Adam Lee Cilli's book Canaan, Dim and Far: Black Reformers and the Pursuit of Citizenship in Pittsburgh, 1915-1945 (U Georgia Press, 2021) is an assiduously researched book about the activism of African American reformers and migrants in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania from 1915 to 1945. Adam Cilli argues that Pittsburgh is central to the story of the Black freedom struggle in the North and the nation as a whole. “Pittsburgh represents a crucial site for illuminating how reformers maneuvered within a political culture driven by industrial capitalism and informed by white supremacist rhetorics,” states Cilli in the opening section of his narrative. Migrants also played a significant role in this story and they made up “two-thirds of all African Americans in Pittsburgh by 1930.” Cilli further argues that although the middle-class reformers defined the “major social justice campaigns of the day,” it was the Black migrants who gave these initiatives “shape and force.” In this text, the author illustrates how a host of journalists, trade unionists, workers, lawyers, scholars and medical professionals advanced the struggle for Black equality in an urban setting. With an “Introduction,” more than thirty illustrations, seven chapters, and a “Conclusion” section, Cilli traces the social, intellectual and cultural history of Black Pittsburgh.
The first two chapters “The Ugliest, Deadest Town: Migrants and Reformers in the Steel City, 1915-1929” and “A Healthy and Prosperous Race: The Urban League of Pittsburgh and the Struggle for Jobs, Housing, and Health, 1915-1929” cover the Great Migration to Pittsburgh, housing and settlement patterns of the Black community in Pittsburgh, and the role of the National Urban League in Black middle-class reform. Cilli introduces a cast of characters and associations in these first two chapters key to his narrative including Reverend James Simmons, Bartow Tipper, and Robert L. Vann. Pittsburgh’s Urban League was critical in supporting the social needs of the new Black migrants as assessed in Chapter Two.
Chapter Three “The Weapons of Legal Defense: The Pittsburgh NAACP and the Criminal Justice System, 1924-1934” and Chapter Four “The Ranks of the New Army: The Pittsburgh Courier and the Fight for Political Power and National Recognition, 1929-1933” focus on the strategy of legal defense as espoused by the NAACP and the work of newspaperman Robert L. Vann respectively. Chapter Three opens with a discussion of the mass arrest of Black migrants at a house party. These migrants were asked to pay a sum of $2.50 per person to the police but some like Joe Williams and his wife Mildred did not pay and were carted off to jail. These were the type of cases that interested the Pittsburgh NAACP. While in Chapter Four, Cilli concentrates on the key role of Vann in using the Pittsburgh Courier to advance Black social justice claims.
The final three chapters focus on educational reform, the labor movement, and Black equality in the New Deal Era. Pittsburgh’s Urban League continued to play a role in providing “educational outreach services” for African American students in city schools as detailed in Chapter Five. Black trade unionists began to organize in earnest during the 1930s and began to meet and strategize in Pittsburgh as Cilli notes in Chapter Six. While in Chapter Seven, the assessment of African Americans and their quest for equal employment equity is further analyzed.
In Canaan, Dim and Far, Cilli presents his readers with a comprehensive survey of the centrality of Pittsburgh in the Black freedom struggle while offering a more nuanced interpretation of the Black elite and racial uplift ideology in the process. This text is an important historical intervention in African American history in terms of the author’s coverage of key associations such as the NAACP and Urban League, labor activism, and Black newspaper history.
Hettie V. Williams Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of African American history in the Department of History and Anthropology at Monmouth University where she teaches courses in African American history and U.S. history.