Pittsburgh Gets Real

Iconic piece of African American history largely forgotten

PITTSBURGH — An iconic piece of African American history is nestled in a largely forgotten Pittsburgh neighborhood.

“Any given day, you would hear opera on the third floor. Joe Louis would be in the house, Lena Horne would be here, and Ahmad Jamal would be here taking lessons,” said Jonnet Solomon, the owner of the National Negro Opera House in Homewood.

The house is condemned and considered structurally unsafe. But 79 years ago, it made history.

Opened by Mary Caldwell Dawson in 1941, it became the first Black opera house nationwide.

It also served as a boardinghouse for famous Black athletes like Roberto Clemente.

“It’s mind-boggling that people don’t know that this history is here,” Solomon said.

In 2000, she noticed a plaque on Apple Street commemorating the house.

Along with her friend Miriam white, Solomon bought the house with the hope of restoring it quickly.

But given the condition of the house, they discovered it would take hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars to restore.

Now, for the first time in two decades, there’s hope it could be closer to happening.

“The goal is not just to have it restored. The goal is to make it sustainable to go into the future. It needs to be of service to its community,” said Matthew Craig, the Executive Director of the Young Preservationists Association.

It’s one of several groups that have spent years working to get the opera house recognized and restored.

In late September, the first step in that journey became a reality when the National Trust added the opera house to its list of “America’s Most Endangered Historic Places.”

The hope is that will give the fundraising a boost by exposing the historical structure to new audiences worldwide.

But that hope is also being met with cautiousness in the Homewood community.

“I can’t say I’m overly optimistic since I’ve heard that before,” said Rashad Byrdsong, the CEO of the Community Empowerment Association.

The Homewood-based group has helped young people and families in Pittsburgh’s Black communities for three decades.

For just as long, Byrdsong said he’s heard talk about restoring the National Negro Opera House.

If this time is different, he hopes it will be part of a larger urban renewal plan.

“It’s more than just the renovation of a house,” he said. “We have to become a cultural destination and we have to promote the history of Black people in this city.”

Solomon said it’s been a long and often frustrating journey in owning this piece of history.

The opera house was all about giving Black musicians nationwide an opportunity.

Now, she hopes her community will have the chance to honor that history properly.

“That’s what Mary Caldwell Dawson fought for, access,” said Solomon about the original owner. “For people to sing opera anywhere in the world they wanted to sing and do it no matter the color of your skin. She provided that access to them.”

If you’re interested in learning more or donating to the opera house’s restoration, you can learn more here.