by Rob Taylor Jr., Courier Staff Writer
The year was either 1963 or 1964, and a young Lionel Harris was summoned by his iconic father to grab dad’s camera and take pictures at an African American fashion show being held on the Gateway Clipper.
“And I really enjoyed it,” Harris said of the fashion show on the boat. “I just took picture after picture, but you know something? None of those pictures were like the pictures he took. He had not only the eye for the pictures, but he had the mind for the pictures.”
Lionel Harris was not alone.
Nobody could take pictures like his father, Charles H. “Teenie” Harris.
This article could go for ages if it described each of the 80,000 photos that comprise Teenie’s collection that spanned more than 40 years chronicling Black life in Pittsburgh, primarily from the 1930s to the 1970s, and primarily for the Pittsburgh Courier.
The Carnegie Museum of Art, in Oakland, is the owner of Teenie’s archive collection, and on Saturday, Jan. 25, the museum officially opened the Teenie Harris Gallery and Exhibition. Museum staff selected about 30 of Teenie’s most prized photos to hang on the museum walls, and thousands more photos could be viewed via an interactive board that lets a person scroll through Teenie’s photos and enlarge them.
Those in attendance for the mid-morning affair saw Teenie’s iconic photo of former Pittsburgh NAACP President Byrd Brown and Judge Henry Smith leading a group of protesters outside Downtown Pittsburgh’s U.S. Steel Building. One of the signs held at the protest read, “U.S. Steel still has segregated facilities in 1966, Downtown.”
Attendees also saw Teenie’s 1947 photo of Brooklyn Dodgers baseball player Jackie Robinson when he was in Pittsburgh. Robinson broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier earlier that year.
There was also the photo of another Pittsburgh stalwart, Cecile Springer, who Teenie photographed in 1961 while Springer was in the University of Pittsburgh’s organic chemistry laboratory. Springer, a bio-chemist, was the first African American woman to lead a major philanthropic organization in Pittsburgh when she was named president of the Westinghouse Foundation in 1978.
And who could forget about the many Black “society” photos, such as events with Pittsburgh’s Black sororities and fraternities, or the FROGS. There are some of those photos on the museum’s walls as well, for all to see.
Charlene Foggie-Barnett, the Teenie Harris Archive Specialist at the Carnegie Museum of Art, told the Courier the Teenie Harris Gallery and Exhibition will appear at the museum for at least a year and a half, with the possibility of an extended duration. Foggie-Barnett grew up in Pittsburgh and is well-aware of Teenie’s impact, as she and her father, former Pittsburgh Branch NAACP President Rev. Charles Foggie, were among the thousands of people that Teenie photographed.
“Teenie’s caveat was, ‘I don’t want this stuffed away, I don’t want this just to be boxed up and put away, I want it to be living, breathing and utilized,’” Foggie-Barnett said of Teenie’s archive.
More than 20 members of Teenie’s family came to Pittsburgh for the Jan. 25 affair at the museum, including the three living children of Teenie—Lionel, Cheryl, and Crystal. Teenie’s first two sons, Charles (also known as “Little Teenie,” from his first marriage) and Ira Vann, have passed away.
“This is wonderful, because it’s a long time coming for it to be like this,” Lionel told the Courier in an exclusive interview. Lionel said his father took him to many assignments, to Lionel’s enjoyment. Also, “I got to know the city pretty well,” he said.
When Teenie would return home, “he taught (Ira) Vann and myself how to develop the pictures, how to do the negatives…and I think he wanted us to pick it up (Teenie’s photography business), but he never really encouraged us to do it.”
Teenie Harris was born July 2, 1908, in the Hill District, to Mae and William Harris. In 1927, he married his first wife, Ruth Butler. The couple divorced in 1934, and in 1944, he married Elsa Lee Elliot, the mother of sons Ira Vann and Lionel, and daughters Cheryl and Crystal.
Teenie was a self-taught photographer—no formal training, but it didn’t matter. Teenie’s photos—of celebrities such as Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Ella Fitzgerald; of political battles between African American leaders and city officials; of Pittsburgh’s most popular African American nightlife events—were rock solid. Iconic.
Teenie’s photos had Briana Ratliff mesmerized at the affair. She spent time admiring a number of Teenie’s photos that she scrolled through on the museum’s interactive board. She enjoyed a photo Teenie took of Pittsburgh Pirates legend Roberto Clemente, among others.
Ratliff and Kaylin Watson, Teenie’s grandson, have a daughter together, Maya, 2. Ratliff made the trip from Richmond, Va., because: “I want my daughter to know her history,” she said.
Photography aside, Cheryl, Teenie’s daughter, told the Courier at the event that her father had “integrity,” something, she said, is lacking with many people today.
“He was the type of person, there was no contract, he would shake your hand, and that was your word. That’s how it was back in those times,” she said.
Crystal Pass referred to her father, Teenie, as “considerate” and “intelligent.”
She told the Courier she asked him what he wanted to be remembered as. Teenie’s response? “’I want to be known as an artist,’” Crystal Pass said, where people could see all the work he had done.
With the Teenie Harris Gallery and Exhibition now at the Carnegie Museum of Art, mission accomplished.
Teenie Harris died June 12, 1998 at age 89.
In 2017, the Teenie Harris Center was unveiled. It’s a community center located in the neighborhood Teenie Harris always loved—the Hill District.
“He gave so much to the community,” Crystal Pass said of her late father, who said he worked tirelessly to provide financially for the family. “We understood it, we missed him, but he had to do what he had to do. And that’s the main thing that we respect. His family always came first.”
(ABOUT THE TOP PHOTO: TEENIE’S LIVING CHILDREN—Crystal Pass, Lionel Harris and Cheryl Harris are the three living children of famed Courier photographer Charles H. “Teenie” Harris. They’re pictured in front of a photo of their late father, whose photos are currently on display at the Carnegie Museum of Art. Photo by Rob Taylor Jr.)