Pitt professor Larry Glasco places local Black history against backdrop of the world

Issue Date: 
February 2, 2009


Laurence Glasco’s love of history began when he was a high school student in Xenia, Ohio. His class had been learning about the three types of columns in ancient Greek architecture—Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian—and students were instructed to head out into the neighborhoods to find examples of the columns in local buildings.

Greek columns in Xenia?

Glasco, a Pitt history professor, remembers thinking he had never noticed any, but he set out, notebook in hand, to document his findings.

“I got so excited about that project I couldn’t stop,” he recalled. “I found so many houses that had these different styles, and it told me that larger developments in the world or country can be reflected in your own community and your own experience. It can be all around you. You just have to get out and look.”

Indeed, throughout his career, Glasco has been looking at the life and history of the African American community. He has authored several books about the history of African Americans in Western Pennsylvania, including Legacy in Bricks and Mortar: Historic Sites of Black Pittsburgh (Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation, 1995), which he cowrote with Frank E. Bolden and Eliza Smith Brown, and The W.P.A. History of the Negro in Pittsburgh (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2004), which he edited. Two more books are under way: one about the late K. Leroy Irvis, the renowned Black Pitt Law alumnus and speaker of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, and a second, August Wilson’s Pittsburgh. For the latter, Glasco is collaborating with Christopher Rawson, senior theater critic for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and a longtime lecturer in Pitt’s English department.

But a listing of some of Glasco’s academic accomplishments does not necessarily reveal his very human involvement in the community he studies and loves. He has worked diligently with the Hill District community to help save that neighborhood’s historic sites. And when he teaches his popular History of Black Pittsburgh course, Glasco hopes his students learn the same lesson that he did all those years ago in Xenia: that local history helps people make a connection between their own life and larger things going on in their city, region, and world.

Every semester, Glasco takes his students on a walking tour of the Hill District, known as Pittsburgh’s Harlem, and points out landmarks such as the now-shuttered Granada Theater and playwright August Wilson’s boyhood home. They discuss what the Hill was like in its heyday, when it was a jazz mecca teeming with businesses, nightclubs, and street life. Inevitably, the group stops to chat with Hill residents who are out and about.

“The students love that,” said Glasco, a tall, soft-spoken man with an easygoing smile.

Pitt history department chair Marcus Rediker said he recently saw firsthand Glasco’s impact on the community. It was during last fall’s opening of Free at Last? Slavery in Pittsburgh in the 18th and 19th Centuries, a Pitt-produced exhibition running at the Senator John Heinz History Center through April 5. As the exhibition’s historical director, Glasco had devoted many months to the research, and he meticulously read every word of the exhibition several times through the painstaking editing and verification process. He and Rediker attended the opening, as did many from the community. After the program, Rediker sat alongside Glasco as they signed copies of their books.

“I watched person after person come up and throw their arms around Larry and tell him what he means to the Black community,” said Rediker, who came to Pitt in 1994 but says he knew Glasco by reputation before he arrived. “The gratitude people have for him is very great. He’s tremendously rooted in that community, and that’s important for our department and for the University. He gives us this grounding.”

Glasco has had a significant impact on the University, its surrounding community, and a number of its students. Last year, he was awarded The Sankofa Award, given by Pitt’s African American Alumni Council to members of the University community who have exhibited outstanding educational support and service to students of African descent.

History has always been an interest for Glasco. He holds undergraduate and master’s degrees in Latin American history from Antioch College and the State University of New York at Buffalo, respectively. He studied African American history for his PhD, which he also earned at SUNY Buffalo.

Glasco said one of his career highlights at Pitt occurred in the 1980s, when he chaired the design committee for the African Heritage Classroom, one of Pitt’s 27 Nationality Classrooms.

“I can still remember the day I had the epiphany about how the room should look,” said Glasco. The setting was the small Hill District branch of Carnegie Library, where Glasco was flipping through the pages of a book. He came upon an image of a rectangular closed courtyard in an Ashanti temple and was immediately inspired. Glasco immersed himself in the project—traveling to Ghana and Nigeria to research details and arranging for artists to present the design concept to the community. He worked  with committee members to raise money for the room, seeking contributions everywhere from churches to taverns. The resulting classroom is an attractive and authentic environment that incorporates many African nations and cultures.

Glasco’s research for his latest project—the book about Irvis, a man he has long admired and who was the first Black speaker of any state house since Reconstruction —includes several hundred hours of interviews with Irvis,  whom the author said is similar in many ways to President Barack Obama.

“If you look at Irvis’ career,” Glasco said, “it showed that it is possible to underestimate the willingness of Whites to vote for a candidate who was good and happens to be Black.”

Glasco explained that Irvis was not the “Golden Boy” of liberals and minorities. Rather, his closest friends and allies in the legislature were conservative Democrats from rural areas and Republicans from the suburbs.

“He really won the enthusiastic support and love of people you would not expect,” said Glasco. “Like Obama, he was always able to frame legislation in a win-win way, so that it helped Blacks but also the poor Whites in central Pennsylvania.” Glasco feels the two men are also comparable in their upbringing, philosophy, and cool, nonconfrontational approach.

Though he has traveled and taught all over the globe, Glasco currently makes his home just several blocks from the Pitt campus with his wife, Ingrid. Their grown daughter lives in Sacramento.

His breadth and depth of knowledge ensures that he will continue to be in much demand. He is often sought out by various directors of documentaries on Pittsburgh’s Black history, as well as by museums. He is helping the Carnegie Museum, for example, plan a 2010 exhibition on the work of late African American photographer Teenie Harris.

Rediker says Glasco’s contributions to Pitt’s history department are “immense,” and that people are naturally drawn to his open and friendly manner.

“He’s smart and relaxed and savvy and hip—all at once,” said Rediker, adding that in his early years, Glasco was influenced by the beat poets.

“It shows up in his personal style,” he said.