Nestled in Pittsburgh’s East End Lincoln-Lemington neighborhood is the Belmar Gardens housing cooperative. At its conception, the community was celebrated as a solution for middle-income African American families who found themselves shut out of home ownership by discrimination in unwelcoming white neighborhoods. The revolutionary project was backed by a federally secured mortgage and was modeled on the recent success of the Merrick Park Gardens housing cooperative in New York.1 Home amenities would include “an integral garage…hardwood floors…venetian blinds, tile bathrooms with both tub and shower, [and] ample closets with sliding doors…”2 Construction began in 1953 and the first residents arrived in late 1954.
Morris Gaddie (1918–1995) and his wife Ella Truman (1919–2008) were long-time residents of the Belmar Gardens co-op, but Ella’s parents, James and Mary Truman, were inaugural residents. James Truman bought 7 shares in the co-op, and he and Mary settled into a 5-room, end unit townhouse at 7120 Vann Drive. In 1960, Truman transferred his co-op shares to Ella and purchased a home on Silverton Ave. within walking distance of Belmar Gardens. The Gaddie family — Ella, Morris, and their sons Morris Jr. and Gregory — moved into the townhouse in December 1960. The Gaddies would live there for the rest of their married lives.
The co-op’s presence in the collection is best experienced through the family’s sizeable photograph collection. The Vann Drive home’s interior and exterior are an ever-present backdrop to family photographs: teenage school dances, posed photos showing off dresses and suits before nights out, and cozy days playing on the floor with grandchildren.
Morris and Ella Gaddie were married in 1941 at the St. James African Methodist Episcopal Church in East Liberty. The St. James AME Church was not simply the venue for the Truman-Gaddie wedding; the Trumans and Gaddies were active lifelong members. Ella served the church as a senior usher, as a mentor for the junior ushers, and participated in the Women’s Missionary Society. Morris was a trustee, sang solos, and led the Sunday school choir and Senior Church Choir.
On Nov. 21, 1945, St. James AME Church celebrated their 75th anniversary. During the service, the oldest and youngest members of the church symbolically lit candles together on a five-tier cake. Three-year old Morris Gaddie Jr. was St. James’ youngest member. He and Mrs. T. Blair were photographed by famed Pittsburgh photographer Charles “Teenie” Harris as they fulfilled their roles in the service.
The St. James AME Church materials saved by the Gaddies offer a unique research opportunity for those interested in the church. The Gaddie-Truman Family Papers include an assortment of event and worship service programs from the 1940s until the 1990s. Photographs from the 1940s to the 1970s record a wide variety of church events, including Easter services, fellowship dinners, and Usher’s Bazaar fundraisers.
In February 1995, the Belmar Gardens co-op members paid off their 40-year mortgage. A community celebration picnic was held on Aug. 12, 1995. The Hazelwood Marching Music Drill Team lead a parade, and residents came together for song, speeches, lunch and dinner, dance and jazz performances, and a symbolic burning of the mortgage. The Gaddie-Truman Papers includes a copy of the event program and Ella’s nametag from the mortgage burning.
Morris Gaddie passed away in March 1995. Ella Gaddie died on January 2, 2008. Later that year, their granddaughter Andrea Gaddie Bullock donated the collection to the Detre Library and Archives. With documentation of the Gaddie-Truman family’s personal, social, professional, and religious circles, the collection serves as an invaluable resource for those interested in discovering one African American family’s experience navigating 20th century life in Pittsburgh.
About the Author
Margaret Hewitt is the Manager of Reference Services in the Detre Library & Archives at the Heinz History Center.
1 “East End Housing Project Assured,” Pittsburgh Courier, Dec. 11, 1952, 28.
2 “New Development Will Be Named Belmar Gardens,” Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph, Apr. 22, 1953, 4.