PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — At the age of 75, Pittsburgh black activist Nate Smith finally got his high school degree, but everyone who knew Nate understood that his savvy could never be measured by degrees.
In 1969, this was Walter Cronkite on CBS News: “In Pittsburgh, demonstrators demanding more construction jobs for Negroes closed down several building sites and tied up traffic yesterday.”
A civil rights leader with uncanny savvy, Smith objected when Pittsburgh’s construction unions blocked African Americans from becoming union workers which meant they could not get construction jobs during Pittsburgh’s building boom of the late 1960’s.
“We have to put some black people on jobs, jobs that they’re qualified for, and take them out of their poverty-stricken program, out of that level that they shouldn’t have been in the first place,” Smith told the media in 1969.
Smith organized huge demonstrations that year to shut down work on Three Rivers Stadium, the US Steel Building and other city projects.
That brought counter-demonstrations by white workers and their families.
“We want to work. We want to work,” they chanted.
“Do you object to blacks being hired on these jobs?” KDKA anchor Bill Burns asked the wives of construction workers at the time.
“No, no, no,” they insisted.
The racial tension attracted national media and ultimately led to Mayor Joe Barr and Mayor Pete Flaherty cutting a deal with Smith’s Black Construction Coalition to hire 1,250 blacks into the construction unions over the next four years.
“Nate Smith actually gave me the opportunity to become an operating engineer,” recalls Ron Sapp.
Sapp has just retired as vice president of Local 66 of the Operating Engineers Union and he was among the first to go through Smith’s apprentice training program called Operation Dig.
“When I started, you didn’t see many African Americans running heavy equipment, especially in the unions,” Sapp said.
But this Pittsburgh leader — the late Nate Smith — changed all that.
“He proves that an individual can make a difference,” says Jim Sequin of Robert Morris University.
Seguin directed a RMU documentary on Smith’s legacy.
“It was his persistence. Not everyone could have done it.”
Said Smith not long ago: “I have a philosophy, ‘Don’t nothing happen, if you don’t make it happen.’ I’m going to make it happen.”