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Brief Biographical / Historical Sketch


This collection of photographs depicts African American construction workers in Pittsburgh from the angle of their membership in the African American laborers’ local (International Hod Carriers and Building Laborers Local 11), 1957-1960, and from the angle of efforts by African American leaders like Ellis R. McGruder, Jr. and Nate Smith in the 1960s and 1970s to bring about greater employment opportunities for African Americans in the building trades in Pittsburgh.

Though details are sketchy, Pittsburgh’s black Laborers Local 11 was chartered on May 25, 1903. As of 1908, the local was meeting at 120 Crawford Street, then for a time at Lyric Hall, Fulton and Gilmore Streets ca. 1910, and at 2157 Centre Avenue ca. 1937. The local was represented in conventions of the Pennsylvania Federation of Labor (e.g. 1922) and at meetings of the Pittsburgh Central Labor Union and its successor, the Allegheny County Labor Council. In 1964, Local 11 was merged with two historically “white” construction locals, Demolition Workers Local 136 and Laborers Local 226 to form Construction General Laborers Local Union 373. The merger did not result in widening opportunities for Pittsburgh’s African American construction workers.

In response to this situation, in the 1960s, Nate Smith, a former boxer and a heavy equipment operator for Local 66 of the Operating Engineers' Union, challenged Pittsburgh’s contractors and unions regarding their hiring practices. Told that the problem was a lack of properly trained workers, Smith created Operation Dig, a school to train African Americans to become construction journeymen. The school was partially funded by Edgar Kaufmann who had sponsored Smith’s boxing career and was a close friend. Soon over sixty African Americans had completed their training with Operation Dig; but, by and large, they were still not being hired onto area construction crews. Smith then formed the Black Construction Coalition to assure the hiring of African American workers in Pittsburgh per the Civil Rights Act of 1964. After several demonstrations which at times resulted in violent clashes, the Pittsburgh Plan was founded as a means for the city and unions to oversee the peaceful integration of African Americans into the building trades. Its success has been differently evaluated by different commentators.