Historical Markers
Crawford Grill Historical Marker
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Crawford Grill

Pittsburgh Region


Marker Location:
2141 Wylie Avenue, Pittsburgh

Dedication Date:
April 7, 2001

Behind the Marker

William "Gus" Greenlee was a towering figure in Pittsburgh's African-American community. He owned the Pittsburgh Crawfords, the city's powerhouse Negro League baseball team, which was named after his night club, The Crawford Grill. Greenlee also controlled various nightclubs, sponsored professional boxers, and generally dominated the city's African-American sports and entertainment scene. The source of his wealth was the stuff of legend. According to local gossip, he made his money hijacking beer trucks and running an illegal gambling syndicate called a numbers racket.

Numbers bankers were important figures in the black neighborhoods of American cities. They employed dozens of numbers "runners" who picked up the bets and often financed black businessmen and women to whom white banks refused to make loans. The bankers could use their armies of numbers "runners" to bring out the vote on Election Day. This gave them clout with the white political bosses and could keep their gambling syndicates - and other businesses - protected. They also used their money to finance local sports teams, and to operate nightclubs that attracted the musicians from all over the country.

For many clubs, Pittsburgh's somewhat unusual economy was a boon. In the 1940s and 1950s, Pittsburgh's steel mills ran twenty-four hours a day, as did the city. Steel workers were shift workers, and their days off were rotated so that 'weekends' often came in the middle of the week.

This was good for the local businesses, especially restaurants and nightclubs like the Crawford Grill. Workers would often go out mid-week, dressed up and looking for dinner and entertainment. The Crawford provided both.
"Woogie" Harris at a piano on a small elevated stage behind a bar. Several patrons are at the bar enjoying the music.
Crawford Grill owner "Woogie" Harris, Pittsburgh, PA, circa 1950....

The original Crawford Grill on Wylie Avenue in the Hill District of Pittsburgh was nearly a full city block in length. In the main room on the second floor, the audience surrounded a revolving stage and bought their drinks at a glass-topped bar. The third floor, however, was where the real action took place, for this was home to 'Club Crawford', a spot for "insiders only."

The Grill catered to a mixed clientele, as owner Keith Farris remembered in 2002.

There was never any nonsense about having great black artists come in by the back door like they did at The Cotton Club in New York. The Crawford Grill was part of the social, cultural and political landscape of Pittsburgh. Its presence was felt throughout the city. All politicians, black and white, would stop in at the Crawford Grill to have meetings and make themselves known. Not only people from Pittsburgh visited: so did Ethel Kennedy and Martin Luther King. Whenever celebrities came to town, they stopped in to the Crawford Grill.
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