Reflections on my Great-Uncle: The Life & Times of Teenie Harris

Self+portrait+of+Charles+%22Teenie%22+Harris%2C+1938-1945%0AImage+Source%3A+Carnegie+Museum+of+Art

Self portrait of Charles “Teenie” Harris, 1938-1945 Image Source: Carnegie Museum of Art

Anthony John Wiles, Jr

*This is an adapted version of an article written last year for the Sewickley Academy blog.

My first time visiting the Academy, I was greeted with an exhibit of local photographer Charles “Teenie” Harris photography in the Hansen Library. Harris, who lived between 1908 and 1998, was a pioneering African American photographer in the Pittsburgh area for several decades, beginning in the late 1920s up until his death. However, his work documenting Pittsburgh’s African American community while he was a photojournalist with The Pittsburgh Courier is what he is most well-known for today. His impressive archive of thousands of images leaves an unparalleled record of the city’s African American community.

I remember my mother and I both being shocked that a school would feature his work, though we’d been accustomed to seeing his name and photography in museums and galleries across the city and country. Harris’ work spans generations, and today can be found in such places as the August Wilson Center here in Pittsburgh, and the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. However, the Carnegie Museum of Art, which hosts his archive of over 80,000 photos and negatives, did not have a permanent and official gallery dedicated to his work until recently.

Harris, my great-great uncle, spent most of his life as a photographer, with some of his earliest images dating to the late 1910s. Born and raised in Pittsburgh’s Hill District neighborhood, Harris was the son of hoteliers William Harris and Ella Mae “Olga” Taliaferro, and the nephew of Pittsburgh’s first black professional photographer, William Taliaferro. Harris’ brother, William “Woogie” Harris, was Pittsburgh’s first black millionaire and was a successful entrepreneur and real estate baron.

In 1944, Harris married my grandmother’s aunt, Elsa Lee Elliott-Harris, and was the father of five children. Though his studio was originally located on Centre Avenue in the Hill District, he moved it to the family home on Mulford Street in Homewood during the 1940s. Throughout his life, he practiced his craft and was highly sought after not only in Pittsburgh, but also in other parts of western Pennsylvania, eastern Ohio, and West Virginia.

During her teenage years, my grandmother apprenticed with Harris. She says that her aim at the time was to work as a commercial artist for a local newspaper. He taught her how to take and develop photographs and how to hand-color negatives. She also recalls how he showed her how to drive in his Cadillac, recounting how he had the nicest car in their community.

I remember my mother and I both being shocked that a school would feature his work, though we’d been accustomed to seeing his name and photography in museums and galleries across the city and country. Harris’ work spans generations, and today can be found in such places as the August Wilson Center here in Pittsburgh, and the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. However, the Carnegie Museum of Art (CMOA) which hosts his archive of over 80,000 photos and negatives did not have a permanent and official gallery dedicated to his work until very recently.

On January 25, 2020, the Teenie Harris Gallery was officially opened to the public. In the charge of the Teenie Harris archive’s official curator and archivist, Ms. Charlene Foggie-Barnett, the gallery is located on the second floor of the museum, within the Scaife Gallery. This brand new gallery houses dozens of his photographs, depicting African American life and culture in the Pittsburgh region between the 1940s and 1960s. These include images of the Pittsburgh chapters of the Delta Sigma Theta (my mother’s sorority) and the Alpha Kappa Alpha sororities and the Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity (of which Ms. Foggie-Barnett’s father, the Rev. Charles Foggie is pictured in). Also, groups such as the elite men’s social club the FROGS, Inc. and the NAACP are shown.

The exhibit also contains a display of several publications on African American photography, including Teenie Harris, Photographer: Image, Memory, History, which was edited in part by Senior School English teacher Ms. Deborah Golden. Included in the gallery are two life size portraits of Harris, as well as one of his cameras and several boxes of film and undeveloped negatives. Tablets used to search Harris’ entire archive are located at the end of the gallery.

The grand opening was quite successful, with hundreds of visitors flocking to the gallery, as well as representatives from most of Pittsburgh’s major magazines and newspapers. Over thirty of Harris’ descendants and relatives were in attendance, including his three remaining children: Crystal Pass, Cheryl Ann, and Lionel Harris. The gallery in its current state will be open for the next 18 months, after which, several new photographs from his archive will be put on display. This new gallery not only sheds light onto a large part of Pittsburgh’s history, but also continues Harris’ legacy by providing a permanent home for the Teenie Harris archive.