An Oral History Of Mid-Century Lawrenceville Through The Eyes Of Loretta Millender
By: John Dubosky
Miss Loretta Millender, or “the Bible of Lawrenceville,” as some call her, possesses an intimate knowledge of Pittsburgh going back more than 70 years. As a black woman and civil rights activist, community organizer, school board member, and avid participant in her church, she’s familiar with parts of the city’s history that often get glossed over. Segregation, gentrification, redevelopment, and the changing facade of the Steel City aren’t often touted on click-bait internet headlines of which Pittsburgh is so frequently the subject, yet they are as much a part of our past as steel mills and the industrial might of generations ago.
In the year or so I’ve known Millender, she’s told me first-hand stories of Pittsburgh that you won’t find in brochures: roadblocks, speakeasies, and parts of town people of color weren’t welcome. She also tells anecdotes of a more jovial nature, about babies being born, families coming together to aid each other, and white business owners organizing to support poorer minority communities against the interest of their bottom line.
Born In Greensburg in 1941, Millender was a gregarious soul and determined worker and entrepreneur from a young age. She’s been cooking professionally since she was a little girl making sandwiches and lemonade for garbage men in her front yard in Lawrenceville. After that, it was straight to work at the age of 11, cooking in a boarding house for black train porters on their weekend breaks in the city. She worked for decades as a homemaker, babysitter, cook, and event coordinator, making her way around town building a reputation for herself as a trusted housekeeper and nanny. She eventually worked in the homes of and the campaigns of some of Pittsburgh’s more prominent political figures, including mayors Sophie Maloff, Bob O’Connor, and Richard Caliguiri. She sat on the Arsenal School PTA as President, and worked at St. Francis Hospital as a nurse on their death and grieving committee. Meanwhile, she’s held roles with the Youth Department at Trinity Missionary Baptist Church, her place of worship for the last 59 years, and has taken part in countless community and church events.
“There’s nothing she won’t do for you if she can,” said Dede Daniels, a friend of Millender for more than 20 years.
Daniels’ sentiment is echoed by many in Millender’s church, like Deacon Staffordee Williams. “I’d describe Miss Loretta as a beautiful person. A beautiful heart, she’s always trying to help people, she’s a worker,” said Williams.
“I have never been a follower, I’ve always been a leader and when I’m leading you, I’m going to make sure I’m leading right. I want no mess up,” said Millender.
I first met Millender at a baby shower in Lower Lawrenceville. She had volunteered to cook dinner for a young family who worked at a restaurant she frequented in her neighborhood. A struggling family at her local pub needed help, and Millender didn’t hesitate to step up. Incidentally, I recently found out Millender is now the baby’s Godmother.
My first encounter with Millender last year lead to a conversation about the neighborhood. “Did you know that under that doughboy statue was a public toilet?” she asked me. Laughing, I told her I had no idea, and I wondered what else I didn’t know about the history of my own city. That kicked off a series of interviews that have become a recurring column we’re calling, Miss Loretta’s Corner. It will be a place to share lesser-known stories of our city so that we can understand our collective history more personally. We’ll hear about school boycotts to stop the bussing of inner-city children to the suburbs, a protest that shut down the intersection at 40th St. and Butler St. to petition the city’s lack of crossing lights and crossing guards for poor school children, and we’ll learn about the people who stood up to cross the color line at a pivotal point in time for minority communities in the United States.
For now, we’ll leave you with a passage from Milleder. Here, she’s describing her first job at Miss Ada White’s boarding house. The setting is downtown Pittsburgh in the mid 1950’s. While Pittsburgh wasn’t a segregated city, there were many businesses that discriminated openly against people of color. Even though there was a fair employment ordinance adopted in 1953, Pittsburgh received about one-fourth of Pennsylvania’s discrimination complaints. This was also a decade before the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964. As trains full of black porters entered the city, Millender and her family would snap into action accommodating them for the weekend. Here’s a snapshot of that time told by Millender herself.
Miss Loretta, in her own words:
At 11 years old you’re thinking of nothing but playing with baby dolls, or going out skating or riding a bike. My life was different. I had to start helping my mother and my aunt cook for some black porters. At Miss Ada White’s Boarding House on 28th street, the train left off 100 black porters; nobody would let them into restaurants because they were black. They could rent a room for the weekend in the rooming house, then they’d report back to the train. They weren’t allowed in bars and places like that, so the lady that owned the place was able to sell them drinks, they were able to eat there, able to sleep there. All they had was just speakeasies and after hour joints at houses that had basement underground clubs for blacks. I would put my finger up against a gallon of wine and measure their little ten cents out for their drink.
Across the street on 29th street, there was a one-room black church called St. Mark’s. It was just one room with a piano and a pastor. The room was probably about this size [motioning to a small section of the room], or maybe a little bigger. Some sat on floors, some stood. Whoever wanted to hear the word came in. After church service, I would get them settled in their rooms. The guys would get their word, then it was time to get their little duffle bag. The owner of the boarding house, she had one bathroom with a bathtub, and these guys took turns. You’d see these guys standing in line with their towels and everything draped over, to go upstairs and get their bath for that weekend. I would take the guys to their room with a bar of soap and a towel for ten cents and my tip was a half a cent. A half a penny, that was my tip.
