Some of the magic of Smoketown lies in the way it details how those fields often were connected, sometimes beneath the surface. Mainly, though, these colorful stories of great black accomplishments simply make for fascinating reading ... Whitaker ably demonstrates how the descendants and legacies of those white men directly affected Pittsburgh’s black community, in ways both positive and devastating ... Smoketown will appeal to anybody interested in black history and anybody who loves a good story. In short, anybody.
Mr. Whitaker, a veteran newsman whose credits include a stint as the editor of Newsweek, is a lively writer ... It’s biography-driven, with arcs of individual rises and falls; it’s gossipy and vividly descriptive—in short, it’s a highly readable mix of history and journalistic narrative ... Mr. Whitaker is less an archivist and researcher than he is a synthesizer and storyteller. His great service here is pulling widely scattered anecdotes together to make a narrative that had never been fully told.
Smoketown brilliantly offers us a chance to see this other black renaissance and spend time with the many luminaries who sparked it as well as the often unheralded journalists who covered it ... It’s thanks to such a gifted storyteller as Whitaker that this forgotten chapter of American history can finally be told in all its vibrancy and glory.
Mr. Whitaker, a New York journalist and former Newsweek editor with deep family roots in black Pittsburgh, does a thorough, convincing and footnote-free job of making his case ... Smoketown is an enjoyable and rewarding trip to a forgotten special place and time, but it isn’t perfect. Mr. Whitaker, who doesn’t seem to have an angry bone in his body or an ideological ax to grind with anyone or anything, isn’t as clear as he could have been about the Courier’s house politics ... But quibbles aside, with the publication of Mr. Whitaker’s enjoyable and long-overdue time trip back to Smoketown, he and Simon & Schuster have given the Hill District and its talented ghosts the national props they’ve always deserved.
There’s something close to enchantment to be found in the stories Whitaker unpacks piece by piece, name by glittering name. Black excellence, black talent and black achievement were of such incandescence in Pittsburgh for most of the late century’s first half that one imagines them piercing through the thickest mesh of soot and smog draping the city during its coal-and-steel heyday.
This book is a timely reminder of the hideous obstacles black Americans still faced eight decades after Abraham Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation ... the most compelling parts are all about the collaborations between black journalists and black athletes – the alliances which arguably did more to advance the cause of black equality than everything else that happened in the United States between 1930 and 1960.