Laurence Glasco: Studying the people behind history

Written by Millicent Watt
Photos by Dalia Maeroff
April 08, 2021

Laurence Glasco, then a chemistry major at Antioch College, realized the subject wasn’t for him when he turned around and asked the student sitting behind him if he understood the content of their organic chemistry class. While Mario Capecchi — the student behind him — understood the content, Glasco did not, and quickly dropped the class.

Years later, Glasco, now an associate professor at Pitt in the history department, said he was listening to the radio and recognized the winner of the 2007 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine — Mario Capecchi, the same one who sat behind him in chemistry class.

“Mario Capecchi? How many Mario Capecchis in chemistry can there be?” Glasco said. “So sure enough I looked the guy up and it was him. And I thought, ‘No wonder he thought the course was easy.’”

Finding that chemistry wasn’t quite for him, Glasco decided to turn his attention to history. He worked closely with Herbert Gutman, a history professor at SUNY Buffalo, and sought evidence to oppose what became known as the Moynihan Report, a document written by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who was the assistant secretary of labor under President Lyndon Johnson and would later represent New York in the Senate.

The Moynihan Report stated that Black family structures were weakened and became primarily female-headed, with a reduced role for Black men. Moynihan argued that providing more economic and educational resources to Black communities would not be enough to help solve the problem of primarily female-headed family structures, which instead should be more directly addressed.

According to Glasco, although the report was reasonable, Moynihan was “often abrasive” in the way he framed the report, and the public interpreted the report as a “smear” against the Black community.

Glasco and Gutman discovered through their research that the majority of Black families consisted of two parents and were “healthy and intact,” despite experiencing severe discrimination and racism. It wasn’t until the 1950s and ’60s that the majority of Black families shifted to being female-headed, which was caused not by generations of discrimination back to slavery — as Moynihan believed — but by modern discrimination and the job market collapse, according to Glasco.

Besides his research with Gutman, Glasco had an interest in quantitative history, the statistical analysis of data — such as demographic and voting data — to learn more about an area or group of people. According to Glasco, people of the upper class often left written records, so history tends to focus on the upper class instead of the middle or lower classes. Glasco said quantitative history allows “the story of ordinary grassroots people” to be included in history.

“It’s really a very exciting time and it did open up a lot of new avenues for historians to explore and in the voices, or at least the presence of people who’ve been left out of history,” Glasco said.

Glasco said Pitt had a good reputation for advanced social and quantitative history, and he was offered a job at Pitt in 1969, for what he thought would only be a few years.

“I came here as their quantitative historian, brought all my IBM punch cards with me. I waded out further, but had a good time here at Pitt,” Glasco said. “But really, I only planned to stay, originally, for just a few years, but it was a good city and a good department, and here we are.”

During the same time, Pitt’s Black Action Society had recently formed, and Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1968 assassination ignited riots in Pittsburgh and around the country. Glasco said it was an “exciting time for better and for worse,” adding that there was a lot of energy, excitement, anger and curiosity on campus.

Glasco said businesses in the “bustling commercial district” in the Hill District — a historically Black neighborhood in Pittsburgh — suffered from the riots following King’s assassination. Many of the buildings were burned, and businesses had a hard time recovering, according to Glasco.

Now in Pittsburgh, Glasco said he began researching the history of the City’s Black neighborhoods, like he did in Buffalo, but found that Pittsburgh had a much richer history than he had originally known. Glasco said this abundance amazed him, and led him toward writing about Pittsburgh’s history.

“But you know just one thing after another just amazed me about the Pittsburgh Black story so I wound up just really writing about Black Pittsburgh,” Glasco said.

Glasco said the Hill “put Pittsburgh on the cultural map” and was a “remarkably creative and active community.” The neighborhood was home to The Pittsburgh Courier — the largest circulating Black newspaper in the country — the Pittsburgh Crawfords baseball team, writers, artists and famous jazz musicians, according to Glasco.

Today, the Hill is “quiet” and “empty,” according to Glasco, and “doesn’t have the vibrancy and life and energy that it used to.” Because of its inability to recover from the riots of the ’60s, Glasco said the population steeply declined and is mainly occupied by older residents.

According to Glasco, “people who don’t know history” have a tendency to believe the past is always worse than the future. But he argued that by uncovering and sharing good aspects of the past, people can understand that those positive aspects can happen in the future. By studying the history of the Hill District, Glasco said he can show people that the past was “jumping,” “lively” and people were “optimistic.”