And I couldn’t figure out, even though I knew this place, Ada White’s, was a rooming house and rented to black men, single black men, I couldn’t figure out why did we have to cook for these people. And why was it that these men coming in from the railroad couldn’t eat anywhere they wanted? This is what I thought as a young black girl. So, my first thought was, they must be special. They must be special people that we had to get dinner ready for them because they would be going back out on those trains.
So, the first time I went there, my mother put me on this wooden box to stand up on the stove because I was so short. My mother and my aunt would clean the pork chops, wash them off, flower them down, and then put them on a platter and they’d give them to me. And I’m standing there with this cast iron skillet at the stove. And to this day I should hate pork chops, and I still like them!
But, anyway, they said that we had to have the food cooked for these men. So, I start noticing that where the kitchen door was open there was something like a cement yard and benches and there were men sitting out there. These were the black porters, the train workers. From time to time she’d have twelve here, fifteen there, depending on when the porters came into Pittsburgh.
As days went on I started to ask questions, because I was curious as a little kid. Why are they here? Why are we doing this? I came to find out that no one else served the black porters, so, Miss Ada White had opened her door to them. The pork chops were 10 cents, 25 cents for a dinner. Your tip was a half a cent. So I got a half a cent tip. Sometimes when I went home I had 18 cents, sometimes I had 20 cents. These men, Miss Ada White made sure, a very lovely elderly lady, that these men didn’t say anything inappropriate to me as a little kid. And my mother and aunt were there, too, to protect me, but these men treated me with such high respect. First of all they respected me as an eleven year old working, then they respected me as a person with a mouth that was gonna tell them what I wanted to tell them. I wasn’t shy about speaking out.
I would take them a bar of soap and a clean towel and then fill their bath up and leave them, and they would give me another half a cent or a whole cent, and that was my tip. As time went on I got to know them and I got to learn from them and they told me about the cities they’d visit and where they went and what it was like there and how different it was from Pittsburgh or from Philadelphia or from this place or that. So, cooking for the porters made me travel places I had never been, places I had never heard about. And as I was cleaning, or helping my mother and them clean their rooms, I could hear them talking about what it was like at this place, or how someone had said wrong things to them, or someone had treated them with respect, or how much respect they had on the trains but once they got off the trains the respect wasn’t always there. I thank the porters to this very day for all that they taught me. And they told me, “now Loretta, I’m giving you this money so you can save for your future.” I don’t know how much they wanted me to buy with that half a cent, but thank you, God, for everything they did give me. I thank God every day for it.
They taught me respect for the elderly; they showed me respect and they taught me respect. They taught me how to laugh and joke about things that weren’t right. They taught me that there can be a smile in every way that you look at things, it’s not always a problem. I have always thought that God puts people in your life to make you a better person; you just have to learn from it. So I believe that God had put me there as an eleven year old cooking to learn from these men. And these men taught me. They taught me how to count, cause if they gave me money, they’d say, “how much are you giving me back,” and if I gave them the incorrect change they’d say, “wait a minute, Loretta.” I never missed school to work there, but they taught me about a bar of soap and a clean towel, and you can’t be long cleaning this bathtub because the next guy’s gotta go. So I had to hurry up and clean it, and they gave me extra money, which was extra pennies or nickels or whatever. They taught me so much. If I came into their room and helped my mother make the bed or sweep, and they’d say, “excuse me little girl, I think you forgot something right there.” And then I would go and I said, “what did I forget,’’ and they’d say, “you forgot your tip over there.” So they taught me laughter and fun. They taught me so much. Have fun even though you’re working.
And that has stuck with me: their kindness to me and their respect for me.
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about that. My thought was this: first of all, here was a bunch of grown men that were not receiving the respect that they should have received after all that they had done, except for when they were on the train. But here were all these grown men to show a young girl that there is respect, that there is kindness. They wanted to show me that everything wasn’t as bad as it sounded. What I got from it was, “don’t go out in the world mad, Loretta, cause they don’t have everything together yet. By the time you get to our age, it might be together.” They taught me don’t hate. They’d say, “be kind towards people. Be kind, be nice, and by the time you reach our age, all this might be gone.” And I think that’s what all of them had in their mind. “Here’s a young 11 year old working, let’s not let her come up with all the stuff we got in our mind and all we’ve seen. Give her something better to look to for her future.” That’s what I think they instilled in me. Because they could have come in there and they could have told me, “we’re black porters here to eat because whites don’t allow us in the place.” Even though I found out about that, they could have told me that with hatred saying, “look, we ride in trains, we gotta do this, we gotta do that for them, and they won’t let us be equal to them.” But they left their jobs, and they left their jobs at the station. They didn’t bring their misery, their madness, or if someone had made them mad there. They came there to enjoy themselves for the weekend, and they had fun, and they gave me the respect and happiness to make sure I had fun and carried on.