John Brewer

John Brewer (Photo: Germaine Watkins)

John Brewer (Photo: Germaine Watkins)

Our memories hold immense power, connecting people, places, and events across generations. It is rare to come across people who use their memory not only for themselves, but also for others, in an effort to preserve moments that would otherwise be lost forever. One of those few is John Brewer, Jr., a local historian, author, and business owner hailing from Homewood.

Born in East Liberty in 1944, Brewer’s family moved to Homewood when he was a year old. At the time, the neighborhood contained a drastically different demographic: most of the residents were Italian and Irish families, dependent on a thriving local economy. Living in middle-class Homewood was a dream actualized for Brewer’s father, John M. Brewer. In 1955, John Sr. became the first African-American principal in Pennsylvania, working at the Miller School, an elementary school in the Hill District. Consequently, John Jr. got to know many faces and places in the city, and built a network of connections he would remember for years to come. His athleticism also contributed to his notoriety, running track and playing football for Homewood’s Westinghouse High School.

Brewer attended North Carolina Central University in Durham, N.C.,, and studied history. After college, he served in the Army, working in a high-security position that took him around Europe. While he was away, Homewood transformed from a bustling community, into one ravished by “white flight” and poverty. Upon his return, he came back to a place hardly recognizable. However, traveling around the world allowed him to meet an even wider range of people and create even more memories that would help him cultivate the skills needed to be a successful historian.

He authored a few books on regional African-American history, including Pittsburgh Jazz, African-Americans in Pittsburgh, and The Room, a memoir on his time as a Westinghouse athlete. As he worked on his own projects, the Carnegie Museum of Art (CMOA) asked for his consultation. The museum was working with thousands of negatives from the collection of Charles “Teenie” Harris, the notable African-American photographer who shot for the Pittsburgh
Courier from the 1930s to the 1970s. Known for his impressive memory and social skills, Brewer was asked to help identify the subjects of Harris’ photographs, most of them African-Americans from around the city. He identified many of the people in the collection by relying on his own knowledge and conducting more than 100 interviews with residents around the city. But Brewer possesses an understanding of local history that exceeds the personal. He is the owner of The Greater Pittsburgh Coliseum, a community center and local archive in Homewood that used to be one of four trolley factories. Brewer can recite the history of Pittsburgh’s trolley system with ease, and makes sure to emphasize that the city's African-American population —

specifically, workers in Homewood, the Hill District, and other minority neighborhoods — played a key role in building and maintaining the trolleys. Now, the Coliseum hosts events for all ages, and is a living testament to Homewood’s impressive past and bright future. Brewer shares his enthusiasm for history freely, holding frequent readings of his books at the Homewood Library. Kingpins of Pittsburgh, his latest work, is a look at the numbers men in the Hill District and will be required reading in classes at the University of Pittsburgh. He still receives calls for consultations around the world, following his impressive work with the Teenie Harris collection. But most importantly, he hopes to inspire the Homewood community to be as great as it can be. And his knowledge, wisdom, and memory are helping to make that happen.