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Pittsburgh and the Urban League MovementA Century of Social Service and Activism$

Joe William Trotter

Print publication date: 2020

Print ISBN-13: 9780813179919

Published to Kentucky Scholarship Online: September 2021

DOI: 10.5810/kentucky/9780813179919.001.0001

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Navigating Civil Rights and Black Power Struggles

Navigating Civil Rights and Black Power Struggles

(p.137) 6 Navigating Civil Rights and Black Power Struggles
Pittsburgh and the Urban League Movement

Joe William Trotter

University Press of Kentucky

Abstract and Keywords

By the mid-1960s, the political and social terrain on which the Urban League worked had changed dramatically. The Pittsburgh-born children of southern black migrants had come of age and pushed hard against the color line in the city's economy, politics, and institutions. National headquarters and local branches across the country worried about the increasing black nationalist turn in African American politics. But the ULP had helped to establish the postwar groundwork and even models for the fluorescence and even militance of Pittsburgh's Civil Rights and Black Power struggles of the 1960s and early 1970s.

Keywords:   Civil Rights, Black Power, Race Relations, Nonviolent Direct Action, Desegregation, Housing, War on Poverty

By the mid-1960s, the Urban League of Pittsburgh appeared to be a largely conservative force in the evolving African American freedom movement. The political and social terrain on which the Urban League worked had changed dramatically. The Pittsburgh-born children of southern black migrants had come of age and were pushing hard against the color line in the city’s economy, politics, and institutions. National headquarters and local branches across the country worried about the black nationalist turn in African American politics. But the ULP had helped establish the postwar groundwork and even models for the militance of Pittsburgh’s civil rights and black power struggles of the 1960s and early 1970s. The league’s contributions to the rise of the city’s grassroots social movements included, most notably, the early fight for jobs in downtown department stores and equal access to the city’s public swimming pools.

“The Civil Service of the Civil Rights Movement”

In 1946, under the leadership of executive director Maurice Moss and publicity director K. Leroy Irvis, the Pittsburgh branch joined the city’s Interracial Action Council, a broad-based coalition of civil rights, civic, social welfare, and labor organizations that included the NAACP, AFL, CIO, and Committee against Discrimination in Pittsburgh Department Stores. The Interracial Action Council launched a direct-action campaign to end employment discrimination in the large downtown retail outlets. Protesters distributed postcards and handbills underscoring the contradiction between the city’s claim to support citizenship and democracy for all and the reality of the color line in Pittsburgh’s central business district. “Pittsburgh is a (p.138) progressive vital American” city, they claimed, but “this freedom is not theirs!”1 The group “took the fight right to the people.” Young black women were key supporters of this movement, particularly the Young Women’s Committee for Fair Employment in Pittsburgh. Moss reported that women had “flooded” his office, looking “for more postcards to have signed. Out of 3,000 given the girls, over 2,500 have been returned, signed and ready for mailing.” Moss stated, “It is encouraging to note that these girls, all of whom are qualified to work in the department stores, have aided in the program. They are willing to assist in any way possible.”2

As picketers prepared to march in front of the offending stores, Mayor David Lawrence convened a meeting with protest leaders and implored them to call off the demonstration for the sake of the city’s reputation. “We must not … give our city a black eye. Pittsburgh has just had an unfortunate series of labor disturbances … I implore you to cancel this ‘poster-walk’ for the good of the city and of all concerned.” Moss quickly replied, “Mr. Mayor, we feel that the department stores have something to do with preserving the good name of the city, and we don’t believe that we should be held entirely responsible for what is about to happen.” Moreover, Moss explained that the ULP and other coalition leaders had spent more than two years trying to obtain “even an audience, even an answer to our letters, or an answer to our telephone calls,” with no success. Troubled by the impact of the protests on the business district, store owners gave in and hired black clerks. According to the Pittsburgh Courier, Urban League branches in Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago, and Philadelphia used Pittsburgh as a model in launching their own postwar protests against the color line in downtown department stores.3

In 1961, ahead of the more militant events in the city’s black freedom struggle, the ULP joined a coalition of civil rights organizations—including the NAACP, the Negro American Labor Council, and the Greater Pittsburgh Improvement League—to demand jobs for blacks at the new downtown Civic Arena. Initiated in the wake of Pittsburgh’s urban renewal program of the 1950s and the destruction of the African American community in the Lower Hill District, the Civic Arena construction project had promised to provide equal employment opportunities for area residents. When these jobs failed to materialize, the ULP and the civil rights coalition pledged “to take positive action” unless the Auditorium Authority and the (p.139) director of the Civic Arena project made “some move to equalize the employment picture at the arena.”4 Following escalating protests, including a massive march around the arena, city officials relented and took steps to hire African Americans.5

