By Amy Whipple

Under the leadership of Mary Cardwell Dawson, the National Negro Opera Company offered an acclaimed return performance of Giuseppe Verdi’s “Aida” on Oct. 9, 1954.

A front-page story in the Oct. 16 edition of the Pittsburgh Courier praised the show, held at Oakland’s Syria Mosque. The unnamed writer observed, “What a commentary it is on our community, the new Pittsburgh, which can spend hundreds of millions on roads and buildings, which professes a desire to raise the level of culture in our town, that there is not solid, concrete support for such faith and work and results as Mrs. Dawson’s!”

Founded by Dawson in 1941 as the first permanent African-American opera company in the country, the National Negro Opera Company had expanded to Washington, D.C., Chicago, Cleveland and New York by 1954.

Operas, then and now, are expensive to produce. Dawson struggled to keep the company afloat.

“How easy it would be for one of the many foundations in Pittsburgh to underwrite such an effort as hers with a yearly grant of $10,000,” read the Pittsburgh Courier story. “This would be a cheap price to pay, for a few years, for what Mrs. Dawson can contribute to our cultural renaissance.”

Jonnet Solomon, founder and executive director of the National Opera House, knows the feeling.

Jonnet Solomon. Photo by Diondre Johnson.

She purchased the opera company’s former home, a Queen Anne-style mansion on Apple Street in Homewood, with Homewood salon owner Miriam White in 2000. Solomon was simply taken by it. She’s now spent more than 20 years trying to secure funding to restore it.

Solomon grew up in a musical household — when she was 10 years old, her father relocated the family from Guyana because of his steel band — but “I had no relationship to opera at all,” she says.

She also says she had no relationship to historic preservation. Solomon is an accountant by trade and takes umbrage at being called a historian.

“I traditionally hate history because history is a lie to me,” she says. “And so someone said, ‘What made you want to preserve an opera house and tell history and you’re none of these things?’”

Solomon says she doesn’t know the answer.

White, who died in 2009, had been interested in preserving the house’s history. White “knew everything,” says Solomon. “She knew all of the stories that I didn’t know.”

Lauded Pittsburgh historian John Brewer became an integral addition to the two-member team before he died in 2018. Solomon remembers Brewer saying, “You don’t even know what you just took on.” His advice? “For anyone to take this seriously, they have to know the history.”

Built in 1894, the house on Apple Street was purchased by Pittsburgh’s first Black millionaire, William “Woogie” Harris in 1930. He used the wealth he accrued by co-running the local numbers syndicate as an unofficial bank to support Black entrepreneurs, including his brother, photographer Charles “Teenie” Harris.

Woogie lived at the house with his wife Ada and — as it grew into an African-American cultural haven offering lodging to a who’s who of Black celebrities — it took on the moniker Mystery Manor.

In 1941, Harris rented the third floor to Dawson and the newly formed National Negro Opera Company.

After Ada’s death in 1975 (Woogie died in 1967), the house fell into neglect.

Solomon says the opera company, which folded shortly after Dawson’s death in 1962 due to continued financial instability, “existed because Black people did not have a pathway to the main stage at all.”

Solomon adds that Dawson auditioned for the Pittsburgh Opera (founded in 1939) but was rejected because of her race. In learning this story, Solomon finally “understood in America, it’s not enough to have talents” or money or an education. “All these things that you think, ‘I checked the box’ became irrelevant simply because you were Black.”

That Solomon graduated from college without ever learning these stories plays heavily into her belief that history is a lie.

According to his obituary in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Brewer was a gifted raconteur with a sharp memory and well-honed listening skills. Word got around about the National Opera House and people started reaching out to Solomon and Brewer.

“I would be researching at the library and someone’s like, ‘What are you researching?’ and I tell them and they’re like, ‘I have a story. Come to my house,’ and then I’ll just follow them to their house and go in their attic or something,” Solomon says.

“It was incredible. I was seeing Pittsburgh and a history that I’ve never known and no one ever talks about.”

