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Black History Re-Pressed

A Conversation with Ben Wilson

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In the early 1980s, Ben Wilson was walking through the Hill District when he came upon the Black Chronicle, a newspaper-like compendium of articles from newspapers dating back to the 18th century. All the articles concerned black people and their struggle, from slavery to the Civil Rights era. For six years Wilson says he tried to contact the Chronicle's compiler, Boston's Henry Hampton, who later produced the Emmy award-winning documentary Eyes on the Prize. One month after Hampton sent Wilson the materials, Hampton was dead. Wilson took the Chronicles and made it into a 30-page, 11- x 17-inch booklet containing landmark moments in history, from the first Revolutionary War casualty -- that of merchant seaman and escaped slave Crispus Attucks -- to the beating death of Emmitt Till that finally prompted America to pass legislation to recognize and eventually punish lynching. The Chronicle today can be found in Africa, Australia, Canada and most of the United States; it is a coffee table staple for black families throughout Pittsburgh.

 

Why'd you pursue the Black Chronicle for so long?

The news in the Black Chronicle was so fascinating it drew me to want more. I'm a graduate of the University of Pittsburgh. In school all we got was Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver. Henry [Hampton] once asked me, "So what do you plan to do with these papers?" I told him I was going to make an encyclopedia out of it. I think if my father and grandfather knew about this information then they would not feel inferior about the color of their skin, the way our hair is, how we talk. We didn't know blacks made such major contributions to this country.

 

Do you have any of your own stories that could fit into the Chronicle's  pages?

I was one of the original founders of the Black Action Society [at Pitt]. We took over the radio station there. I remember I went up there to get a job. The white boy behind the counter asked me if I was lost. I told him "No, I came to apply for a job." He gave me an application and asked me to sign a tablet that had over 400 names on it. He said I had to wait until all those other names were contacted first. I said, "Don't you realize I'll have my Ph.D. by the time you call me?" I left and came back with over 500 students and people from the community: Nate Smith, Harvey Adams, Curtiss Porter, Jack Daniel. We marched on the station and shut it down. At the end they gave me a budget, a secretary and made me general manager. Blacks had the station all day Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday. That same white boy said it wasn't fair because he had to give up the station for four days. I said it was fair because they had it every day for so long.

 

What do you remember from growing up in the Hill?

I grew up with [poet, playwright and professor] Rob Penny. He was a quiet sort of man. I lived next door to [jazz performer] Georgie Benson. I messed around on the keyboard and played some saxophone. One day at Robert Morris [University] I was playing "Misty" and [soul singer] Phyliss Hyman came up and started singing with me. August Wilson would walk up Centre Avenue with fatigues on, a notepad and a pencil behind his ear. He was kind of a weird guy. He would go into a bar called Taylor's and would just order a ginger ale. Taylor's was across from Hick's supermarket, and he'd just sit there and write, then leave.

 

Have you received more or less support locally for the Chronicle?

Pittsburgh has embraced the Black Chronicle like no one else I've ever seen. Some of the warmest people in the world live here. People talk about California and New York but if you grew up in Pittsburgh, you have to come back. They teach Black Chronicle here in the schools. There's a course at Mt. Lebanon High School where they teach it because Black Chronicle comes as a teacher's guide also. Fourteen prisons in New Jersey bought the Black Chronicle a few years ago, now it's in all their prisons. Youngstown, Ohio's school district bought 2,000 of them and Cincinnati's NAACP also.

 

How would your story read if it were in the Chronicle?

You'll find in those ads in the Black Chronicle that a slave's life back then was only worth $5 if he escaped -- $10 if he was brought back dead. That means we were better off dead for the slavemasters. If I was living in those days I wouldn't have made it because I would be fighting for freedom, trying to escape. History makes it seem like slaves were happy and singing when they were in slavery. Most slaves were plotting and planning, though, for a good escape.

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