Sylvia Rhor: Honoring the lifeless, one identify at a time

I never met Peaster Richie. Or one of his descendants (which I know of). I can’t find a passing reference to him in history books, let alone a biography dedicated to him.

Richie, the grandson of the slaves, was one of the myriad heroes of the Great Migration who found their way from places like South Carolina to places in the north like Pittsburgh’s Hill District at the beginning of the 20th century. He died in 1944, decades before I was born.

In ways we may never fully understand, he helped create the Pittsburgh I now live in.

The same applies to Josip Maradin, a Croatian immigrant who came to the city in 1913 and worked in the steel mills for 40 years, including living in mill towns.

I didn’t know any of these men, but I have thought of them many times as the death toll from Covid-19 is rising and demands lives like theirs every day. One in 800 black Americans. Immigrant. Factory workers.

Richie and Maradin lived and died like so many we lose every day, probably without a mention in the paper, let alone as a memorial to their names.

But her life was important.

I discovered the graves of Richie and Maradin in March 2020. As the world began to lock down, I regularly went for walks in local cemeteries. At first it was just a way to move. Then I started to look closely at the names and dates on hidden tombstones and wonder about these people.

Richie, for example, is buried on a quiet hill in Allegheny Cemetery, far from the main streets – a stretch that is in stark contrast to the palatial monuments of Pittsburgh’s elite. Here, the dead are remembered with flat plaques embedded in the ground – some are so overgrown that the names are barely visible. Mamie Black. Dezzie Ray. Olivia.

The historian in me entered. One by one, I dived into online archives to see what I could do. I started recording some of the stories – mixes of research and reflection – on Instagram (@alleghenyepitaphs). Budwe Abdulla, a Syrian immigrant who owned a barber shop. Rosa Lee Broadus is from Alabama and worked as a beautician in Homewood in the 1930s. Benjamin Himmel, a Jewish medical student who died of a perforated ulcer before completing his degree.

I called it an Old Cemetery Tour, Pittsburgh’s story one headstone at a time. But I also see these snippets as love letters to the dead, as odes to people like my parents and relatives who crossed borders and struggled with language and customs in a new country to make our lives better, and whose stories are too easily forgotten .

Richies and Maradins are just two of those stories.

Peaster Richie and his family arrived in Pittsburgh in 1930. They settled on Mahon Street on Lower Hill on a block populated by other migrants from the south. Peaster was undoubtedly walking down Wylie Avenue. Maybe he bought meat from Lutz on the way home from work at Washington Electric. He may even be looking at us from a photo of Teenie Harris at the Crawford Grill, which was just a few blocks from his house.

Josip Maradin also came to Pittsburgh with his dreams and not much else armed. Maradin moved into a pension with other Croatian immigrants. Josip knew the thundering roar of the steelworks – as a furnace charger, ladle operator and foundry worker. The sounds of the mills were the sounds of his livelihood, his dreams in this new land. But these noises slowly became quieter as Joe gradually lost his hearing until he was completely deaf, a fate for many steel workers of his day, where safety and security were not even a thought for those who benefited most. His tombstone in the Croatian Catholic Cemetery of St. Nicholas in Millvale only tells us his name and two years: 1889 and 1971, a hyphen that stands for everything in between.

Over the past year we have been inundated with ever-growing lists of names: the names of hundreds of thousands who have died from Covid in this country, the names of black men and women who have been killed by the police. Say their names, we urge you – and rightly so. Because it’s too easy to forget these names and the stories they carry. It is too easy to forget that each person has contributed to the world we currently share, to the ground on which we stand together.

It is too easy to reproduce their names as numbers in a larger narrative and forget the particularity of the beauty of their lives. Especially when these names don’t have the attributes that our society celebrates too often – money, fame, power. But their stories and their contributions are just as important. If we can begin to honor their deaths, we can also begin the more important work of honoring the lives of those who are still here.

One year after the coronavirus pandemic began, the death toll is around 540,000 and rising. How will we honor those lost in the past year? Perhaps like those who knew and saddened people like Richie and Maradin.

One name at a time and with love.

Sylvia Rhor is an art historian and curator and lives in Pittsburgh. Her Instagram account is @alleghenyepitaphs.

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