Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: Pittsburgh, Allegheny County
Awards: George Polk Career Award in Journalism, National Association of Black Journalists Hall of Fame
Charles “Teenie” Harris was born on July 2, 1908, in the Hill District of Pittsburgh. Harris dropped out of school to establish the Pittsburgh Crawfords, a professional Negro League baseball team. While an excellent athlete, Harris’ ultimate passion was photography and that is what he is known best for. He worked as a freelance photographer and then as staff for the Pittsburgh Courier. He drew acclaim for documenting Hill District residents and for photographing many famous African Americans and celebrities visiting the city. Harris passed away on June 12, 1998 in Pittsburgh.
Charles “Teenie” Harris was born July 2, 1908, in Pittsburgh to Ella Mae “Olga” Taliaferro and William F. “Monk” Harris. Harris received the nickname “Teenie” from one of his relatives calling him a “teenie little lover” due to his good looks and short stature. His parents divorced two years after Harris was born. His mother supported Teenie and his two siblings in a single-family home, taking in boarders to help cover expenses. Eventually, Olga opened her own boarding house, the Masio Hotel, and moved in with her family. Living in this environment with people coming and going, relaxing, talking, and living life all around him helped Harris meet and get comfortable talking to people, a skill that would help his career as a photographer.
At the age of fourteen, after completing the eighth grade, Harris dropped out of Watt School. He began working odd jobs and eventually worked the numbers racket for his brother William “Woogie” Harris and Harris’ business partner Gus Greenlee. Woogie and Greenlee made their money off this illegal form of lottery, where bettors chose numbers and hoped they matched the numbers selected by whoever was running the game. The selected numbers often referenced stock market numbers, horse racing statistics, or the date. Harris worked as a number runner, the person who collected bettors' numbers. Once, when Woogie was in Europe, Harris got the chance to select the winning numbers. However, he did so during the “805 crisis” in 1930, a day where many bettors selected 805 based on the August date. Multiple winners led to a massive payout that left many racketeers broke or hiding from their clients. Woogie Harris and Greenlee honored their winners, however.
Harris dropped out of school not just to work, but to be able to pursue his interest in sports. He had been the captain of the Watt School baseball team, and after he dropped out, he formed the Pittsburgh Crawfords with the help of Bill Harris, who was once the captain of a rival school’s team. The Crawfords were initially a sandlot team whose name came from a bathhouse that sponsored them. Greenlee, Woogie’s business partner, would go on to buy the Crawfords and help turn it into a semi-professional team as part of the Negro League. Despite the change in sponsorship, they kept the name because Greenlee owned the Crawford Grill. The Crawfords became one of the best teams in Pittsburgh, winning the recreation league championship in 1926.
Harris married his first wife, Ruth Butler, in 1927 when he was nineteen. They had one son together, Charles A. “Little Teenie” Harris, but the couple divorced after five years. Sometime during the 1930s, Harris left baseball to pursue semi-pro basketball. He played for many different local teams.
In 1937, Harris, while still running the numbers with his brother, started selling photographs to Flash Magazine and the Pittsburgh Courier. Initially, the Courier offered him a staff position, but he declined it because of the lower pay. Freelancing, alongside running the numbers game, made him more money than working for the Courier would. In 1938, Woogie helped Harris open a photography studio, named Flash Studios, later known as Harris Studios. Harris’s studio became popular and he photographed many residents of the Hill District, including many World War II veterans and their families. His reputation and skill allowed him to document the Hill District in a way that few had ever done. In 1941, after a crackdown on illegal lotteries, Harris accepted a position as staff photographer for the Courier. He made less money than he did freelancing, and he still had to pay for his camera supplies. Despite this, he was a loyal and hardworking photographer for the newspaper. He closed his studio in 1953, but he still operated his darkroom where he processed his photographs.
Harris earned the nickname “One Shot” from Pittsburgh mayor David L. Lawrence. The name owed both to Harris’s skill as a photographer and his financial concerns. Since he paid for his own bulbs and film, he routinely captured his shots in one take. During his career for the Courier and as a studio photographer, he photographed many famous individuals, in part thanks to his connections with his brother and Greenlee. Harris was able to capture Nat “King” Cole, James Wiley, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Billy Eckstine, and Sarah Vaughan, among others. Despite the fame of some of his subjects, however, Harris is best known for his large collection of photographs of everyday people and places in and around the Hill District.
In 1944 Harris married his second wife, Elsa Lee Elliott, who assisted him with his work and helped him feel more comfortable while taking photographs. His last photograph for the Courier appeared in 1983 when he was seventy-four. Despite Harris’s fame and his long career with the newspaper, he needed financial support from his children after he retired. Yet, while he did not earn a lavish income, his photography earned him many honors and awards. In 1972, the Courier named him “citizen of the week.” The following year, Harris appeared on a radio show titled He’s a Black Man which featured and honored African Americans in Pittsburgh. In 1997, the Silver Eye Center for Photography awarded Harris with a Lifetime Achievement Award for his “photographic contribution to the history of Pittsburgh.” In 1998, Harris was invited, along with other staff of the Courier, to receive the George Polk Career Award in Journalism from Long Island University. Although Harris passed away in 1998 at the age of 90, public recognition continued. In 2001, the Congressional Black Caucus Spouses and Museum of Americas awarded him the Unsung Hero Award. The following year, Harris was recognized with the President’s Award from the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania. In 2005, he was inducted into the National Association of Black Journalists Hall of Fame. In 2009, the City of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County declared January 15th as “Teenie” Harris Day. In the same year, the Port Authority of Allegheny County, the Kingsley Association, and the Pittsburgh Pirates awarded Harris the Spirit of King Award. Surviving Harris were his five children, Charles A. Harris, Ira Vann Harris, Lionel L. Harris, Crystal Harris, and Cheryl A. Harris.
The Teenie Harris collection of photographs is available from the Historic Pittsburgh website. There is also a Teenie Harris Archive at the Carnegie Museum of Art.
Whitaker, Mark. Smoketown: The Untold Story of the Other Great Black Renaissance. Simon ; Schuster, 2019.
Finley, Cheryl, Laurence Glasco, and Joe W. Trotter. Teenie Harris, Photographer: Image, Memory, History. University of Pittsburgh Press, 2011.