One of the first Black families to settle in Sharpsburg in the early 1920’s is being honored with an exhibit at the Community Library along Main Street.
“Breaking Barriers: 4 Generations of a Black Sharpsburg Family” is a collaborative effort of the borough’s historical commission, the library and Kayla Portis, the borough’s first Black councilperson.
“It makes me really proud to share our history,” said Portis, who donated dozens of old photos and family history excerpts for the exhibit. “It’s important to give people information on the families that helped shape our community.”
The display will be open during library hours through March 16.
Sara Mariacher, library director, aimed this year to propel Black History Month beyond book displays.
“Since Ms. Portis is the borough’s first Black elected official and because her family has had an impact on Sharpsburg even before her election, it made perfect sense to us to feature her and her family,” Mariacher said.
More than 30 people turned out for the opening on Feb. 19 and many more have browsed the pictures and historical essays to learn about Portis’ legacy, which began in 1922 when her great-grandfather, Furman Moore, moved to the borough seeking work and a new life.
He traveled from Anderson, S.C., as part of the Great Migration, a movement of 6 million Blacks from rural southern states who were looking to escape poor economic conditions and racial segregation.
“I don’t know why they chose Sharpsburg, but we have been working and living here and giving back to this community ever since,” Portis said.
Her grandfather, Charles Smith, married Portis’ grandmother Barbara in 1953, and they had six children. Six of them still live in the borough.
Smith, a Korean War veteran, was elected the first Black commander of the VFW Post 709 along Main Street despite being one of only three Black men among 300 fellow white members.
“You didn’t see that back then,” Portis said. “But it wasn’t something he bragged about or anything. He wanted to serve in the Post where he lived.”
Barbara Smith served on the board of the borough-based Northern Area Multi Service center and was selected to be recognized with a community mural in the “Beyond the Ceiling” project sponsored in 2019 by the Sharpsburg Neighborhood Organization. The initiative sought out females who helped shape the community.
“She passed before the mural was unveiled but she knew it was happening,” Portis said. “That makes me really glad.”
Portis and the generations before her have served the borough in multiple facets, through their longtime membership at Mt. Olive Baptist Church, in various volunteer roles at Fox Chapel Area School District and in youth recreation leagues.
Portis is the president of the Fox Chapel Area Residents for Social Justice and vice president of the Kerr Elementary School PTO. She is working to address affordable housing for all and bring upgrades to the borough’s iconic Heinz Memorial Park.
“It was such an honor to be the first family chosen for an exhibit of this kind,” she said.
Raising her children in the borough, Portis said she hopes they keep up her family’s strong legacy.
“I’ve always felt this was home,” she said. “I want my children to make a name for themselves in giving back to the community.”
Mariacher said the historical exhibit has been a great success.
“We hope to inspire and educate visitors of all backgrounds and to reinforce the idea that Black history is American history and Sharpsburg history.”