Filed Under Entertainment

Central Amusement Park

The Central Amusement Park was Pittsburgh’s first Black-owned and Black-operated professional sports stadium and large-scale entertainment venue. Designed and built by African American architect Louis A.S. Bellinger, the Central Amusement Park occupies a significant place in local and national history.

Alexander McDonald Williams (1883-1941) emigrated to the United States from Barbados in 1903 and eventually settled in the Hill District. By 1910, his younger brothers, Charles and Stanley, had joined him in the Steel City.

Known to friends and relatives as “Alex” or “Don,” the senior brother worked as a Pullman porter, waiter, and photo engraver during his first decade in Pittsburgh, and in 1914, he married Margaret Bailey. 

That same year, Alex Williams rented the basement of Burke’s Theater building and opened a billiards room. After about five years, the Williams brothers had saved enough money from the pool hall to go into the entertainment and sports industry.

In the spring of 1920, the Williams brothers rented two lots between Wylie and Center avenues. The lots, vacant since the Civil War, were used as a neighborhood dump and was the subject of frequent complaints by neighbors. Alex Williams hired Bellinger to design and build a new ballpark for professional and semi-pro teams. The new stadium, which doubled as an entertainment venue, included a ballfield and wood grandstands that began on Humber Way and wrapped around the corner of Chauncey Street. To build the grandstands, the brothers had to petition the city for permission to use part of the Chauncey Street right-of-way.

Central Amusement Park opened to great fanfare in July of 1920. The first game played there featured Steubenville Giants versus the P.J. Sullivans, two regional minor league teams. By the end of the month, teams were playing games multiple nights a week. The Pittsburgh Press reported on July 22, 1920, that work was underway on an indoor space for community events and sports matches (boxing and basketball). By the end of 1920, the new park was hosting baseball and football games, boxing matches, and community group meetings.

For its 1921 season, the Williams brothers, along with partners that included Pittsburgh Courier editors and later publishers, Robert Vann and Ira F. Lewis, formed the Marathon Amusement Company. With 2,200 shares valued at $25 per share, Alex Williams owned a majority of the new company which was capitalized at $100,000 ($1.5 million in 2023 dollars). According to its corporate charter, the new company was formed “to promote in-door and out-door athletic sports for public amusement, viz: basketball, skating, boxing, dancing, schools, baseball, foot-ball, tennis, cricket, golf and track.” 

In 1921, Alex Williams bought the Pittsburgh Keystones baseball team, a team that was part of the fledgling Negro National League, and the Central Amusement Park became the Keystones’ home field. Williams signed players from around the country, and scheduled games throughout the East and Midwest. 

Though Hall proved in later years to be a savvy entertainment promoter in the region, bringing acts like Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway to the Hill, he couldn’t turn the Central Amusement Park into a profitable venture.

But Williams’s vision never translated to businessr success. He heavily mortgaged his Hill District properties, including his family’s Wylie Avenue home.  In 1924, unable to pay his players and his debts,Williams transferred the park’s assets to Sellers “Sell” McKee Hall. a former Negro Leagues ballplayer and semi-professional team manager who hoped to transition into the local entertainment promotion..

Though Hall proved in later years to be a savvy entertainment promoter in the region, bringing acts like Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway to the Hill’s Pythian Temple, he couldn’t turn the Central Amusement Park into a profitable venture. The park never reopened after its 1925 season.

Pittsburgh Courier sports columnist William G. Nunn penned Central Park’s obituary. “Central Park, the only race-owned, controlled and managed colored baseball park in the city, has passed into the great beyond,” Nunn wrote. “Central Park is no more, but it will always hold fond memories for thousands.”

Those memories were short-lived. In 1932, racketeer and entertainment entrepreneur William A. “Gus” Greenlee hired Bellinger to design another Hill District stadium, Greenlee Field. Greenlee’s stadium lasted just one year more than Central, from 1932 and 1938. For decades, historians incorrectly described Greenlee Field as Pittsburgh’s (and the nation’s) first Black-owned and operated professional stadium. Few stadiums were constructed solely for the Negro Leagues and it is notable that Pittsburgh had two of the earliest.

After 1925, the Central Amusement Park grandstands were demolished and its lots reverted to fallow fields. In 1961, community program director Carl Redwood proposed using the site for Little League games, though the plan never became a reality. In 1969, the Pittsburgh Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) bought the lots from the heirs of the families who rented them to the Williams brothers. They have remained undeveloped since 1925.

Images

Central Amusement Park Location Sanborn Map Company fire insurance map published in 1920 showing the location of the Central Amusement Park and its encroachment into the Chauncey Street right-of-way. Source: University of Pittsburgh Library, Archives & Special Collections. Creator: Sanborn Map Company Date: 1920
Alexander McDonald Williams An undated portrait of Alexander McDonald Williams, one of the brothers who owned the Central Amusement Park.
Burke's Theater Facade Burke’s Theater building, c. 1927. The entrance to the basement pool hall first occupied by the Williams brothers is visible adjacent to the arched theater entrance. Source: Pittsburgh City Photographer Collection, University of Pittsburgh Creator: Pittsburgh City Photographer Date: c. 1927
Central Amusement Park Site The former Central Amusement Park site as of 2022. Creator: David S. Rotenstein Date: 2022

Location

549 Chauncey St, Pittsburgh, PA 15219

Metadata

David S. Rotenstein, “Central Amusement Park,” Hill District Digital History, accessed June 17, 2024, https://hillhistory.org/items/show/49.