CHARLES S. WIGGINS, with Alonna Carter, a New Pittsburgh Courier freelance writer and historian of the Dr. Edna B. McKenzie Pittsburgh Branch of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History.
by Alonna Carter
For New Pittsburgh Courier
On a mild, August day in 2019, I had the opportunity and honor to sit down with Mr. Charles Sterling Wiggins at his home in Pittsburgh’s east suburbs.
I was intrigued by his fascinating biography…and was surprised to learn that he was one of the oldest members of ASALH. At 101, he still has an unwavering desire to continue learning about issues that affect African Americans and African American history. Moreover, Mr. Wiggins is living history, having been witness to many great chapters in the African American story, and in some cases even being part of them.
Charles Sterling Wiggins was born in Inverness, Alabama in 1917. His mother died when he was 3 years old, leaving his father to care for 5 young children. The family lived on a rural farm, but Mr. Wiggins sought a better life for him and his children, and soon left the South to pursue employment opportunities, as many did at that time in the event called the Great Migration. However, the Wiggins family would not stay separated forever; in March 1928, Charles and his four other siblings were put on a train to Pittsburgh to reunite with their father.
“…We came by train,” Mr. Wiggins told me, “the train left Alabama and then came to Cincinnati—that’s a route. And from Cincinnati to Pittsburgh.” Traveling alone and unfamiliar with the North or any place outside of their homeland, relatives put written tags on the children’s clothing in case they got lost or separated. Fortunately, they arrived safely and settled in Pittsburgh’s Hill District.
Mr. Wiggins recalls his first night in Pittsburgh:
“Overnight, when I woke the next morning, it snowed some. I don’t remember snow in Alabama…it might have or maybe rained some…but I was overwhelmed with it (snow).”
He recalls with fondness, “To my mind, I thought when the snow was coming down, I thought it was diamonds blinking in the sun.”
Weather changes were something that was new upon arriving in Pittsburgh; however, abject poverty and racism were nothing new. For newcomers from the South, crowded homes where multiple families lived was the norm. Mr. Wiggins describes what it was like living on Hemans Street in the 1930s:
“We lived on the ground level, which was street level, and above us was another family. That’s how it… was crowded then…we had no electricity like they have today, we had no gas like they have today, no wash tub like they have today. We all had to heat the same water to take a bath in.”
When it came to matters of education, the prejudicial attitudes of the North were sometimes on par with the South. As a teenager at Schenley High School Mr. Wiggins desired to be a doctor, even taking Latin, which was a commonly used language in the medicine world at that time. However, when he brought his goal to his guidance counselor, he was told to choose a different field that was more suitable for a Black man. Furthermore, although Schenley was an integrated school, Black students remained segregated in social circles and even were not allowed to use the school’s swimming pool.
After graduating, Mr. Wiggins secured a job and married his wife in 1939. However, World War II was looming in the background and Mr. Wiggins was soon to be caught up in it. I asked him if he chose to go to the military or if he was drafted:
“Drafted,” he says. “I didn’t choose it.” While serving in the Navy, Mr. Wiggins contracted rheumatic fever…a disease that proved fatal for many soldiers. As a result, he was not deemed fit for combat, and once he was on the mend, he was put to work in other areas, eventually leading him to be honorably discharged.
After leaving the Navy, Mr. Wiggins attended a horological school in Pittsburgh, where he was the only Black student in his class, with the goal of fixing watches. However, he encountered hostility in the program and in one instance was made to sit for his final exams twice. Though he passed, he could not secure employment in any Downtown Pittsburgh department stores due to racism. He was later able to secure employment at the post office, where he established a career.
One of Mr. Wiggins most trailblazing events was co-founding the Hunting and Sportsman Club in Butler, Pa. With 25 friends from the post office, Mr. Wiggins pitched in to purchase 39 acres of land to allow African Americans, who were barred from hunting clubs that were predominantly White, to hunt and fish as they please. The club is still in existence today, though the membership is much smaller than what it was when it was founded.
Throughout his extraordinary life, Mr. Wiggins has shown the fortitude and wisdom to strive in the face of racial adversity. I asked him what the secret to his longevity was.
“Everyone asks me what my secret is. You know what it is? Blessings.”