The local branch not only established a model of militant leadership in the struggle for jobs but also pioneered the movement to desegregate Pittsburgh’s public swimming pools. In June 1951 ULP executive director Alexander “Joe” Allen (Moss’s successor) and Gaines Bradford, the ULP’s director of community organizations, defied the color ban at the city’s segregated Highland Park pool. When Allen dove into the water, “a gang of a hundred white teenagers” ejected him from the pool while hurling racial epithets at him and Bradford. When police arrived at the scene, they confirmed that blacks had a right to use the pool but insisted that they could not protect black swimmers against mob violence. Allen and Bradford rejected the Pittsburgh police force’s abrogation of its responsibility to protect citizens lawfully exercising their civil rights. They demanded police protection and a meeting with the mayor to enforce their claim to unrestricted access to the public pool. In the mayor’s absence, they met with acting mayor Howard R. Stewart and presented him with a copy of the ULP’s multifaceted program for peacefully desegregating the city’s swimming pools. Specifically, the league urged the city to post public notices of the desegregation policy in a prominent place, transfer or fire employees who failed to comply with the policy, organize interracial swimming events at the pool, hire African American lifeguards, develop classes on intergroup relations for the staff, and close the poorly maintained all-black pool on Washington Boulevard to signal the city’s determination to open all city pools to all residents. Violent white resistance to black bathers persisted until the NAACP filed a lawsuit against the city in the Common Pleas Court. Once black police officers were posted at the pool, the violence dissipated, and the NAACP suspended protests as blacks regularly gained access to the city’s pools.6

Although the Urban League was prominent in the early postwar economic justice movements, new and more militant grassroots organizations emerged during the 1960s, transforming the league’s role in the escalating civil rights and black power struggles. These organizations included, most notably, the United Negro Protest Committee (UNPC), an arm of the (p.140) local branch of the NAACP; the Black United Movement for Progress; Operation Dig; and the Black Construction Coalition. While these groups addressed a wide range of economic, social, and institutional issues, other influential grassroots organizations were more narrowly focused on housing, education, and poverty. Specialized organizations included Citizens against Slum Housing (CASH), Forever Action Together (FAT), the Metropolitan Tenants Organization (MTO), and local branches of the federal War on Poverty Community Action Programs (CAPs), designed to ensure the “maximum feasible participation” of poor citizens in municipal decision making.7

The modern black freedom movement both ruptured and strengthened the Urban League’s agenda for equal employment opportunities, housing, and education. It increasingly challenged the National Urban League’s definition of itself as a “social service” rather than a “civil rights” organization. The Pittsburgh branch never fit neatly into this categorical definition of the Urban League’s mission. Nonetheless, the local branch found itself on the defensive with large numbers of its constituents by the mid-1960s. As historian Ralph Proctor put it, “The League had a reputation as a middle class group that did not work with poor people. It was considered, by many Black folks, as being too tied to the establishment. They said that the League could not speak out against injustice because they depended upon those who committed the injustice to give the League money.”8

The Pittsburgh branch carefully navigated the civil rights and black power campaigns of the 1960s and early 1970s. Detroit native Arthur Edmunds, executive director of the ULP between 1960 and 1985, later vividly recalled his arrival in Pittsburgh in 1960. “Employment for Blacks was bleak,” he said. The city reported that 20 percent of its employees were black, but “99 percent of those were employed as garbage men.” Moreover, Edmunds observed, “You could stand downtown and watch the people leave as the offices closed and you would see almost no blacks. This was despite the fact that the city had already passed fair employment laws.”9 In 1963 the ULP estimated that “24,600 additional Negroes would have to be employed, as of now, to give them an equal share of white collar jobs.” The Pittsburgh Press countered that even if such jobs were available, “there would not be 24,600 qualified Negroes to fill them.” Thus, the paper (p.141) underscored the importance of education and training to broaden the potential for “Negro employment” in the city.10

