Women tell stories of lives in Homestead of '40s, '50s

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Easter Little Baker's first impression of Pittsburgh when she moved here in 1945 was one of dirty snow.

Pat French and Marlene Todd Robinson remember swimming in the three "filthy" rivers a half-century ago. And Betty Esper recalled the time she couldn't find her car because it was covered in red dust.

Still, "where there was smoke, there was bread," Ms. Esper quoted her mother as saying, even as soot blanketed the mountains of laundry from her family's 13 children hanging outside.

"This dirt means money," is a saying Mrs. Baker, now 87, learned from one of her husband's patients. Her husband, Dr. George Little, was one of the first African-American doctors in Homestead,

It meant the steel mills were in full operation, Mrs. Baker said.

Such tales are the main course, served bittersweet -- heavy on the sweet, light on the bitter -- emanating from the Kitchen Table program, in which four women who either grew up or lived in Homestead recall bygone days.

Called Kitchen Table Stories, the July 15 afternoon event, billed as a "history of Homestead told from a woman's point of view," was held before about 50 people at artspace303 in the borough.

Staged in conjunction with Homestead's Community Day celebration, it was co-sponsored by the Steel Valley Arts Council and the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area.

In March, the four women, all longtime friends, gathered for an evening of similar reminiscences at the Frick Art Museum.

The quartet stage the chatty, listener-friendly presentation as a way to share memories of life in the shadow of the now-silent steel mills in the Mon Valley. They were encouraged to create such a presentation by Janis Dofner, of Rivers of Steel, who knew the women from the work her organization does in Homestead.

Mrs. French, 75; Ms. Robinson, 55; and Ms. Esper, 72, grew up in Homestead and said they were poor by IRS standards, but that they never knew it.

"I didn't know I was poor until someone told me I was," Ms. Robinson said. With a mother, meals and "a place to put my head," her cup runneth over, she said.

"We were poor in material things, but not in our heritage," Ms. Esper said. "We were all rich growing up in Homestead."

She is now mayor of the town.

The vibrant community of the 1940s and 1950s had three movie theaters, two candy shops, two Isaly's stores and numerous bakeries.

Children entertained themselves with street games such as tin can alley and building cars out of orange crates.

An ice cream cone from Isaly's was shared among several friends.

Parents watched out for everyone's children, while youngsters showed respect to their elders, Mrs. French said.

Today, she lives in Mt. Lebanon, and is president of the Bulgarian-Macedonian National Educational and Cultural Center in West Homestead.

While Ms. Esper and Mrs. French agreed race didn't matter within the close-knit community, Ms. Robinson recalled not being allowed to swim in the pool at the local Carnegie Library or at Kennywood Park.

The racial discrimination is still "edgy" for her, she said.

Mrs. Baker, a retired special education teacher for the Allegheny Intermediate Unit, recalled that she was not allowed to accompany childhood friends who were white into soda shops in the segregated Kentucky of the 1940s. Mrs. Baker later moved to Pittsburgh.

Ms. Esper recalled next-door neighbor Mr. Washington telling her he could not be promoted within the mill because he was black. Mrs. French said women, such as her mother, faced the same roadblock in the mills.

Ms. Robinson, who served as president of the borough National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and works on youth-oriented community projects, said the Homestead of today has more transients.

But it is still a close-knit community, she said.

To schedule a Kitchen Table session, call Ms. Dofner at 412-464-4020, ext. 46..


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