Herminie No. 2

I’m visiting McKeesport, PA (Elizabeth Township), where my wife grew up, for a niece’s wedding.  The great pianist and loft veteran Sonny Clark (see here and here for previous JLP blog entries involving Clark) was born and grew up about 7 miles from here as a crow flies.  By car it’s about 13 miles because you have to navigate the Youghiogheny River and various streams and valleys.  This used to be hardcore coal country.  The mines fed the powerful mills and coke ovens of Clairton, McKeesport, Duquesne, Homestead, and of course Pittsburgh, which is only about about twenty-five miles up-river.  It goes from urban to rural in just a few miles around here.  It’s part of what makes Western Pennsylvania unique.  In the heyday of the steel mills it was one of the most dense urban-industrial complexes in human history.  But this is also the northern end of the Appalachians and you never had to go far to find traditional rural cultures.

The jazz history books indicate that Clark was from Herminie, PA, a town of about 1000 people at its peak.  But that’s not true.  He was from Herminie No. 2, which indicates the second mine shaft of the Berwind-White coal company where his father mined coal.  Both towns were oriented around the mines, but No. 2 was a classic coal “patch,” an enclave of maybe 300 people built around the mine shaft.  The first few times I tried to find Clark’s childhood home I looked in Herminie, trolling archives and physical locations, and I was left frustrated.  Nothing made sense.  It wasn’t until one of his surviving sisters told me they were from No. 2 that I got on the right path.  No. 2 is no longer on the map.

Below are two photographs I made yesterday with my iPhone.  The first is of the road where Clark was born in 1931.  These were coal company-owned duplexes.  The numbers have changed so it isn’t conclusive exactly which home was the Clark’s, but it is one of these homes or the vacant lot beside this tree.  I need to do a little more research, perhaps having one of Clark’s sisters accompany me to this site, to make sure I have the right house.  In any case, the 1930 census (the year before Sonny was born) shows the Clark’s living on this road alongside people born in Italy, Poland, Russia, Austria, and African-Americans from Georgia and Tennessee (both of Sonny’s parents came from Georgia, having grown up across the road from each other).  This is an extraordinary mix of people thrust into intimate proximity not unlike the coal village portrayed in the John Sayles movie, “Matewan.”

The second picture is of the vacant lot which was once the home of the Redwood Inn, a hotel and nightspot owned by an African-American man John Redwood.  Sonny Clark’s father Emory Clark died of pulmonary disease (almost certainly black lung) in 1931 soon after Sonny was born.  His mother Ruth Shepherd Clark was forced to move out of the coal company home since a miner was no longer in the family.  She moved the family into the Redwood Inn.  I’m told that African-Americans from a fifty mile radius came to the Redwood on weekends to dance to jazz bands.  It was here Sonny learned to play piano.  Sonny’s mother died of cancer in 1953 and Sonny moved to Los Angeles.  The Redwood burned in the mid-1950s and it was never rebuilt.

In the distance behind the vacant lot in the second picture you can see more company homes.

Wendell Road, Sewickly Township

Wendell Road, Sewickly Township

Site of the old Redwood Inn, Herminie No. 2

Site of the old Redwood Inn, Herminie No. 2

More to come on this topic, which forever draws me in.  Coming soon, Sonny Clark’s second grade class picture, made in Herminie, No. 2.

-Sam Stephenson

1 Comment

  1. Frank Amoss Said,

    July 4, 2010 @ 2:01 am

    Sam,

    You are a tireless and dedicated researcher.

    I remember one morning, shortly after daybreak, during the summer of 1961, on the 5th floor of 821. After an all night session there was no one left but Sonny and me. I was working out a drum lick using the tom toms. Sonny was sitting on the floor and he was digging it. So much so that he offered me a gig with him in Queens.

    Alas, the next time I saw him he told me the gig was canceled. Whether I would have ever been paid or not was of no matter. To me it would have been an historical event.

    The Jazz Loft Project is a work of major significance to understanding the art of jazz and the lives of the people who make/made it happen.

    God bless you for your dedication.

    Frank