To address the growing political divide within the African American struggle for equality, the ULP collaborated with a variety of new organizations. As the grassroots black freedom movement pressured the city, the school board, and diverse employers to hire blacks, the ULP served as the key mediator between militant black activists and the city’s political and economic elites.11 According to Edmunds, “We were considered the good guys because we were not participants in the demonstrations. Companies would run to us for help, so that they wouldn’t have to deal with the trouble makers. What these companies did not realize was that we were very much involved in the strategy. We knew who was going to be targeted, so we just sat back and waited for the ‘militants’ to scare the companies in our direction. Even some Black folks did not understand and accused the Urban League of being too docile.” Edmunds provided vital information to activists regarding corporate responses to efforts to increase job opportunities for black people. When an official at Equitable Gas Company “lied to the UNPC and said that they had tried to get qualified Blacks from the Urban League,” the ULP “was able to tell Jim McCoy [head of the UNPC] that the man was lying.”12 In an interview for the Remembering Africana-merican Pittsburgh oral history project, Edmunds reiterated the same point: “We used to try to supply to them the research, the information on which they could base their activities … we wanted to support them the best that we could … we all had a kind of role to play and we tried to fulfill ours as they tried to fulfill theirs.”13 Proctor concurred. Under Edmunds’s leadership, the branch walked “a tightrope between young, militant Black people and conservative corporate leaders who always seemed poised to take away their financial support should the Urban League become too ‘militant.’” More important:

When the other groups were “kicking down the door” and generally raising very vocal issues relating to equality, the League was quietly waiting for the inevitable phone calls from the companies that had been feeling the heat of demonstrations. … They turned to Edmunds without understanding that he was often in on the strategy used against companies that later called him for help. (p.142) Companies felt safe going to the League because of its conservative reputation. When the companies needed warm bodies to hire, they turned to Edmunds, who always had a ready supply of educated, trained Black folks ready to step in.14

In an interview with Jared N. Day, David Epperson, former chair of the ULP board, recalled that civil rights attorney Wendell Freeland described the Urban League’s changing mode of work as “the Civil Service of the Civil Rights Movement.” Freeland, a former Tuskegee airman, became the major “strategist” for challenges to the city’s old Jim Crow order. As Epperson explained, “If you’re looking for someone to carry it through, then it is the Urban League.”15 Much of this good fortune emerged under the influence of what ULP president Esther Bush later described as “the hammer of affirmative action.” She said, “People knew you were putting them on the line. People knew they might get a call from the Feds.”16

In June 1969 the UNPC’s James McCoy requested a meeting with County Commission chairman Leonard C. Staisey and Arthur Edmunds to discuss racial discrimination in “county government employment, contracting agencies used by county government, and concessionaires.” At the meeting, the county commissioners argued that 151 blacks had been hired since the new commissioners had taken their seats in January 1968, accounting for 25 percent of all new hires. The activists countered that the vast majority of these hires were in the sanitation department and general laborer positions, not professional or clerical jobs. Grassroots organizers like McCoy and others declared that they were “damned tired of seeing Negroes come to meetings like this and beg.”17 Informally aided and supported by the Urban League, they determined to exercise real influence on the power structure. Accordingly, Operation Dig picketed the Three Rivers Stadium building site in August 1969 to challenge racial discrimination by the Master Builders Association and the Building Trades Council.18

Three months later, in November, the NAACP and the United Black (formerly Negro) Protest Committee (UBPC) prepared to march on the Sears department store in East Liberty to force the employment of African Americans and “heighten the selective buying campaign” against seven Sears stores in the Pittsburgh area. McCoy declared, “If Sears continues to shirk (p.143) its responsibilities in making its announced policy of ‘fair employment’ a living reality; if it continues to contribute to poverty and humiliation of a very important segment of the total populace—the Black community, who are spending millions of dollars with this company annually, then it can be assured that there will not only be ‘Black Mondays,’ but [Black] Tuesdays, and every day it chooses to open its doors to the public.”19 As the Sears boycott continued into the winter and early spring, the NAACP-UBPC called for statewide agreements on jobs and positions for blacks, the purchase of products from black manufacturers, advertising in black media outlets, sensitivity programs on race, and the modification of policies that disadvantaged the poor, including “investigatory practices” related to the employment and credit histories of prospective employees. In March 1970 the Sears Company entered into an agreement with civil rights groups to set hiring goals for African Americans at 30 percent in its Pittsburgh stores and 15 percent in the surrounding suburbs. McCoy also reported a plan to use the Sears model to negotiate agreements with Kaufmann’s, Gimbel’s, Joseph Horne, and other stores in the city and region.20 The ULP remained behind the scenes in the Sears protests, but it was very much involved in strategic efforts to increase job opportunities for black people throughout the urban economy.

