The Acceptable Boundaries of Racism in 1940s Donora

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.

Dr. Charles Stacey talking with a visitor to the Donora Historical Society

“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.”

blackkidsrollerskating

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

Goodbye, 2016. Hello, 2017

We’ve had quite a divaricate year, all in all, one with a split personality, one that feels differently to me depending on whether I think about what happened in my personal life or what happened in the nation and the world.

Perhaps it is always that way, but 2016 certainly feels different.
Personally I had a lovely year. My incredible wife and I enjoyed good health, a great deal of happiness, and the frequent company of our wonderful friends and family. We welcomed a beautiful new granddaughter, and I retired in the fall and have been busy with our new puppy since then. I’ve been playing better golf, on the whole, and have had many fun rounds with great friends.
Our children have largely been healthy, though there have been instances here and there of less than stellar health. But no one has been seriously ill, and there have been no deaths in the immediate or extended family.
All to the good.
Nationally it has been a time of enormous upheaval, culminating with the election of the worst candidate for president since at least Andrew Jackson and quite possibly since the founding of our nation. We elected a racist, misogynistic, narcissistic sociopath the likes of which this country hasn’t seen since, well, I don’t know when.
We’ve seen the ugly racism that has been hiding just beneath the surface of too many people’s consciousness explode into overt and vicious racism. It’s as if all the grotesque biases lurking in the shadows have been given expression and general approval in the name of “making American great again.” Far too many people are saying, We’ve finally rid the White House of that blackie and have installed our very own white supremacist in his place. Hooray!

Sickening. Disgusting. Abhorrent.
Internationally we’ve seen atrocities in Aleppo, Russian interventions in Syria and Ukraine, and horrors committed by the Boko Haram in Nigeria.
Horribly sad.
I will remember 2016 like I remember 1968, as a tumultuous, life-altering period in our history and my own life. We all will emerge from 2016’s grip, without question, and we will survive as a people the next few years, but we will not be the same. We weren’t the same after WWI, nor after WWII, nor after Vietnam and the Nixon years, and we will be forever changed again after we push through this current period. 
I know not what 2017 will bring, inwardly or outwardly, but I know that we as a people, and I personally, will work through our issues as best we can, day in and day out. For in the end, that is all we can do.
I wish us all a healthy, happy, and meaningful new year.