Real story behind August Wilson 1968 violence play character
PITTSBURGH (AP) — Playwright August Wilson, then just 23, was in Pittsburgh when the Hill District erupted in violence in the days following the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968.
But, as was his style, the play he later wrote about that era — “Two Trains Running,” the seventh installment in his 10-part Pittsburgh Cycle of plays — was not explicitly about the riots.
Instead, set in 1969, it demonstrated the underlying tensions both within the black community, and between blacks and whites, by examining a small group of black residents as they discuss life in a Hill District diner.
The play first staged in 1992 makes use, as Wilson often did, of the names of real people who lived in the Hill, making no attempt to accurately depict their true character.
That artistic device has caused problems for Wilson at times. The family of the late Thomas L. West Sr., the original owner of the West Funeral Home — who is depicted in “Two Trains” as a scheming businessman more concerned with profit than providing a respectful funeral — let Wilson know before he died in 2005 that it was an inaccurate depiction.
“I was upset that he had portrayed (West) that way because he wasn’t that way,” said Karen West Butler, West’s granddaughter and current owner of West Funeral Home in the Hill District. “He and my grandmother were deacons in their church.”
But no similar outrage was ever heard by the family of another character in the play, Lutz, the white owner of a meat market referred to in the play.
Though Lutz is never seen on stage in the play, it is his relationship with one of the characters, Hambone, that serves as a thread that binds the play together.
Hambone, a deranged black man, is obsessed with the debt of a ham he believes he is owed by Lutz as payment for painting a fence years earlier.
“He gonna give me my ham,” Hambone says over and over in the play to anyone who will listen, painting Lutz as the villain in a dispute that becomes a metaphor for whether the black community should ask for what it deserves, or take what it deserves.
But if Wilson was using the fictional Lutz as the source of the kind of tension between white store owners in the Hill and their black customers that led to violence, those who knew the real Lutz say nothing could be further from the truth.
And, they say, the truth of what happened to the real Lutz and the store after the riots is an even more dramatic story.
“He had a great relationship with the black community,” said David Speer, 80, of Cheswick, whose uncle was Karl Lutz, who owned the real Lutz’s Meat Market referenced in “Two Trains.” Lutz died in 1977 and his wife, Frances, who was the sister of Mr. Speer’s mother, died in 1984.
‘Wilson had him wrong’
As a kid in the 1940s and 1950s, Speer regularly spent Saturdays at the meat market with his parents, who would travel by bus from their home in Cheswick to help on what was always the busiest day of the week for the market.
Karl Lutz “really cared for the people who came in the shop,” said Virginia Speer, 81, who first dated Mr. Speer in high school and also knew the Lutzes well. “I’d say August Wilson had him wrong.”
But it’s not just Lutz family members who held that view.
Betty Cunningham was the wife of the late Calvin Cunningham, a black man who worked for Karl Lutz for 25 years in the meat market, and came to know the Lutzes as more than just co-workers.
“We were like family” with the Lutzes, said Cunningham, 88, of the Hill District. “Saturday nights (after work) we’d sit around and laugh and play cards together” and the families regularly visited in each others’ homes.
As for the tension illustrated in “Two Trains” between white store owners and their black customers, Cunningham said: “There was no tension like that. That wasn’t true.”
“They treated everybody the same,” she said.
Brenda Tate, 69, who is black and grew up in the Hill District, had similar memories of shopping at Lutz’s.
“Oh, everybody shopped there,” she said.
The reputation of the store, she said, was due not only to the choice meat Lutz’s sold, but that nearly all of the store’s employees, including its butchers, were black.
“That was unheard of in most stores (in the Hill), having all black folks as the employees,” she said.
Hill District spots as metaphors
Experts on Wilson say, though, that he never intended to accurately depict the people whose names he used in his plays.
As with Lutz, “I think he just picked a name there, one he remembered,” said Laurence Glasco, an associate history professor at the University of Pittsburgh and an expert on Wilson.
Sandra Shannon, a professor of African American literature at Howard University and an expert on Wilson’s plays, agrees.
“I think it’s incorrect to hold a mirror up to” Wilson’s use of a specific name, said Shannon, who has a PhD in American literature. “What he has done is elevated a site — Lutz’s Meat Market — and used it as a metaphor. He had to rest his play somewhere (in the Hill District) and he rested it there.”
Glasco, who has a PhD in history, notes that Wilson was once quoted about his experience walking through the Hill District the night of the riots, in what may have been an inspiration for the play’s theme.
