“Faith, Race, Place” explores how Pittsburgh’s fragmented religious landscape came to be and how historical divides are being confronted in the present day.
In the 1930s, Black Pittsburghers established one of the first chartered Muslim mosques in the United States.
In one sense, it was sheer perseverance, said Sarahjameela Martin, executive director of the Muslim Women’s Association of Pittsburgh who is writing a book on local African American Muslim history.
During the early decades of the 20th century, many Black Southerners migrated North, escaping racial violence and seeking industry jobs.
Some of these migrants were Christian. Others were suspicious of Christianity, recalling that many enslaved Africans were forced to convert to the faith in the United States. Scholars estimate that 10-30% of Africans enslaved in the United States were originally of Muslim descent.
From the Source podcast episode: “Pittsburgh’s Black Muslim history uncovered.”
For migrants seeking “to revert” to the Muslim faith — the term often used in Islam instead of convert to capture a sense of return to an original or natural state — Pittsburgh offered an African American Muslim community just beginning to coalesce or organize.
The earliest Muslims in Pittsburgh were likely formerly enslaved Black Americans who came to the city by way of the Underground Railroad, Martin said. For her, that history is personal.
“I am Sarahjameela, the daughter of Mary Ellen, who was the daughter of Sarah, who was the daughter of Nancy, who was the daughter of one kidnapped and enslaved in America,” she said.
It’s hard to know how — or to what extent — these early Pittsburgh Muslims practiced their faith, Martin said. There aren’t diaries or accounts of community gatherings. Instead the evidence is in early city records and gravemarkers: there are entries with African American Muslim names, names also found scratched into the walls of slave ships from the Middle Passage.
Likely, these early Pittsburgh Muslims practiced their faith individually. That changed in the early 1900s. Traveling teachers of Arabic and Islam passed through the University of Pittsburgh, and non-orthodox Muslim sects popularized both an English translation of the Quran and the practice of adopting Muslim names.
Such developments were “very, very important” to the local Muslim scene, Martin said. They helped African Americans in Pittsburgh feel connected — to one another and also a “universal” Muslim community.
“The need was there. And when there is a need, people spring to that need and develop around that, so they can survive,” she said.
The era gave rise to Muslim benevolent societies, a Red Crescent Club (later the Muslim Women’s Association) and, most importantly, a charter for the city’s first masjid, or mosque.
It would have made sense for the mosque’s founders to buy a storefront property, as many other Black migrant religious communities in the 1930s and ’40s were doing.
But that’s not what happened. Instead, against all odds, this assembly of first- and second-generation enslaved people and newly arrived Southern migrants bought themselves a whole building.
“These people who were migrating, who were leaving the South and who were, for the most part, illiterate, were not well trained — they had the foresight and the resources to buy a building,” Martin said. “Most of them could not even buy a house.”
Pittsburgh’s early African African Muslims understood that having a mosque would help put Islam on the map in Pittsburgh. And so, despite sometimes living in “squalor,” as Martin said, they made it happen. They held fish fries and cookie sales and, a few dollars at a time, raised the funds to purchase a building in the Hill District.
The result was al-Masjid al-Awwal or, in English, the First Muslim Mosque of Pittsburgh, located in the Hill District.
Today, the Pittsburgh region has about 11 mosques, including communities still sustained by Black Americans. “But, in those days, First Muslim was it,” Martin said. There were other Muslims, meeting in other places. “But First Muslim was the only masjid, meaning the only building that was designated for prayer and study.”
Martin sees in their perseverance and dedication to learning a foundation that Muslims in Pittsburgh have built upon ever since.
“These people … had so little of the things that we think are so valuable,” she said. “They didn’t have any money. They didn’t know anybody. They didn’t have education. But they made their footprint.”
This story was fact-checked by Abigail Nemec-Merwede.
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