Historic Black leaders in Pittsburgh
Show Notes by John Brewer, Author of African Americans in Pittsburgh
Until now, we all have embraced the concept of leadership based on standards which does not include the black perspective. Those cast as “black leaders” were often selected by the dominant media .Stories that come from this source is often tainted with ‘truths which are misleading, incorrect or demeaning to those who know the reality. More often than not, key facts are simply overlooked by influential reporting sources. Therefore, the idea of understanding who were the ‘ black leaders’ in Pittsburgh or elsewhere requires deep research before the real network of influence can be bought to the public for consideration. Once these ‘ new facts’ have been exposed the educational and institutional program required to change ‘ public opinion’ is so extensive the public never receives or believes what has been posed .Therefore, we must rely on documentaries, public media programs ( particularly black history month) the internet and great shows like your program to air both controversial and new views on Black Leadership to unveil the pertinent facts about who is doing what in Pittsburgh and elsewhere.
It seems very complicated whenever you hear the term” Black Leadership” However, I feel only four reasons exist throughout our two hundred and fifty plus year history in Pittsburgh which Black leaders have emerged to change or eliminate. They are:
• American Slavery
• Disenfranchisement of blacks after black reconstruction
• Extreme Jim Crow cases
• Exclusion from assimilation ( based on constitution and amendments)
1843 Mystery Newspaper published in downtown Pittsburgh on Hand street ( near Liberty and Penn Avenue by Martin Delaney must be considered as the most vital link in the Underground Railroad. The newspaper defined for the railroad exact locations, names and directions for the conductors engaged in the most significant movement from Slavery. Delaney also provided medical treatment for Pittsburghers inflicted with cholera and other blood related diseases. In 1845 the Mystery Newspaper was the one and only paper which covered the Great Fire of 1845 in Pittsburgh.
Delaney’s leadership role assisted in the formation of secret societies who physically helped runaway slaves, freedmen and other abolitionist move an entire people from bondage.
1910 Pittsburgh Courier under the leadership of statesmen, lawyer and publisher Robert L. Vann from 1910 to 1940)
• Provided Blacks and white world wide with a historic examination and perspective on Jim Crow, politics, education, the ‘ tan GI’, and achievements in all facets of life in America by black Americans. Men like
Ira F. lewis, his right hand man, Cum Posey Sir, Vashon, etc were the true knights of justice and equality. They also influenced changing the minds of millions of blacks who were in the Republican Party to the Democratic Party (in 1933).
• Mrs. Jessie Vann ( 1940 until demise) continued the world wide influence
of the Pittsburgh Courier. She literally enhanced the readership of the paper. Under her leadership the Pittsburgh Courier became the largest black owned paper in the world boasting 21 editions and a National edition which was viewed worldwide.
• Greater Pittsburgh Improvement League ( 1949) under the leadership of Manford Sales became Pittsburgh’s strong protest arm using the boycott methods to confront racial discrimination in hiring and accommodating integrated swimming pools, theaters. They confronted A&P (Atlantic and Pacific New owned food chain and boycotted until blacks were given employment opportunities beyond the traditional ‘low end temporary jobs’. The league only existed for 10 years ( 1949 to 1959) under Mr. Sale’s leadership, but the formula for success was soon duplicated by the local NAACP.
• Thousands of black youth around Pittsburgh certainly remember when public supported swimming pools were off limits to Tan hot bodies. July 14, 1951 two black youth James Jordan Jr. and Alexander J. Allen took the historic plunge in the all white pool at Highland Park. This single act, like Rosa Parks selecting not to give up her seat in the front of the bus became the starting point for Civil rights challenges in Pittsburgh.
• Black churches like Bethel, Ebenezer, Wesley, Six Mount Zion and Bethesda produced outstanding Black leaders who traveled beyond the pulpit to lead by example our Civil rights movement and to provide a safe and productive haven for our youth in Pittsburgh. Names like Reverend Dr. Leroy Patrick, Reverend Cayes, Reverend Elmer Williams were in the forefront of the progressive movement to correct the social and economic systems that discriminated against blacks in Pittsburgh.