The grassroots black freedom struggle also affected the league’s fight to desegregate the public schools, housing, and other social services. In the field of education, for example, the civil rights coalition pushed simultaneously to desegregate the public schools, decentralize authority and provide greater community control over education policies, and reform the curriculum, with an accent on African Americans’ contributions to the city’s and the nation’s history and culture. As early as 1963, branch officials had warned of an impending racial “crisis” in the city’s public education system.21

By the mid-1960s, the Pittsburgh Board of Education expressed a growing awareness of racial disparities in public education but continued to obstruct the creation and implementation of new and more equitable policies. In the meantime, the ULP pioneered the development of “alternative” high schools before the Pittsburgh public school system was prepared to embrace them. These included, most notably, the Street Academy on the North Side and the Educational Medical Program (known as the (p.144) Ed-Med School) for pregnant teenagers. The Board of Education only slowly incorporated these alternative programs into the established curriculum. These innovative educational programs foreshadowed the ULP’s later use of funds provided by the Office of Economic Opportunity to establish a program to help pregnant girls continue their high school education. Supported by access to prenatal care at the city’s Magee-Women’s Hospital, this War on Poverty program was lauded as the “first of its kind in the United States.” It “combined a full academic curriculum with regular health care and training in child development.”22

In the spring of 1966, despite the Urban League’s creative efforts to address racial disparities without significant public funding, African American activists had reached their limit of tolerance and staged mass protests at the Board of Education’s Oakland offices. African Americans vehemently rejected the board’s decision to open a loophole permitting white parents to transfer their children to schools with low black-to-white student ratios. NAACP spokesman Reverend LeRoy Patrick concluded that superintendent of schools Sidney Marland “talks … a good line” but pursues practices that “show that the Negro child is not getting quality [equal] education.”23 Activists pressed the board to institute citywide “compulsory busing” to achieve balanced black-white student populations in the public schools. The ULP supported this effort, but it also endorsed Marland’s “Great Schools” integration plan, which advocated integration from the high school level down rather than from the elementary school level up. At the same time, the league criticized the board for failing to involve the local community in its decisions and warned that the city had taken only a small step forward. “What we need now, though, is a giant step to help the thousands of students still in segregated conditions.” Only a plan that aimed to integrate both the high schools and the elementary schools would constitute a “giant step.”24

As it pushed to desegregate the public schools, the ULP also demanded and secured the employment of black teachers. Freeland and McCoy later underscored their role in moving the Pittsburgh Board of Education toward a policy of the “conscious preferment” of African American teachers in the public schools, based on “past inequities.” After quietly applying this policy for nearly two years, school board president Robert I. Sperber declared the board’s resolve to continue it “as a moral necessity” to rectify (p.145) past practices. According to Freeland, this program reinforced both the ULP and the NUL in “urging the entire nation to make a special effort to, in regard to the Negro, make up for the centuries of deprivation. We have called for a Marshall Plan, or a crash program, and we feel that it is only with such a crash program can the Negro enter the mainstream of American life. The alternative for the rest of America is to deny the Negro this opportunity to enter the mainstream of American life, thereby, perpetuate second-class citizenship, and make the Negro dependent and an outcast.” McCoy reinforced Freeland’s point: “The school board is taking the leap towards the ultimate goal of equality in employment for all people. I hope that America will follow in the same task. … To me, this is a bold step forward, and I see no reason why anyone who is an American citizen, be he black or white, can find any grounds for criticism.”25

The employment of black teachers reinforced the push for employment equality in the Pittsburgh public schools. Once they were hired, black teachers mobilized and made additional demands on the system, vying for positions as vice principal, principal, counselor, and other administrative posts previously off-limits to black educators. In short, as Proctor notes, by “persistent pressure on their supervisors and other administrators,” black teachers “opened the doors for Blacks to positions previously held only by whites.”26

