How Nate Smith Forced Pittsburgh To Confront Discrimination
At the Carpenter’s Training Center just outside the City of Pittsburgh on the Parkway West, a class of nine learns how to build a level floor. Forty years ago, getting into the center’s apprenticeship program would have been a feat for a person of color or a woman.
“Those days were, you know, the status quo,” said Harold McDonald, a representative for the Keystone+Mountain+Lakes Regional Council of Carpenters. In the 1960s, just two percent of the skilled trades and craft unions’ members were black. Without a connection to the trades, a family member, say, it was difficult to break in, said McDonald.
“Nate Smith was an advocate for change for more minorities to be into the construction trades. And the acceptability of those minorities in the trades,” he said.
Nate Smith was born in the Hill District in 1929. He joined the Navy at 14, saying he was older, and learned to box. As a professional boxer after the war, Smith taught himself how to operate heavy machinery. In 1951, he traded tickets to a heavyweight title fight for a union card with the Union of Operating Engineers.
“He was able to cross social lines that you may on the surface think he might not be able to. But he did. Just because of his tenacity,” said Tim Stevens, chairman of the Black Political Empowerment Project.
Smith created a program called Operation Dig to train African Americans so they could gain access to the trades. When even that didn’t break them open, Smith turned to protest. Stevens remembered being part of a 1969 march organized by Smith and the Black Construction Coalition, which he co-founded.
“There were workers throwing things down from the structure of that building, throwing metal pieces down on the crowd assembled,” he said.
Nearly 800 people marched through downtown to protest the absence of black labor in building Three Rivers Stadium and the USX Tower.
“He lied down in front of a tractor. Defying them to roll over him. Shutting down a job,” said Stevens. “That’s some serious commitment. Nate was a no nonsense person and he wanted to get this deal done.”
For more than a year, the Black Construction Coalition negotiated with the city and the unions to address hiring issues. It was a tense situation, as the federal government was holding $100 million of worth of funding for public projects until a deal was made. By 1970, the Pittsburgh Plan passed, and stipulated 1,250 African Americans would be hired over four years.
Stevens says while Smith’s work moved the needle on inclusion in the trades, there’s still work to be done.
“I still, when I drive by a construction site, I count heads. Because those are good paying jobs and we want African Americans to be in the game,” he said.
Today, at the Carpenter’s Training Center, anyone can walk in and apply. There’s a practice entrance exam online to help people prepare for the real thing. Director Rick Okraszewski said they see a diverse range of applicants, and would like to see more.
“You can’t judge who’s walking through the door, you don’t know where their success is going to be,” he said.
Before they go into their interviews, applicants wait on a wooden bench. Across from them hangs the “Apprenticeship Creed.” The fifth missive reads: “To measure my fellow workers on their character and abilities without thought of race, color or creed.”
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