1800s:  Before slavery was outlawed by the Emancipation Proclamation and the North's Civil War victory, protests took the form of the underground railroad, a collective effort of black and white abolitionists who helped slaves escape to free territory in the North and in Canada, established schools, and defied the Fugitive Slave Laws that required the return of slaves to their masters. Pittsburgh was a key station on the underground railroad, and black leaders Martin Delany, John Vashon, and Lewis Woodson worked with sympathetic whites (e.g., Dr. Charles Avery, Julius Lemoyne, and Jane Grey Swisshelm to help runaway slaves escape. They also established a school for black children in Pittsburgh and the Avery Institute on the Northside to offer higher education to blacks, who were not admitted to other colleges.


1900-1940: As vast numbers of blacks migrated to northern cities like Pittsburgh to work in factories and mills, protests against discrimination increased. The NAACP and Urban League were formed and helped to mobilize support for non-discriminatory hiring practices and equal rights laws. In 1937, the Pittsburgh Board of Education agreed to hire its first black instructor, Lawrence Peeler, to teach music.

1940-1950: The fight against Nazi German racial supremacy during World War II helped make prejudice no longer respectable and "racial democracy" an all-American value. The black press (led by the influential Pittsburgh Courier) rallied blacks around the campaign for a "Double V," and passed out buttons proclaiming "Democracy—at Home and Abroad."  A Pittsburgh Courier reporter Edna Chappell (later McKenzie) and photographer Charles "Teenie" Harris sought service at a number of local eating establishments and found massive non-compliance   with the 1939 public accommodations law.  In 1947, Urban League staffer K. Leroy Irvis led pickets to protest the refusal of downtown department stores to hire black clerks.  The picketing succeeded in getting clerks hired, but the stores and Mayor David L. Lawrence were furious, and Irvis was soon out of a job. Montefiore and St. Francis hospitals admitted blacks to their nursing schools for the first time, and Montefiore was the first to grant staff privileges to a black physician, Dr. Charles Burks.

1950s: Two major national events—the 1954 Supreme Court decision banning segregation in public schools ( Brown v. Board of Education, Topeka, Kansas) and the boycott of Montgomery, Alabama buses led by Martin Luther King, Jr., after Rosa Parks' arrest for refusing to go to the back of the bus—launched the civil rights era. Federal troops were sent to Little Rock, Arkansas, to quell the violence that erupted when nine black students enrolled in the previously all-white high school.  In Pittsburgh, collective action resulted in the desegregation of swimming pools and other public accommodations and the enactment of fair employment and fair housing laws. Demolition began in the Lower Hill for the construction of the Civic Arena, displacing 8,000 Hill District residents to other neighborhoods and demolishing 400 businesses. The Urban League led efforts to begin school desegregation.


1960s:  Energized by the success of the Montgomery boycott, lunch counter sit-ins, "Freedom Rides" to desegregate interstate buses, and voter registration drives spread throughout the South. Efforts by black students to enroll in colleges resulted in violence, and marchers led by Dr. King in Birmingham and Selma faced fire hoses and attack dogs. Many, including Dr. King, were jailed. In Pittsburgh, a march from Freedom Corner to City Hall halted further redevelopment in the Hill and launched a decade of negotiation, demonstrations, and picketing targeting discrimination in hiring and promotion in businesses and industries as well as in major construction projects. The YWCA, NAACP, Urban League, and other organizations took large numbers to the 1963 March on Washington, and a march to Harrisburg promoted passage of the Pennsylvania Fair Housing Practices Act. When Dr. King was assassinated in April 1968, riots broke out in more than 100 cities, including Pittsburgh, where fires destroyed much of the business district in the Hill and drove most merchants out of business or out of the neighborhood, ironically furthering the destruction that urban renewal had begun. Because of the strength of local leadership in controlling the violence, only one death occurred, in Homewood.

Click here to read a detailed account of the civil rights movement in Pittsburgh by Professor Laurence Glasco, of the University of Pittsburgh Department of History. Dr. Glasco, who has conducted extensive research on the history of Pittsburgh's African American community, wrote this essay, "Some Place Special," for the Freedom Corner dedication program. Many of the individuals mentioned in this essay are those who are recognized on the Freedom Corner monument. Brief biographical sketches are included in Fallen Heroes and Legends of the Movement.

Going South in the Sixties
Many local activists, both blacks and whites and including a number of ministers, risked their lives by going South in the middle and late 1960s to assist in voter registration efforts and to press for equal accommodations on buses and at lunch counters. They taught reading and math to black children in "Freedom Schools," opened community centers offering legal and medical assistance to the poor, and helped to organize the Freedom Democratic Party to challenge the whites-only Mississippi Democratic Party.

One young Pittsburgher, Sharry Everett (read extended bio), traveled to Mississippi with the "freedom riders" to join Stokely Carmichael, Julian Bond, and others in the voter registration effort. When the house she shared with other students was dynamited by the Ku Klux Klan, she escaped with minor injuries but told a Courier reporter that she was so committed to the civil rights struggle that she would be willing to die for it. 

Two other students from Pittsburgh, Gail Falk, a young white woman, and Obadiah Simms III,  son of a Northside pastor, were jailed in Mississippi for their participation in the civil rights protests. Both wrote home about their experiences, and their letters were published in the Pittsburgh Courier.

Click here to read these "Letters from the South" from 1961 and 1965. Following each letter are some questions for discussion and suggested activities for classroom assignments as well as a number of links to other relevant web sites.  Visit our Learner's Corner for more resources.

Although the Freedom Corner monument focuses on the civil rights movement of the last half of the 20th century, the struggle for social justice and equality has been a part of Western Pennsylvania life for more than two centuries.

Civil Rights in Pittsburgh: Timeline 1800's - 1960