Hill District mourns loss of neighborhood, church stalwart Thelma Witherspoon in fire

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It was tough for Johnnie Miott when he moved from South Carolina to Pittsburgh in 1967 at the age of 29. Uprooted from his church, his friends and most of his family, he felt adrift in the new city.

Then he met Thelma Witherspoon. She took him under her wing, providing delicious meals and moral guidance. She brought him into the Bethel AME Church in the Hill District. Before long, he had a supportive social network in Pittsburgh — all thanks to his “second mother.”

Mr. Miott was one of dozens — maybe hundreds, he said — of youngsters taken in by Mrs. Witherspoon over the years. Some of them came to Pittsburgh penniless and found a bed in Mrs. Witherspoon’s home. Kind but authoritative, and a good listener, Mrs. Witherspoon was a role model to them.

“‘Treat people the way you would want to be treated’ — that was the way she carried herself,” Mr. Miott said today.

On Wednesday afternoon, the Shawnee Street home of Mrs. Witherspoon, 95, was destroyed in a fire. The fire bureau recovered a body from the fire, but the Allegheny County Medical Examiner’s Office has not yet confirmed an identification. But acquaintances believe Mrs. Witherspoon was the victim.

The adjacent home, which belonged to her sister, Katie Johnson, was damaged by the fire. Ms. Johnson is unhurt.

Mrs. Witherspoon was a bedrock in the Hill District, friends say. Apart from her mentorship of young people, she was an important volunteer in the Pittsburgh NAACP and the Black Women’s Political Crusade and a “stalwart” member of the Bethel AME church, Pittsburgh NAACP President Connie Parker said.

“She served the church with every spirit you can serve the church with,” Ms. Parker said.

When she was in her 20s, Mrs. Witherspoon moved to Pittsburgh from Alabama with her sister, said Pat Carter, one of the youngsters Mrs. Witherspoon embraced. She originally worked as a teacher, but later opened beauty salons in Aliquippa and in her home.

Mrs. Witherspoon’s husband, Morgan Witherspoon, died about 40 years ago, Ms. Carter said. He had a daughter, Willetta, whom Mrs. Witherspoon adopted as her own.

For 50 years, Mrs. Witherspoon cooked Thanksgiving dinner at Bethel AME, said Francine Bibbens, the church’s executive assistant. Before the dinner, Mrs. Witherspoon asked residents of local high-rises if they wanted dinners, then sent meals to those who responded.

“The people loved it. They looked forward to it every year,” Ms. Bibbens said. “She loved to feed people.”

Even at age 95, with arthritis and leg problems that required the use of a walker, Mrs. Witherspoon attended church regularly and was active in its events. She cooked last Thanksgiving’s dinner, as usual.

“Every year, when our church had anything, they knew automatically that Thelma would chair that,” Mr. Miott said.

Mrs. Witherspoon’s cooking was legendary in the community — “I don’t think there were dishes she wasn’t known for,” Ms. Parker said. She also lent her culinary talent to fundraisers for the Black Women’s Political Crusade to fulfill her desire to see more black women in politics. After she reached her 90s, some church members suggested that Mrs. Witherspoon shouldn’t be burdened with so many responsibilities.

“But she would have nothing to do with that,” Mr. Miott said. “She wanted to work as long as she could move around.”

Mrs. Witherspoon served breakfast to her sister and a friend on the morning of the fire, Ms. Parker said. She had also been helping to arrange a birthday party for her sister.

After praising Mrs. Witherspoon’s record of service, Ms. Parker bemoaned the loss of another leader in Pittsburgh’s black community.

“They are unreplaceable,” Ms. Parker said. “We need to prime up the young people to take their place.”

Richard Webner: 412-263-4903 or rwebner@post-gazette.com

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