The Urban League of Pittsburgh vigorously pushed for the decentralization of the Board of Education and greater local control over education policies. Picketing at the offices of the Board of Education and protests at school board meetings eventually forced a reorientation of administrative procedures from a fundamentally top-down model to more open and democratic proceedings. Urban League president Ronald R. Davenport urged “the election of district superintendents by concerned parents” to “bring about the community involvement needed to help save the public school system.” Specifically, Davenport argued that “the racial hostility and financial structure” of public education placed it “on the brink of destruction.” Movement and community leaders agreed with Davenport when he said, “there is still time, but I don’t know how much,” to remedy the situation. Massive grassroots protests at board meetings broke the logjam. In February 1970 the Pittsburgh Board of Education rolled out its new operating plan. Although officials proudly proclaimed that the new plan would “bring (p.146) the administration of the schools closer to the community,” it did not go far enough for most grassroots activists. In the new administrative structure, the board retained control over the budget and staff, but new area superintendents and directors of education reported directly to the superintendent of schools. Despite its shortcomings, this plan represented a breakthrough for activists as well as the ULP. John Brewer, assistant superintendent of school-community affairs, declared in no uncertain terms that African American access to top administrative posts increased significantly with the new structure. In addition, residents could now meet with authorities close to their homes and schools and carry on face-to-face conversations with area superintendents, who had “exclusive jurisdiction over a network of schools” in their locales. As such, Brewer concluded, there had been “a significant change in and a retreat from the status-quo method of problem solving.”27

In the wake of Martin Luther King’s assassination and the outbreak of violence in black neighborhoods, the Pittsburgh branch encountered increasing resistance to the desegregation movement. At a May 1968 dinner, NAACP president Byrd Brown decried what he called the distortion of African American life and history in the Pittsburgh public schools. “We can no longer allow a Black child to feel shamed and humiliated because of his race. … A superintendent of schools with his old guard staff and a Board of Education which permits these racist lies to poison our children must be removed or forced to resign.” Brown’s speech impressed on his Pittsburgh audience the importance of curriculum reform.28 Similarly, at a community forum in the Hill District, Mrs. Franklin Pace of the Mayor’s Commission on Race Relations pointedly questioned the one-way desegregation of the schools. “Why is it that we [black people] always have to be bused? … Why can’t they put something fine in our neighborhood and bus other people in here.”29 Pace’s query underscored the growing dissatisfaction with the busing strategy of liberal civil rights organizations. When the school board released plans to open the Columbus School as a middle school facility “with a more healthy racial balance” of black and white students, widespread community opposition quickly emerged. This led the ULP to criticize the board for failing to involve the local community in the decision, although the league expressed support for superintendent Marland’s desegregation plan as an important step forward.30

(p.147) The fight for better housing escalated alongside the struggle for better jobs and education. During the late 1960s the Urban League created a new housing department that, under the energetic leadership of James T. G. Frazier, strengthened and expanded grassroots organizations in the housing field. For example, Citizens against Slum Housing (CASH) emerged on the city’s North Side in 1965 under the leadership of activist Dorothy Ann Richardson, a church leader and part-time domestic worker. The Courier described Richardson as a “self-termed ‘grassroots’ citizen” who was “bitter in a matter of fact way about the middle class Negro.” In her words, “They aren’t concerned with us grassroots people. … They act like … if they don’t look, we might go away. … How are the people to know what we want in a neighborhood unless we tell them.” CASH aimed to abolish the exploitative rent-gouging practices of local landlords. Although the organization emerged from the day-to-day lives and activities of North Siders, the ULP and other interracial organizations facilitated its growth and influence. CASH gained a leg up in the movement when the ULP and NAACP organized a conference under the auspices of the Greater Pittsburgh Housing Association. This conference on the city’s housing problems gave CASH an opportunity to present its mission to a broader audience of activists. Richardson made the case for a new state law that would withhold rent from landlords until they made improvements in their rental properties. Similarly, the Citizen Clergy Coordinating Committee, an interracial alliance led by Father Donald McIlvane (a white priest), protested the unfair practices of landlords and demonstrated outside the homes of the most egregious offenders. Again, the Urban League reinforced and facilitated these protests. Housing director Leon Haley chaired the Greater Pittsburgh Fair Housing Movement, an interracial alliance that included CASH and the NAACP. The group held protests aimed at exposing the unscrupulous real estate practices of the president of the Pittsburgh Board of Realtors and owners of neglected “slum” property.31

