Celebrating Black History
Cathy Gathers-Robinson and Jim Robinson, a couple in their 60s, recently retired from Pittsburgh to Jonesboro, Ga., outside of Atlanta. Courtesy Branden Camp for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The Freedom House Enterprises Ambulance was born in 1967. Designed in part to create jobs for black Pittsburghers, it also pioneered new techniques in emergency medicine. In January 1967, James McCoy Jr. had just founded Freedom House Enterprises, a community empowerment agency, when Phil Hallen, then president of the Maurice Falk Medical Fund, proposed they go after War on Poverty funds to train residents to provide emergency medical care in their own neighborhood.
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette published a chapter of a book in 2009 that chronicled Freedom House. Click here to read it.
A few years later, the Post-Gazette’s Diana Nelson Jones followed up with another in-depth report on the ambulance service. Click here to learn how Freedom House Ambulance Service in the Hill District became a national model, and watch the video below for even more.
Led by the civil rights leader Asa Philip Randolph, workers spent 12 years organizing the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the nation's first powerful African-American labor union.
Besides laying the foundations for the black middle class, the porters' union helped bankroll the civil rights movement and also developed a network for delivering The Pittsburgh Courier newspaper nationwide, especially in the Deep South. In 2011, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette published an in-depth feature on the Pullman porters, which you can read here.
Dakota Staton, born in 1930 in Pittsburgh, Staton attended Westinghouse High School in Homewood. While in high school she joined a swing band in which future jazz legend Ahmad Jamal played the piano. In 1954, she moved to New York City, where she received national acclaim and performed with jazz superstars like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Gene Krupa, George Shearing, Roy Eldridge and Coleman Hawkins. Click here to read her story.
Born in Atlanta in 1910, Mary Lou Williams’ family moved to Pittsburgh when she was 4. She was a self-taught pianist, composer and arranger who grew up in East Liberty. By the age of 7, she entertained prominent Pittsburgh families. Among her influences were Pittsburgh jazz pianists Earl Hines, Errol Garner and Charles Bell. Click here to read her story.
Aliquippa native Tony Dorsett was a star runningback at Hopewell High during the 1970s. He was a tough kid, the youngest son of a steelworker. Dorsett attended Pitt, where he had a phenomenal first year, gaining 1,586 yards and becoming the first freshman in more than a quarter-century to be named All-American. This made him somewhat of a celebrity in a city on the precipice of experiencing football greatness. Click here to read more.
Cameron Jibril Thomaz, also known as Wiz Khalifa moved to Pittsburgh where he attended Taylor Allderdice High School. Khalifa burst on the national scene in 2010 with the breakout No. 1 single “Black and Yellow,” which became an anthem for the Steelers. Through it all, Khalifa has remained a Pittsburgher. He joins a short list of musicians who’ve delivered slices of our city’s sensibilities to a worldwide audience — Mary Lou Williams, Billy Eckstine and Billy Porter. Click here to read more.
Tim Stevens, a native of the Hill District, has been involved in community affairs for more than 45 years. In 1970, he was named “Pittsburgh Entertainer of the Year.” People loved the songs he wrote and performed — jazz, blues, pop. In 1979, he also became executive director of the Pittsburgh branch of the NAACP. In 1986, Stevens founded the Black Political Empowerment Project (B-PEP), an organization dedicated to social justice. In 2016, Stevens was honored by the Thomas Merton Center. In his acceptance speech, Stevens spoke of turning negatives into positives. Click here to read more.
A Pittsburgh native born on July 8, 1914, Billy Eckstine grew up on Bryant Street in Highland Park, attended Peabody High School and went to Howard University. His success allowed him to form his own band in 1944. It was the first major big band to be influenced by the emerging musical style called bebop. Tall, handsome and blessed with a velvety baritone voice, Billy Eckstine left his mark on music as a band leader, mentor, entertainer and singer. Read more here.
Billy Porter grew up in East Liberty. He attended the Pittsburgh Creative and Performing Arts School and graduated from Carnegie Mellon University. In 2013, after he won a Tony Award for best actor in a musical, for his role as the flashy drag queen Lola in “Kinky Boots,” he told the audience at Radio City Music Hall that his journey started as an 11-year-old watching TV in his East Liberty kitchen and seeing the “Dreamgirls” cast performing at the Tonys. Porter has a new album that will include fellow CMU alums and Tony winners Leslie Odom Jr., Renee Elise Goldsberry and Patina Miller coming in April 2017. Follow his journey here.
Jake Milliones grew up in Beechview and graduated from Westinghouse High School. He earned a bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degree in psychology at the University of Pittsburgh. When his wife, Margaret, an activist and member of the Pittsburgh Board of Education, died in 1978, he entered public life. Appointed to fill his late wife’s seat on the school board, he carried on her efforts to desegregate the city schools. In 1988, he won a seat on city council, representing the Hill District, parts of Downtown and the North Side. Click here to learn more.
Playwright August Wilson was born in 1945 in the Hill District. His youth in the Hill District fueled the rich stream of stories, images and conflicts that set the stage for his series of plays that have become a part of American theater. As a result of Wilson’s vision, Pittsburgh is now the home of the August Wilson Center. Click here for more stories.
Sala Udin’s activism started during his youth in the Lower Hill and led him around the country and back as an adult to a changed Pittsburgh. Though he spent time in the South, West Coast and the penitentiary, his connections and friendships with two of the Hill District’s great contributors — Jake Milliones and August Wilson — led to his ascent into politics and acting, resulting in a legacy that still continues today. The Post-Gazette chronicled his story in a series, READ: “A Life on the Hill.” Click here to to read about his early journey. Udin’s journey continues — he announced his intent to run for Pittsburgh Public Schools’ board. Click here to learn more.