Charles Stacey, PhD, talks often of life in Donora in the late 1940s. A retired educator and superintendent of schools, Stacey now serves as a kind of living historian of the era and of the deadly smog that changed so much, both in Donora and in the nation as a whole. When you ask, Stacey also talks about the way blacks and whites interacted back then.
“As I look back on it, race relations in Donora were strange,” he told me one day. “For instance, we went to school with black kids, played with them on the playground. They were on all the athletic teams. They were in our classes in school, and so forth. But if they went into Isaly’s Dairy Store up here, they could buy an ice cream cone, but they’d have to take it outside to eat it. They couldn’t sit down. When they went to the movies, there was a section where the black people had to sit.”
Stacey is right, race relations in the town were indeed strange, but it didn’t seem to bother anyone much, apparently not even black residents. Marvin Preston, 81, remembers well how he and his friends loved to roller skate and how they could skate only on certain nights at certain roller skating rinks. “We had a skating rink up in Belle Vernon called the Piggy Wiggy,” Preston recalls. “Everybody used to go to the Piggy Wiggy.* One interesting thing about that was, there was only one night we could go, that blacks could go.”
Piggy Wiggy allowed blacks to skate on Wednesday night, Preston says; Pittsburgh on Monday, Uniontown on Friday. Black teens would just rotate around. Preston didn’t think much about the arrangement at the time, “We knew where our boundaries were,” he explains. “I had a really good life, did everything I wanted to do. We had the same places that they [whites] had, so it didn’t make any difference. I had no desire to go to any of their places.”
Many Donorans, including Preston, remember few, if any, overt racial conflicts back then. “We all got along,” says Dmitri Petro, 83, a physician who grew up in Donora and who still sees patients at his McKean Avenue office. “Black kids in my neighborhood were part of our ‘7th Street gang,'” he says, referring to a group of kids who regularly played together. “Everyone seemed to get along okay. We never had any hostility in Donora.”
No hostility perhaps, but there were certainly unspoken social canons. High school dances were, on their face, integrated, but blacks and whites knew they weren’t supposed to dance together. Preston once tested that unwritten rule. “There was one white girl,” he remembers. “I think we were sort of sweet on each other. I don’t know. Anyways, I did ask her to dance, and she said yes, and the next day everybody had a heart attack. I was called into the office. My mother told me I had lost my mind. It caused a lot of confusion, believe me.”
Although Preston wasn’t punished, the girl was. “This young lady was banned from any activity except going to school. She had to go to school, and then go directly home.”
Lesson: Get back behind those boundaries.
Only in one place, says Preston, could black and white students intermingle. “I think the only common place we had was Pete’s Poolroom.” Pete’s was a hotspot for teens with little else to do at night in the small town. It was there, in a now empty area between 4th and 5th Streets, that teens of any color or nationality could come together without fretting about whether some authority figure might suddenly barge in and bring the hammer down.
Whether the more subtle, “acceptable” racism that existed in Donora in the 1940s and 1950s was better or worse than the more overt racism so maddeningly prevalent today is not for me to say. I will say, though, that even with the extreme diversity of nationalities present in Donora at the time, people of all shades and persuasions seem to have got along rather well, in spite of it all.
* Piggy Wiggy was a miniature golf course located on Route 906 in Belle Vernon. Robert and Barbara Tyber bought the site in 1950 and converted the course into the Riverview Skating Rink, which locals continued to call the Piggy Wiggy.