SRU partners with Hill District organization to share Pittsburgh’s history


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Slippery Rock University faculty and students have contributed to Hill District Digital History Project, available online at

Dec. 4, 2023

SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. — The history and culture of Pittsburgh's Hill District neighborhood is being preserved and shared with a wider audience thanks to a recent partnership with Slippery Rock University's History Department.

Aaron Cowan, an SRU professor of history, and graduate students from his Public History course, recently helped the Hill Community Development Corporation launch the Hill District Digital History Project, available online at

   From left, SRU professor Aaron Cowan
   with Hill CDC representatives Diane
Marimba Milliones and Dillon

"This is a way to get stories, information and other content about the Hill out to everyone," said Cowan, whose academic research centers on urban and public history. "Building a museum and putting on exhibits can take decades and millions of dollars, but this is a project that we've gotten up and running in a little over six months and it's something that people can access all over the world."

"We hope to see this project grow in volume and depth as it facilitates dialogue with local, national and international audiences," said Marimba Milliones, president and CEO of Hill CDC. "It's the foundation of an incredible digital technology resource."

Earlier this year, Cowan reached out to Milliones after reading a news story about a Hill District landmark, Freedom Corner. After some brainstorming sessions, they developed a plan to develop a website using Curatescape, a humanities-based digital platform for location-based storytelling.

Twelve students from Cowan's Public History course worked on the project over the summer, writing articles, interviewing subjects and curating photos and videos. Last month, the site was announced to the public at a launch event at the New Granada Square Apartments Community Room in Pittsburgh.

"We're trying make this a collaborative partnership where we've got people in the community contributing and telling their own stories," Cowan said. "There are a lot of stories out there that are told by journalists and through other sources, but this provides a centralized location that's accessible to everyone. The community has control over it, and it's not filtered through whatever angle the media or an outside academic historian wants to put on it."

"As someone who grew up in the Hill District with deep family ties to the community, working on the Hill CDC's Digital History Project is incredibly exciting," said Jennifer Whitley, a community historian involved with the project. "It gives those who know and love the Hill an opportunity to tell and write our own stories rather than allowing anyone else to do that for us and perhaps rewrite them."

The Hill District Digital History Project includes written stories enhanced by digital images, audio and video from historical archives. They are collected and curated by community historians like Whitley, or through contributors like Alyssa Chesek, an SRU graduate student from Taylor.

Chesek wrote a story about the Crystal Barber Shop she interviewed Michelle Slater, the daughter of the shop's manager and barber, Harold Slater.

"The community members are telling the stories; we are the means through which the stories are being told," Chesek said. "As a history student, this experience really helped me to appreciate local history. What we work on in our graduate coursework can be broad and big picture, but places and institutions that people interact with on a daily basis often go unnoticed because people are so immersed in them. You're really getting that personal aspect that you don't necessarily get in broader histories."

Digital technologies make it possible for someone to take a guided tour of the Hill District by using a smartphone, and QR codes that can be placed near landmarks and on buses can make the stories more accessible and spark people's curiosity.

"It's relatively inexpensive and in a lot of ways, this technology democratizes people's access to history," Cowan said.

SRU undergraduate students will have opportunities to contribute, including those in Digital History and African American History courses. Cowan said organizers would also like to involve other universities in the region.

"This is just the start, and hopefully this is a project that lives and grows for years," Cowan said. "It's such a fantastic experience for our students. What they are writing and researching is out there for people to read, and it really can make a difference."

The Hill District is part of Pittsburgh's rich history. In the 19th century, many immigrants called the Hill District home, and it became a destination for Black Americans who moved from the South to industrial urban centers of the North, during a time known as the Great Migration.

"The Hill District became the predominant center of Black life and culture in Pittsburgh," Cowan said.

Famous jazz musicians like Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington played in the Hill District; playwright August Wilson, known as "theater's poet of Black America," was from the Hill District; and the neighborhood was home to the Pittsburgh Courier, one of the most influential African American weekly newspapers in the nation.

"The Hill District has embraced the importance of building upon the African American cultural legacy while planting one foot firmly in the future," Milliones said. "This is one example of how we can share a fuller and more complete American story for generations to come."

MEDIA CONTACT: Justin Zackal | 724.738.4854 |