• Pittsburgh’s historic discrimination cases that involved a well trained team of Black attorney’s as far back as the early nineteen hundreds with Robert L. Vann to Homer S Brown( later to become Pittsburgh’s first black judge) Attorney Wendell Freeland, Attorney Barton who worked with the Urban League, Henry Smith ( who filed suit against the city in the Highland Park swim conflict) Judge William Hastings ( from the Virgin Islands) who worked with Pittsburgh politicians to change Republican party influence over black to the democratic party. Attorney Warren Watson and Paul Jones were also played key roles in many cases, as well as Attorney Richard Jones. Lower court cases were handled by powerbrokers like “
• Pappy Williams, Hill vote power broker, and Harry Fitzgerald who was an alderman.
• Dr. C Delores Tucker was an iconic educator and leader known nationally. She served as chair for the National Political Congress of Black Women. Dr Tucker was also director of Pennsylvania State Education. Her passion and tireless efforts in education and Civil rights cannot be measured with a single glance.
• The name Vernell Lillie and black culture in Pittsburgh are one in the same. Dr. Lillie’s contribution and leadership role continues as we speak today. She and counterpart Robb Penny organized and launched a successful presence of black play writers, poets, actors and of course the nationally known Kuntu Dancers enjoyed by all Pittsburghers.
• Internationally known play writer August Wilson probably needs no introduction. His words and images revolutionized how we all have come to learn and enjoy the black experience regardless of our background and experiences. John Edgar Wideman, still another Pittsburgh writer, has put Pittsburgh’s Homewood Community on the center stage of many of his award winning books. The works of both men have extended the Pittsburgh Harlem renaissance well beyond the forties or early fifties.
• In politics well known former State representative and Democratic Party whip K. Leroy Iris deserves special mention for his strong presence during the civil right era in Pittsburgh. His voice in Harrisburg brought state funds to Pittsburgh to assist the rebuilding efforts required after the 1968 riots.
• Hundred of black and white people in Pittsburgh were treated for Tuberculosis by Dr. William Roderick Brown; a pioneer in TB research in Pittsburgh Dr. Brown in 1959 became director of Allegheny County Health department. He and his wife Rachel Lillian Brown popularized the East seal to arouse interest and funds to fight this dreaded disease.
• Sports icon Willie Stargell from the world series winning Pittsburgh Pirates; not only captured the hearts of Pittsburgh pirate sports fans but he led the fight to rid black America’s selectively dangerous disease called sickle cell anemia.
Countless thousands of men and women of color whose names have been barely mentioned were the real players in Pittsburgh Black Leadership circles. A small quiet group of white Pittsburghers also played a role to bring about ‘ social and economic change’ in a city whose roots were never sealed in segregation.
They remember when next door neighbors were people of color. They played on the same baseball fields, sat in the same schools and took the same trolley cars to downtown, Oakland or West view park. Yes, in deed they heard stories about off limit swimming pools, hotels, restaurants and other joints. Many who enforced these crazy policies had migrated from the south. They felt compelled to ‘ ride along’ until black leadership provided by local and national figures compelled them to react. In the early sixties many did indeed react in a positive manner by joining the civil rights and freedom fighters in Pittsburgh and elsewhere. Some were students from ministerial schools, Presbyterian churches and Synagogues. Others were willing to open themselves to the new wave of thought created by black Pittsburghers who were given new opportunities to join a once segregated work force in the main stream of Pittsburgh.
Future changes in community living patterns will change as transportation to the work place increases in price. We will go back to the future. Black communities that were once a part of larger white communities that were reversed after the 68 riots will once again reverse simulating what Pittsburgh looked like 100 years ago. People will stay attracted to good schools, central entertainment, affordable housing and central services paid by their taxes. Petty differences of color and religion will become only a small snicker at the dinner table. America’s Pittsburgh will change…………….
John M. Brewer, Jr., is a historian and consultant for the Pittsburgh Courier archive project, a consultant for the Carnegie Museum of Art's Charles Teenie Harris photograph project and the curator and founder of the Trolley Station Oral History Center and author of the Black American Series African Americans in Pittsburgh.
His book may be purchased:
Barnes & Noble; Borders, Dorsey's Records, John Heinz History Center
and the University of Pittsburgh Book Store .