Finding Home in John Edgar Wideman’s Homewood

During my three week stay in Pennsylvania for the NEH Summer Institute on Contemporary African American literature, I decided to take the opportunity to visit the home of my paternal grandfather in nearby Pittsburgh. As some families are wont to do, mine took the liberty to write my father out of my personal narrative. It has only been in the last five years that I have been able to recover that history—discovering aunts, uncles, and cousins along the way. I’m especially proud to claim relation to Jazz Psalmist Todd Ledbetter—my “connect” in the steel city. 

Interestingly, the week leading up to my excursion Trudier Harris and Shirley Moody-Turner lectured on family folklore and Shirley even played a clip of a Huddie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter recording—whom, it has been passed down through family lore, is a relative of my grandfather Louis Ledbetter.  I had intentions on exploring this connection in Pittsburgh, but you know what they say about intentions. My main purpose for visiting Pittsburgh was to visit my grandfather’s resting place—an item that is on my “bucket list”. 

Louis Ledbetter, WWII

In true fashion, my Uncle Todd gave me the grand tour of black Pittsburgh.  We started in the Hill District—he pointed to homes of famous black folk, old jazz clubs, and to my surprise—the YMCA where my grandfather worked as a young man and the family home of some cousins.  I, of course, was interested in the Hill from a literary perspective.  I recalled the day August Wilson died—I heard the news as I made the drive to campus to begin my comp exams. The possibility of having a family connection to this area had never occurred to me.  But I was in for quite a bit more—next stop: Homewood.

My grandfather, as it turns out, is buried in Homewood Cemetery. He owned a business in the neighborhood that John Edgar Wideman illuminates in his Homewood Trilogy: Damballah, Hiding Place, and Sent for You Yesterday. I was enthralled by all the literary connections I was making to my own genealogy. I had no idea my Ledbetter family was so connected to Black Pittsburgh. It was really gratifying.  I assumed my mission had been accomplished and I was content to spend the rest of my time getting better acquainted with my uncle. The Ancestors, however, had something else in mind.

Headstone II
Grandfather’s headstone in Homewood Cemetery

We visited a cousin, who had a wealth of information on our family tree. I spent hours at her home listening and recording names, dates, and hilarious tales about my pistol-toting great grandmother and my “man about the town” grandfather.  I recovered photos of ancestors in whom I could discern some of my own features.  Then cousin Val dropped a whammy on me. She recited the notes she had taken from her grandmother, my great, great Aunt Laura Lizzy:  “…they were married in 1883 in Kingstree, South Carolina…..Pero’s father was Calvin Cooper, his father was Cane Cooper…and they lived on Troublefield Plantation and each son was given a piece of the land…”.

I had one of those moments where you hear the record being scratched to a halt.  Come again? Did you just tell me the NAME of the plantation where my paternal ancestors were enslaved??? I felt like I was in a Toni Morrison novel. I could lay claim to my family’s own “Sweet Home” and the rememories that go along with it.  I was absolutely perplexed. I wanted to know how this tangible piece of our slave past survived? What was it about their experience at Troublefield (and the name is just ripe with irony)that made it a story to be passed on? My spirit was full and overwhelmed with all the information that was now at my finger tips.  I couldn’t wait to get home and begin a new line of research!

That was just the tip of the iceburg.  Our last stop was Uncle Todd’s childhood home.  I met my grandfather’s widow and moved through the intimate space of his home. Uncle Todd pulled out a scrapbook my grandfather made when he was 37 years old. It had all of his high school pictures (Class of 1937)—often the lone spot of color. But he was the star of the show! There were pictures signed with admiration and respect by his white football teammates that intimated a very different narrative than what I expected his experience to be. I can see the charisma and heavy swag he carried in this (one of my favorites) photo:

Louis Ledbetter Glee Club
South Hills High School Boys Glee Club, 1937

Uncle Todd also pulled out a “life mask” my grandfather made either in high school or shortly thereafter.  I could see every line and contour of his face. I could see how my nose is a tiny replica of his. I could put my face against his and steal an intimate moment between grandfather and granddaughter that I believed was lost to me. It was all so much to bear—heavy. I couldn’t contain everything I was feeling in one body.
                          Ledbetter life mask 2
I discovered more than I could have imagined in Pittsburgh.  I didn’t even get around to asking about Leadbelly, but I came away with a real sense of connection to black Pittsburgh, literary Pittsburgh, and the Pittsburgh that gave my ancestors a home during the first wave of the Great Migration.  I am enamored by the city and have an even greater appreciation for its history—a history I can share as part of my own.

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