“I remember walking by Wylie Avenue, a meat market, white guy in there, he had blood running down his cheek, guess he got hit by flying glass,” Wilson told journalist Stephen Dubner in 2000. “But the look on his face: he had no idea what the hell happened. He couldn’t have told you who Martin Luther King was or anything — just a guy opens up his meat shop, sells people pork chops, goes home. I felt sorry for him. I figured at least you should know why people were doing that.”
But, again, those who knew Karl Lutz say he not only knew who Martin Luther King was, he was supportive of his cause, as he was many causes in the black community. That was demonstrated by the various fundraisers he attended in the Hill District, some of which were documented in The Pittsburgh Courier, the newspaper that then and now covers the city’s black community.
It was Karl Lutz’s father, German immigrant Charles Lutz, who founded the meat market in 1894 at a site across the street from where he would eventually build a three-story building at 2145 Centre Ave., at the corner of Elmore Street. The store was on the first floor, and the family lived on the second floor, with an aunt’s family on the third floor. The building, though now boarded up, still stands, with the name “LUTZ” still showing near the third floor roofline.
The community was more heavily German then, and Karl grew up working in his father’s shop, abruptly having to take it over when he was just 17 in 1922 when his father died at just 52. The business thrived, and over the years as more black residents moved into the Hill District, Karl Lutz hired many black residents as employees, including in 1943 Calvin Cunningham, when he was just 13.
It was not long before Karl developed a bond with the quiet and diligent Cal.
“Karl and Frances never had children,” Cunningham pointed out. “He treated Cal like his son.”
That feeling extended to the entire family.
“We basically grew up with (Karl Lutz) as a granddad,” said Gail Felton, 65, the oldest of Cunningham’s five children. “He was around at our family gatherings. If I came by the store and did my homework in the back, he’d come and check on me.”
After Cal Cunningham got out of his four years of Army service in the early 1950s, his wife wanted him to apply for a job with the Post Office because it paid more.
But Cal “loved the butcher shop,” she said with a laugh. “He loved cutting meat and fooling with the meat. Just like Karl. It was their life.”
One bond and a market’s rebirth
At some point, Karl planned to have Cal take over the business when he retired, a promise documented in a 1963 article in the Courier by Toki S. Johnson.
Those plans sped up, though, on April 5, 1968, the night of the riots.
Despite Karl Lutz’s reputation in the black community as a fair-minded man, the store, like so many others along Centre Avenue, was ransacked and set afire, but not completely destroyed.
Felton remembers running to the store that night, trying to find her father, who she feared would be harmed if he tried to get in the way of the rioting. She found him among the crowd watching the store burn, staring at the scene before him.
“I stood with my dad and I cried and he cried,” she recalled. “Then he tried to explain to me why this was happening, that there are good people in the world and bad people. But he was letting me know we were going to be OK.”
Virginia Speer said when Karl Lutz recalled that night he made it clear how he felt about it: “I remember he was heartsick. It pretty much just broke his heart.”
Karl, then 63, decided there was no point in trying to reopen as his shop. He sold the store to Cal, as had been promised, for $5,000, and together they worked to fix the damage and reopen as “Cal’s Meat Market.”
Cal ran into a problem. The federal Small Business Administration turned him down for a $5,000 loan. So Karl loaned him the money instead.
On May 21, 1968, Cal’s Meat Market opened, a move documented again by the Courier’s Johnson, who wrote that it was reopening “following the recent disturbance. Karl Lutz will be missed. He was a kind man and taught Cal everything about the business.”
It was a proud day for the Cunningham family, only to have the joy shattered a few days later when the windows were broken out by vandals because “they thought he was fronting for Lutz,” Ms. Fenton recalled. The windows were fixed and were never broken out again.
Business was off about 10 percent, Cal told the Pittsburgh Press in a story in September 1968, and it was hard going, but he believed he could make it work.
But just over a year after he took over the store, Cal died unexpectedly on July 15, 1969, just 39 years old, of a cerebral hemorrhage.
Cunningham tried to run the meat market herself for three years before closing it and taking a job as a secretary for the Allegheny County District Attorney’s Office.
Looking back, her husband’s death was not so surprising, given the many events in their lives before he died. In 1967 her twin sister, Barbara Ross, died, and her two young children came to live with the Cunninghams. Then the riots.
In the end, she said, “I think it was the stress of the job that killed Cal.”
One thing she did not know about her husband came to light during the reporting of this story.
Cunningham had believed he got the SBA loan to buy the store. She said she never knew that Karl had loaned him the money. But she also never heard a request from Karl to continue payments on it after Cal died.
Her daughter, Felton, said “that is not amazing to me. Because Mr. Lutz was that kind of guy, a fair guy.”
Information from: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, http://www.post-gazette.com