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What is the role of sound in protests?

By Holly Smith

Protests can be loud. When a community faces injustice, sometimes a polite conversation with those in power does not suffice. We know that the noises of protest, from bells to horns to music to human voices, are sounded to make an issue known and to ensure that a community is heard. 

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Lower Hill demolished during the 1950s. Pittsburgh City Photographer Collection, University of Pittsburgh.

Between Pittsburgh’s three rivers, civil rights concerns were pressing in the 1960s as residents of the Hill District faced discrimination in housing, service, and infrastructure. The Lower Hill neighborhood, a once thriving community of schools, music venues, churches, and businesses, was demolished during the 1950s when the city launched a comprehensive urban redevelopment project that included a symphony hall and a civic arena. When these actions displaced more than 8000 residents, predominantly African American, community leader Frankie Mae Pace met with donor Mr. Heinz to stress the importance of rebuilding community infrastructure. She recalled in an 1973 interview: “I said, Mr. Heinz, if you want to do something in the Hill, why don't you build some apartments for poor people? You can [call them] the Heinz Apartments. […] And you want to put a symphony, in the houses across [the way], [but] the people are sitting in there with umbrellas to catch the rain because it's raining down through the roofs.” 

In 1967, Pace spearheaded the effort to hoist a billboard, which famously read “NO Redevelopment Beyond This Point.” When words failed, however, Frankie Pace organized a gathering across the street from St. Benedict the Moor Church at what is now called Freedom Corner. This was a meeting place for community groups who would sit on the steps of the church, listening to a leader who spoke from the sidewalk. She recalled the group’s march to town hall and said in above mentioned interview:  “And we as [an] organization […] just went down there and told them we will form a human wall. You're going to stop at Crawford Street. We will not let you take any more of the Hill if you come with those shovels for redevelopment. Now we will agree to renewal. […] But we are not going to let you level it like you did the Lower Hill.”

St. Benedict the Moor was an important place of gathering for the Hill District.

This audio clip re-constructs a protest scene at Freedom Corner.  You will hear voices of residents shouting, “No more!” Meanwhile, in the background, the church bells of St. Benedict ring while the afternoon traffic rolls by. Sound scholar R. Murray Schafer suggested that people and institutions can demonstrate their dominance by taking up sonic space, an idea he calls sound imperialism. He wrote, “A man with a shovel is not imperialistic, but a man with a jackhammer is because he has the power to interrupt and dominate other acoustic activities in the vicinity.” The bulldozers and jackhammers of urban redevelopment were asserting the strength and power of the city initiative. However, the people of the Hill were responding by taking up sonic space themselves. The act of protest was a way to claim of sonic space. This demonstration of sonic power perhaps instilled a feeling of empowerment in the community – strength in unity, and also strength in being heard. 

Freedom Corner Protest
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Sound clip re-construction by Holly Smith

Newspaper articles clearly show that Pace and her community were heard, but were they listened to? Ultimately, protesting voices need to find a seat at the table, and Frankie Mae Pace was offered that seat. She was affiliated with many civic and municipal organizations which include serving on board of C.O.O.P., a code enforcement agency for property compliance, on the Board of Directors for the Urban League of Pittsburgh as well as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) of Pittsburgh.

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SOURCES

N/A. "Council to Act on Hill Conditions in 90 Days: Taxpayers List 56 Violations of City Housing Ordinances Protest Group Told City Council Will Act on Hill Conditions within 90 Days." Pittsburgh Courier (1 June 1957): 1–2.  

Pace, Frankie. “Pace, Frankie, April 8, 1973, tape 1, side 1.” Pittsburgh Renaissance Project: The Stanton Belfour Oral History Collection, 1971-1973. University of Pittsburgh. 

Schaefer, Murray. The Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World. Rochester, VT: Destiny Books, 1994. 

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