As you might imagine, I have a pretty sizable love for old stuff, so on occasion I’ve been known to stop by an antique mall or two. A couple weeks ago, I went with a purpose: my nephews were having a costume birthday party and I was going to go as a spy. So naturally I needed a spy camera, because that’s how this spy rolls.
I ended up in the Black Rose in Allentown because I was pretty sure I could find a cheap, old, plastic number that would fit the bill, and sure enough I did. It was an Ansco (made proudly in Binghamton, NY, as was I), and it even had a case to go with it. But in the meantime, as I wandered from booth to booth in this massive space, I came across a booth with three photographs, all black and white, all mounted on foam-core. The first, which caught my eye, was of a piano player, resting on top of the piano, lazily pressing his fingers to the keys. The second was of four women in identical white dresses, arranged in a semi-circle, and who should be in the middle of that semi-circle but Mr. Ray Charles himself.
And then a third, which seemed to have very little to do with the others. But that was the one I bought.
I didn’t know anything about it, where it came from, where it was taken, if it still existed, but I knew I had to have it, so I swiped it up and took it home. Immediately, I popped open the laptop to try and get some information on it. A few minutes work and it was fairly obvious that the B&M no longer existed; there is a B&M in Cleveland, but none at a “1617” street address. I delved into that possibility for a while, but it seemed unlikely. Then I noticed the flyers in the window, and in tiny letters just above the circus poster, I got my answer:
Forbes Field is the former home of the Pittsburgh Pirates, so sure enough, when I looked up B&M Pittsburgh, the light went on.
The B&M was featured in a small section of John Brewer’s book “African Americans in Pittsburgh,” and even carried with it a picture of the opposite side of the sign, taken around the same time period. In it, Brewer says this:
Famous Pittsburgh-born playwright August Wilson loved the B&M Restaurant in the Hill. All of the meals were home cooked. August loved the fluffy biscuits, grits, eggs, and sometimes hotcakes to energize his thoughts. The B&M rested in the lower Center Avenue part of Pittsburgh. The owner invested in a bright shiny marble facade which caught the eye, and set the B&M at the top of the food establishments in the Hill.
And the picture on the story stated that the picture was taken from the estate of Charles “Teenie” Harris. So back to Google I went, and I got even more excited. Charles “Teenie” Harris was a magnificent photographer for the Pittsburgh Courier, one of the leading African-American newspapers in the country. He specialized in pictures of everyday life, but he had more than a few of baseball players and other assorted celebrities. Unfortunately, I have not been able to find the exact photograph that I have, but it would seem to be Mr. Harris’s work. Even more exciting, Teenie Harris has been honored by the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh with a marvelous online archive. Go here and you won’t regret it.
Obviously I love the sign, which is why I bought it, but I’ve got to admit, this guy is my favorite part of the picture. He’s just too cool. He strikes me as one of those kind of guys that just smiles and says Hi to everyone who walks past. It may be my imagination, too, but at this moment it appears that behind his glasses he’s spotted the photographer, be he Teenie Harris or not. A brief, very human moment in time, captured forever.
As for the restaurant itself, I found out that the B&M was owned and operated by a woman named Bessie Mae Rawls, who opened it up in 1949 with the help of her son and daughter. Located at 1617 Centre Avenue, the B&M was a popular place up the late 60’s, but it eventually closed in 1973. Bessie Mae lived to be 102 years old and passed away in 2007. Her obituary in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette is here.
All the better that this photograph exists. I wonder how long that picture had been sitting in the Black Rose. I honestly wonder how it got there, but I suppose in the end, it doesn’t really matter. I feel richer for learning more about Teenie Harris, even if he didn’t take this picture, and for hearing about the hospitality of Mrs. Rawls. I never met either of them, but I’ll be warmed by their memories every time I look at this photograph.