Pastor Tim Smith, who is executive director of the Center of Life in Hazelwood, has become frustrated with Black History Month.

“It just seems so limiting,” he said.  “It is Black history period. Black history is all our history.”

So he decided to do something to push past the calendar. Smith has started recording Black history makers in Pittsburgh, some who grew up in Hazelwood and remained in the city and region and some who moved away, and three interviews have been posted on his organization’s website as the video podcast “Black History — Closer Than You Think.” He and his staff are working on more to ensure these people’s legacies and contributions will not be forgotten and so others can learn from them.

The Center of Life, which serves its community in a number of ways through out-of-school programs and many arts and music experiences, and its Social Justice Research Center already had produced podcasts that this current project builds upon. In “Diversity Dialogues,” two people from Hazelwood — one Black and one white or one male and one female — shared their experiences growing up in the community and the privileges they had and didn’t have, Smith explained. 

He called those conversations rich and revealing, including how much patience is still needed with people. “We don’t know how they grew up, how they were taught,” Smith said. “They are not innately a certain way. It is how they developed. These conversations help us get a better understanding. You can’t change people overnight.  They learn what they learn, their values are their values.

“Everyone can agree there are some problems among the races, and there are differences in urban and rural communities. We need to be more educated around this sort of thing.”

That need for education and the opportunity Smith and his staff at the nonprofit organization saw aligned into this current podcast project, which includes both audio and video.

James Johnson, Ph. D., co-founder of the Afro American Music Institute in Homewood, at the piano. (Courtesy of Center of Life)

The series will include:

  • Lamont and Mary Shields: gospel musicians, songwriters and producers.
  • James and Pam Johnson: Musicians who played with Herbie Hancock and Ahmad Jamal; founders of the Afro-American Music Institute in Homewood.
  • Christine Washington: first African American manager at First Federal Savings & Loan in Downtown Pittsburgh.
  • Anna Hollis Kander: CEO of Amachi, a nonprofit that helps children and families of the incarcerated.
  • Roger Humphries: world-traveling jazz drummer and educator, who became a professional musician at 14.
  • Homer and Ursula Craig: He’s from Hazelwood, she’s from Germany. They met in Germany while he was in the military, and they became community activists in Pittsburgh.
  • Herb Douglas: At 101, the world’s oldest living Olympian. The Pitt graduate took the bronze medal in long jump in the 1948 London Olympics. 
  • Tyrone Tillman: A Black athlete at a mostly white state college.
  • Mel Blount: Former Steelers player and Pro Football Hall of Famer, who founded the Mel Blount Youth Home for victims of child abuse and neglect.

Smith conducts the interviews, and three to four of his staff members help with everything from the interview questions to the final production of the podcasts that are uploaded to YouTube as well as the center’s website. Engineer Doug Heckman leads the final production work; some of the students who attend the center’s classes run the cameras at times. Recordings take place either in the subjects’ homes or the center’s studio.

A few notes on the three initial podcasts:

Pastor Lamont Shields and his wife, Mary, talked with Smith about the paths not taken that might have led the gospel musicians to music fame. When Motown Records wanted to change the title of one of their songs, “Jesus Is Mine” to “Baby Is Mine,” they declined. Not only that, but they had meetings and encounters with Duke Ellington and Roberta Flack, too, that might have changed their lives.  The couple, who will celebrate their 60th wedding anniversary this year, chose their family life and their church and gospel music ministry in Pittsburgh every time. She and her husband formed the Marimont Singers, owned a gospel supper club in Oakland for 15 years and performed a groundbreaking concert at Carnegie Music Hall here instead. Mary Shields, who speaks seven languages fluently, taught Spanish and Latin for 43 years in Pittsburgh Public Schools, Penn Hills High School and Central Catholic High School, serving as a supervisor as well, in addition to being a composer and music arranger. Lamont Shields has been the pastor at Morningside Church of God in Christ in Garfield since 2004 in addition to his musical career.

Christine Washington worked her way up from a teller to her position as a bank manager at First Federal Savings and Loan Association’s Forbes Avenue branch, Downtown. She had previous been head teller at the bank’s Wood Street office, one of a few Black people who worked at that branch. She credited her parents for her ability to succeed, noting, “They stressed excellence and doing your job.” Others at the bank helped her learn how to maneuver in the business world, which led to her success. Washington has found success outside the workplace, too. Currently, she is the president of the Pittsburgh Zoo & Aquarium docents organization, for which she has enjoyed volunteering for 25 years.  

James and Pamela Johnson, are two people who inspired Smith to start the Center of Life. Their AAMI will celebrate its 40th anniversary this year. The Johnsons have “their fingerprints are all over people who are out there playing,” all around the world, Smith noted, through their teaching, mentoring and inspiration. The two Southerners found their way to Pittsburgh in 1977, and by chance, James Johnson, Ph.D., was Smith’s first — and only Black — professor when he began his studies at the University of Pittsburgh. Johnson called his wife a mentor “who doesn’t realize how powerful she is when she is coaching the students.”  Johnson noted that he passes on early advice on auditioning to their students he received from the late jazz pianist Billy Taylor, one of many who helped him in his performing career:  “Never worry about what other people [say].  Don’t try to be me or Ramsey Lewis. People will appreciate you for what you are.”

The podcasts truly became conversations because Smith has known these subjects for years, and as he noted, all of it links to a close-knit Hazelwood community.

In addition to his Center of Life work, he leads the Keystone Church of Hazelwood, following his father’s ministry there. The 63-year-old and his wife raised their children in Hazelwood and now live in Point Breeze.  He knows that he will not lack for subjects for future podcasts this year because interviewing one person often leads him to another subject. 

He said his eclectic education and background lets him connect to the humanity embedded in Black history. After graduating from Westinghouse High School and attending Triangle Tech and Pitt, he worked in banking for 16 years, at Mellon and Laurel Capital Advisers. Then he became involved in ministry in 1982 and was ordained in 1985, taking classes at the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary starting in 1988.

What the podcast project affirms for him is that education has to be ongoing and should never stop.

“What I am learning is that there are times when history — whether you are Black or white — it can be closer to you than you think,” he said.  “And some of the people don’t say much about [their accomplishments]. They don’t know how they have impacted people.  You don’t hear a lot about them.  Those people may never get on TV to get a lifetime achievement award. I see them as world changers.”

James Johnson, on piano, and Pastor Tim Smith, on bass, and another musician take time out from the podcast interview to play some music. (Courtesy of Center of Life)

Helen is a copy editor at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but she's currently on strike. Contact her at

Helen Fallon

Helen is a copy editor at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but she's currently on strike. Contact her at