who fought to the death and would not surrender.
Harold landed on Iwo Jima, a small island much closer to Japan than Tinian, three days after the initial beach invasion there. The American high command again faced a daunting prospect. The Americans needed to dislodge two Japanese airfields on Iwo Jima. The Japanese fortified the island with 21,000 troops, strengthened by a network of trenches, tunnels, and pillboxes. The Japanese command had no intention of rescuing their troops and expected them to fight to the death. The Marines completed their famous assault to gain the high ground at the top of Mt. Suribachi after five days of fierce combat, but still the fight continued. During the next four weeks and some of the bloodiest fighting of World War II, Americans took 200 Japanese prisoners. Over 20,000 Japanese fought to the death. The Marines suffered 6,800 deaths and 18,000 men wounded. The island was only eight square miles in size; there was no escape from that hell on earth once it was entered. Harold subsequently went on to duty in China before returning to the United States.
At home in Washington, D.C., Harold Woodson worked for the navy as a civilian. He was a printer. After his first wife died, he remarried and raised five children. Golf and jazz were his avocations. Uncle Harold never talked about what he saw on Iwo Jima when he returned home. It’s a missing piece of family lore that I wish we had.
1. Quoted in Annette Gordon-Reed, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1997), 105.
2. Leland D. Baldwin, Pittsburgh: The Story of a City, 1750–1865 (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1937), 192–93.
3. William Bender Wilson, History of the Pennsylvania Railroad, vol. 1 (Philadelphia: The Pennsylvania Railroad Co., 1895), 157.
4. Ibid., 159: the Summit Tunnel.
5. Isaac Harris, Harris’ Directory (Pittsburgh: Privately printed, 1864).
6. Minnie S. Woodson, Woodson Source Book (Washington, D.C.: Privately printed, 1984), 163: biographical data on James Woodson.
7. Posters advertising the celebrations are in the collection of John S. Woodson, grandson of Granville S. Woodson.
8. Constitution of the United States.
9. Collection of John S. Woodson.
10. Woodson, Woodson Source Book, 214: from the Encyclopedia of the African American Church, comp. Richard R. Wright, Jr. (Philadelphia, 1947), 309–10.
11. Charles A. Rohleder, “Pittsburgh Prepares to Honor Avery, Pioneer Philanthropist,” North Side Ledger, December 27, 1929; James Parton, People’s Book of Biography, or the Short Lives of the Most Interesting Persons (Hartford: A. S. Hale & Co., 1868), 122–27.
12. Woodson, Woodson Source Book: obituary, Pittsburgh Commercial Gazette,1/15/1878.
13. Floyd Miller, The Search for a Black Nationality (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1975), 94; Woodson, Woodson Source Book, 88; Floyd Miller, “The Father of Black Nationalism,” Civil War History, vol. 17, no. 4 (December 1971).
14. Woodson, Woodson Source Book, 40: probate of Thomas Woodson’s will.
15. Ibid., 163: death of Granville Woodson.
16. Ibid., 227: education of Howard D. Woodson, from The Colored American Magazine; S. Trevor Hadley, Only in Pittsburgh (Cincinnati: Educational Publishing Resources, 1994), 91: establishment of Central High School and construction of new building.
17. Woodson, Woodson Source Book, 227, education of Howard D. Woodson, from The Colored American Magazine.
18. Ibid., 228: Howard Woodson’s college education.
19. Robert C. Alberts, Pitt: The Story of the University of Pittsburgh (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1986), 39: Chancellor Holland.
20. Ibid., 42: coeducation.
21. Woodson, Woodson Source Book, 231: H. D. Woodson’s resumé.
22. Ibid., 231: Howard Woodson’s early employment.
23. Interviews with John S. Woodson (b. 1918) during 1999 provided significant material for this chapter.
24. James L. Stokesbury, A Short History of World War II (New York: William Morrow & Co., 1980), 340: Marine landing on Tinian.
25. Ibid., 368: casualties on Iwo Jima.
Thomas and Jemima Woodson, c. 1840.
Photo provided to the Thomas Woodson Family collection by Jane Faithful.
Thomas Woodson and two of his sons, probably James and Thomas, c. 1845.
Photo provided to the Thomas Woodson Family collection by Mary Kearney.