“It shows that if it happened once it can happen again, and we have to figure out how to do it,” Glasco said. “It gives people hope that it can be done again.”

Glasco also said he encountered a stereotype that Black people “weren’t allowed to accomplish anything” in the past. In reality, areas such as in the Hill District proved the opposite with its many successful Black artists and Black-owned businesses.

“People haven’t been able to draw the lessons of, even in the face of discrimination, you can accomplish a lot,” Glasco said. “So don’t give up.”

Glasco said he always subconsciously believed that history happened in a far off place, and while it interested him, it was never local to him. But Glasco said by travelling and studying history, he learned to see himself in history, whether it be globally or locally.

“What my travels … [have] done for me is made me really aware that if you look carefully and think correctly, you can see yourself in other places, either the similarities or the differences,” Glasco said.

Dalia Maeroff | Senior Staff Photographer

Glasco also said he wants his students to understand global commonalities between different people and cultures.

“In a sense, we're all humans wherever you go, and we all have the same basic desires and fears and stuff, and it just helps people to see that,” Glasco said. “That's what I try to put across in my courses, the commonalities that we share from the local to the national to the global.”

Glasco currently teaches two classes — History of Black Pittsburgh and Race and Caste in World Perspectives. Glasco found it difficult to have open conversations due to racial tension when he first started teaching in 1969. It wasn’t until decades after, near the beginning of President Barack Obama’s administration, when Glasco said he felt his classes could have open discussions on race and ethnicity.

Glasco said he tells students that it is OK to be “ignorant” at first on topics such as race and discrimination, and admitting this allows people to learn about such topics.

“That's one of the problems in America. This stuff is so emotional that we can't discuss it. And if you can't discuss it, how are you going to learn?” Glasco said. “To be ignorant — I always tell them this — the main thing is, you need to admit it because we're all ignorant on a whole bunch of things. Nobody needs to be ashamed, that’s how we learn.”

Ama Germain, a junior history and Africana Studies double major, took Glasco’s History of Black Pittsburgh class and said Glasco’s passion inspired her.

“He's really focused on not just teaching, but [helping] his students to understand and to feel as passionate as he does,” Germain said. “The spreading of passion is something that I want to do because of him.”

Germain also said Glasco’s knowledge and willingness to teach is infectious, and made students interested in topics they previously didn’t care for.

“He knows about so many things, and he's so willing to tell you about everything,” Germain said. “It makes you a better person because you get to learn about things that you didn't even know you cared about.”

According to Germain, Glasco made the class extremely interesting by bringing students on field trips to the Hill itself, the Heinz History Center — for which Glasco sits on the board and the African American Advisory Committee — and to see a play by August Wilson, a famed Black Pittsburgh playwright. Germain also said she admires Glasco’s willingness to learn despite his age, especially when he takes time after class to talk with students about anything from relevant class topics to rap music.

“He's just a very an open guy. So we talked about rap a lot, even stuff that he didn't know, he was willing to learn,” Germain said. “But whenever a professor is willing to learn about something, I think that's very commendable.”

Glasco said it is a pleasure to teach Pitt students, not only because of their academic abilities, but their morals and willingness to learn.

“They're truly an outstanding bunch of students, both in terms of their personal ethics and their commitment to good causes and good outcomes, and in terms of their ability to read and analyze and argue,” Glasco said. “So it's a real pleasure to teach them, and they want to be, you know, have their horizons expanded.”

During his time at Pitt, the African Heritage Classroom Committee — one of the many committees in charge of designing the Cathedral of Learning’s Nationality Rooms — asked Glasco to help design the African Heritage Room, and he became chair of the design committee. According to Glasco, designing the room proved difficult because while other nationality rooms represented a singular country, the African Heritage Room had to represent an entire continent.

“It became a real challenge of how do you represent a continent in a room and not have it just a mishmash of, you know, 50 or 5,000 different cultures,” Glasco said.

Glasco said he travelled to the British Museum in England and the Museum of Mankind in Paris to study traditional African art, sculpture and collections. He also travelled to Nigeria to meet with a traditional Nigerian artist and see his work, and to Ghana to study Ashanti shrines and take pictures and measurements.

According to Glasco, the committee based the room’s design on one traditional African culture to stand for the entire continent.