The house earned a Pennsylvania State Historical Marker in 1994 and was designated a Pittsburgh City Historic Landmark in 2008. Over the years, groups such as the Young Preservationists Association of Pittsburgh attempted to assist in Solomon’s efforts. None of this, however, translated into substantial support from philanthropic organizations or the larger arts community.

“Every grant application I sent in until 2020 was denied,” Solomon says.

She had opportunities to give up: losing a partner when White died, condemnation notices and losing a champion when Brewer died. Solomon held on, though, to what she gained from Dawson and what could be gained by succeeding in restoring the building.

“If other people were introduced to her persistence and courage and confidence, the whole world would be different,” Solomon says.

A shift in momentum came in 2020: the National Opera House gained large-scale attention when the National Trust for Historic Preservation included it on its annual list of America’s 11 most endangered historic places.

Around the same time, the Pittsburgh Opera was, like many organizations, deep in introspection spurred by the twin tumults of the Covid pandemic and Black Lives Matter protests.

Rebekah Diaz, director of community engagement and IDEA initiatives at the Pittsburgh Opera, says, “We were kind of buzzing and talking about what she was doing.” The restoration of the National Opera House, Diaz says, “hit so many levels of things that we need to be doing right now.”

Christopher Hahn, general director of the Pittsburgh Opera wanted to “do something that really matters” and gained approval from the Pittsburgh Opera’s board to support Solomon in a substantial and meaningful way.

Additional money followed in the form of grants and donations from the Richard King Mellon Foundation, African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, A. W. Mellon Foundation, and former President George W. Bush and Laura Bush, among others. To date, they’ve raised $2.1 million of the estimated $3 million total it will take to complete the restoration.

The National Opera House gained large-scale attention when the National Trust for Historic Preservation included it on its annual list of America’s 11 most endangered historic places.

“We did a lot of shopkeeping in the beginning,” says Diaz, including acting as a fiscal sponsor while Solomon established her own 501(c)(3) in 2021. “Now we’re at the really fun stage where we start to do a lot of the programming.”

Diaz says they hope to bring the National Opera House onto the national stage and have the “house be this big beacon of knowing that [Black opera] is still alive and happening right now.”

Toward that end, Solomon says she would like to center and “invest in [the] unheard of, unseen, unknown operas that are out there right now … I think the audience is missing out. I think the audience is being cheated, really.”

Audiences, of course, have long been cheated out of Black opera talent. “By having this partnership, we’re trying to bring light to that [history] and have that conversation,” says Diaz.

Solomon sees the partnership as a chance for racial reconciliation, a word she uses in the same way she would in her accounting career, meaning that equity cannot be built unless the balance sheet of history is reconciled.

“What’s unfair is for all of us today to bear the burden of the wrongs done in the past by someone else,” she says, “and the only way that we can set it down is to say, ‘Yes, this happened.’”

In that sense, “until we reconcile the wrong that was done to Mary Cardwell Dawson and every single person like her, we can’t move forward.”

That couldn’t happen in Solomon’s eyes, however, until the Pittsburgh Opera found “the courage to be the first one to acknowledge it and do it.”

She credits Hahn for taking that step. “I think it’s so courageous. I think it’s so brave. Because you’re saying, ‘The opera world — they were wrong [and] here’s how we’re gonna start righting the ship and having this reconciliation happen.’”

With that in mind, Solomon says, “I will never do programming on our own. Everything related to opera has to be done with the Pittsburgh Opera as an example to the world of how to reconcile the wrong from before.”

The partnership will also include the creation of a Mary Cardwell Dawson Fellowship to support a resident artist who would be a liaison between the two organizations.

Solomon says it’s also about sustainability. “You can have a great start, a great leader, but if you don’t have the people coming behind you that will carry that torch and continue that work, it’ll just die. And then 50 years from now they’ll say, ‘Why aren’t there any Black people at the opera?’”

This also speaks to a larger philosophy of Solomon’s.

“I believe in partnerships,” she says. “There’s nothing we’re doing at the Opera House that wasn’t already done. We’re just finishing the bridge that was started by Mary Cardwell Dawson.”

Speed Way Line Report welcomes a variety of writers from across our community.