The Reverend Lewis Woodson, eldest son of Thomas and Jemima. Lewis was an institution builder, educator, minister, and abolitionist who was called the father of Black Nationalism by historian Floyd Miller.
George Woodson, second son of Thomas and Jemima. George married Anna Lucas and became a farmer in Jackson County, Ohio.
Photo provided to the Thomas Woodson Family collection by Mary Kearney.
Frances Woodson Cassell, who raised a large family in Jackson County, Ohio. Most living descendants are Midwesterners.
The Reverend John P. Woodson, second son of Thomas and Jemima. John P. became a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and his death in 1853 may have been due to his involvement with the Underground Railroad.
Photo provided to the Thomas Woodson Family collection by Mary Kearney.
Sarah Jane Woodson, youngest child of Thomas and Jemima, was one of the first African American woman to graduate from college, and the first to teach at the college level. She married an A.M.E. minister and wrote his biography after his death.
Photo provided to the Thomas Woodson Family collection by Mary Kearney.
Granville Sharp Woodson, named for the famous British abolitionist Granville Sharp, eighth child of Lewis and Caroline Woodson. He was a barber and landlord.
Catherine Powell Woodson, wife of Granville Sharp Woodson. After Granville’s early death, Catherine remarried. One of her daughters from her second marriage married Robert Smalls, son and namesake of a Reconstruction-era congressman.
Oliver Highgate, son of Caroline Woodson Highgate.
Ada Highgate, daughter of Caroline Woodson Highgate. Howard D. Woodson settled Ada’s estate in Midland, Michigan.
Howard D. Woodson (front row, fourth from right, with mustache). Howard nurtured many friendships and belonged to a number of organizations.
Howard D. Woodson (back row, fifth from right) working as an engineer with the Treasury Department.
Paulina Golden Writt Woodson with sons Granville W. H. and Paul D., c. 1912.
Photo taken at the Scurlock Studio—Washington, D.C.
John S. Woodson, youngest son of Howard and Paulina Woodson. John was gregarious and became one of the finest athletes at Dunbar High School in Washington, D.C.
Cautious by nature, Minnie studied the Woodson clan before accepting membership. She found the Woodson verve and passions exciting and rewarding.
Fawn M. Brodie.
Used by permission, Utah State Historical Society, all rights reserved. Photo no. 921 #11764.
Byron W. Woodson, Hanau, Germany. Byron learned to count in German, but forgot his second language when he returned to the United States.
Minnie and John Woodson on the Queen Elizabeth 2.
Byron and Trena Woodson with sons Byron and John at the first Woodson family reunion in Pittsburgh in 1978.
Photo provided by Trena Woodson.
Kellie, John and Byron Woodson at the Jersey shore.
Photo provided by Trena Woodson.
Byron and Trena Woodson with Mary Jefferson, flanked by her sons Justin and Colby, on the West Lawn at Monticello. Mary is an Eston Hemings Jefferson descendant.
Photo provided by Trena Woodson.
Trena Woodson presents a copy of the Woodson Source Book to Shay Banks-Young, a Madison Hemings descendant.
Photo provided by Trena Woodson.
Byron Woodson with Connye Richardson. Minnie Woodson was quite excited when she met Connye’s mother, Norma Woodson McDaniel, in the hallway of an elementary school, discovering an unanticipated family link.
Photo provided by Trena Woodson.
Byron Woodson and Colonel James Truscott, president of the Monticello Association, standing below Monticello’s East Portico, May 2000.
Photo provided by Trena Woodson.
Jean Jefferson, Mary Jefferson, Michele Cooley-Quille, Nina Boettcher, screenwriter Tina Andrews, Shay Banks-Young, Shannon Lanier, and the next generation sitting on the tombstone of Thomas Jefferson.
Photo provided by Trena Woodson.
Michele Cooley-Quille, daughter Alex, and husband Alan, May 2000.
Photo provided by Trena Woodson.
Trena with grandchildren—Kellie’s daughters Breeana and Daniesha, 1999.
Trena, Byron, and John Woodson attend younger son Byron’s graduation from the University of Pittsburgh, 1999. (John graduated from Pitt in 1998.)
Photo taken by Rod Parker.
Jefferson’s descendants: Woodsons, Eppeses, Jeffersons, Hemingses, and Randolphs, May 1999.
Photo provided by Trena Woodson.