“The room is basically an Ashanti room from Ghana, but it has — I got a traditional carver from Nigeria, to add a lot of — he added a lot of Nigerian and Yoruba touches in there,” Glasco said. “They harmonize really nicely because it's sort of in the same part of the world, similar cultures, and the room turned out beautifully.”

Glasco said with the help of students on the committee, they decided on making the “main idea” of the room a courtyard. Courtyards have a multitude of different functions in Africa, according to Glasco, including a place to eat, hang out, entertain friends and family and have weddings and funerals.

Glasco said he realized the importance of having a courtyard as the main theme after a student became teary-eyed while discussing the plans.

“I saw one time a student just got teary-eyed, talking about the courtyard, because he was getting homesick, and that’s when I realized, ‘OK this is a really unifying concept,’” Glasco said. “It really does have a universal African appeal.”

According to Glasco, Ghanian artist Kweku Andrews created the grass roof and carved the stools and bas-relief walls, and traditional Nigerian carver Lamidi Fakeye carved the entry door, chalkboard doors and lectern.

Glasco said Ashanti architecture incorporates bas-relief, which allowed the design committee to incorporate themes and images from other African cultures onto the room's walls.

“That bas-relief pattern really let us bring in a lot of other non-Ghanian, non-Ashanti works in ways that harmonized with the overall thing,” Glasco said. “They didn’t come out and clobber you with something too busy.”

Some of these carvings include a crocodile and sankofa bird — two animals that are symbolic in the Ashanti culture — as well as poetry, African musical instruments and African scientific and mathematical symbols.

Besides lending a hand in the African Heritage Room’s design, Glasco helped acquire the archive of local playwright August Wilson, who grew up in the Hill District, just a ride away from Pitt’s campus.

Pitt — led by Kornelia Tancheva, the University Library System director — acquired the archive in late 2020. Glasco previously had the opportunity to meet Wilson’s widow and see part of Wilson’s writing collections in Seattle in 2015. Glasco supported Tancheva’s archival effort by dating and organizing materials.

Tancheva said she was impressed with Glasco’s ability to see the importance of studying Pittsburgh history, and the opportunities it would present to Pitt in the future.

“I also think that what really impressed me in my conversations with Larry was his ability to look ahead into the future and the possibilities for the University, rather than just be thinking about his own research,” Tancheva said. “He could envision what a great opportunity this is for the University.”

Tancheva also said acquiring the Wilson archive is important for the Pittsburgh community because it preserves underrepresented voices and allows for sharing them in the future.

“I think that this is very significant not just for the University but for the region, as well, because one of our strategic priorities as a library is to preserve, give access to, and disseminate the underrepresented voices of the local communities,” Tancheva said.

Glasco is currently writing a biography of Wilson, which has been in the works for almost 10 years. Glasco became invested in Wilson’s life when he led a discussion about Wilson’s 1995 play, “Seven Guitars,” at the Pittsburgh Public Theater. Glasco said during the discussion, a woman impressed him with her knowledge and understanding of Wilson’s life and plays. She introduced herself as Wilson’s sister and later gave Glasco tours of her childhood home and neighborhood.

Glasco also co-wrote the book “August Wilson: Pittsburgh Places in His Life and Plays” with Christopher Rawson, former theater critic and editor at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and a retired Pitt faculty member. While working on the book, Glasco said he became “thoroughly excited” about Wilson’s life, which inspired him to begin the biography.

Glasco said he enjoys working on biographies because it allows him to look past general assumptions and see how complex people can be.

“Looking at a biography, it really lets you become more sensitive to, that people are multidimensional,” Glasco said. “There are many things going on in somebody's life and you can't just assume it because of generalities.”

Glasco also said the ability to meet many different people, and learn not only about his subject’s life, but others’ lives as well, is interesting and rewarding. Although Wilson died in 2005, Glasco was able to meet Wilson’s friends, family and widow.

“I get to go interview their friends and relatives, as well as the person if they're still alive,” Glasco said. “And so it gets you out in contact, and with doing one biography on one person, you sort of write up the lives of a lot of different people and get to see really interesting things you don't expect.”

Glasco said he was proud of his first dissertation as a quantitative historian, which only contained numbers, but now many years later, he shifted his interest to writing biographies.

“It’s very ironic,” Glasco said. “When I started out, I was so proud of my dissertation because I mentioned no names. It was all numbers, literally, and I was really proud of it. And now I'm doing biographies, so that just shows life.”