In 1967 the Pittsburgh branch received funding from the NUL’s Operation Equality. Financed by the Ford Foundation and local matching funds, Operation Equality pursued a two-pronged objective: help residents find housing “outside the ghetto,” and “improve and upgrade” housing in existing communities where the agency’s satellite offices were located. Operation Equality’s director was Carl Ware, a graduate of the (p.148) University of Pittsburgh’s master’s program in public and international affairs; he worked at Pittsburgh’s ACTION-Housing agency before taking the Operation Equality post. James Frazier, another University of Pittsburgh graduate, served as the program’s housing specialist. Dorothy Graves, a graduate of Carnegie Mellon University and a former employee of the Pittsburgh Association for the Improvement of the Poor, took the job of information specialist. Operation Equality planned to open offices in the Hill District, North Side, Homewood-Brushton, and East Liberty. These efforts to open satellite offices also reflected the growing activism of blacks in neighborhoods outside the Hill District. In 1964, for example, the citizens of Homewood-Brushton approached the mayor of Pittsburgh and asked that “a Planner [be] assigned to our neighborhood to help us make a comprehensive plan.”32

Buoyed by Ford Foundation funding, the agency opened new branch offices in the North Side, Homewood-Brushton, and East Liberty–Larimer. The black population had increased in these areas following the demolition of the Lower Hill community, and the ULP used its resources to ignite a variety of new housing development projects. According to Frazier, the Urban League did not want to be encumbered with the tasks of collecting rents and maintaining the properties, so it encouraged the creation of independent housing entities to serve low-income African American communities. These new organizations included the Greater Allegheny and Monongahela Housing Corporation (later the Allegheny Housing and Rehabilitation Corporation), Neighborhood Rehabilitation, and the Mini Corporation, to name a few.

Established in early 1968, the Allegheny Housing and Rehabilitation Corporation (AHRCO) soon produced nearly 200 homes on the North Side and launched plans for another 1,300 units. AHRCO was emblematic of the ULP’s commitment to provide jobs as well as professional and entrepreneurial opportunities for African Americans. It provided a road map for the employment of skilled black craftsmen and stimulated African American entrepreneurship through the use of black subcontractors. According to Milton Washington, an early employee and later president and owner of the firm, AHRCO aimed first and foremost “to build and rehabilitate primarily inner city properties, and make them available primarily through governmental programs for low, moderate income families” in the city of (p.149)

Navigating Civil Rights and Black Power Struggles

Pittsburgh’s twentieth-century African American communities.

(Map by Dick Gilbreath; reproduced from Joe William Trotter Jr. and Jared Day, Race and Renaissance: African Americans in Pittsburgh since World War II [Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2010], 3, courtesy of University of Pittsburgh Press)

Pittsburgh and in some of the nearby mill towns. It ultimately built more than 2,000 houses and continued in business through the twentieth century. According to Washington, results “were mixed but they were good.” One black electrician employed by AHRCO stated that he always knew he “was capable … but this has been the only time I’ve had a chance to find out.” The company pledged to pay prevailing union wages, even though workers may not have belonged to a union or collective bargaining unit. In 1969–1970 AHRCO employed nearly 800 workers from the predominantly black areas where it rehabilitated buildings. An estimated 70 percent of its workforce was African American. AHRCO also stimulated the employment of black construction workers by forming the Beacon Construction (p.150) Company as another component of its quest to provide affordable housing to black residents. Similarly, the for-profit Neighborhood Rehabilitation firm contracted with United Steel Craft, an organization of skilled black tradesmen, on its housing projects.33

The city enacted a new ordinance defining the powers of the Pittsburgh Commission on Human Relations in 1967. The 1958 law had exempted owners of fewer than five housing units from compliance, but the new ordinance made the owners of “all housing located within the territorial limits of the City of Pittsburgh” subject to prosecution for discrimination on the basis of race, religion, nationality, or place of birth. The new ordinance also outlawed the practice known as “blockbusting”—using scare tactics to force residents to sell their houses cheaply because of the threat that African Americans or some other presumably undesirable neighbors would be moving into the area. As a result of these changes, Pittsburgh was credited with enacting “the strongest fair housing ordinance of any city in the nation, with the most complete coverage.” ULP executive director Arthur Edmunds was one of a long list of individuals and organizations testifying before the City Council on behalf of the new ordinance. Other supporters included Dr. LeRoy Patrick of the NAACP; John B. McDowell, auxiliary bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh; John Flanigan, chairman of the Greater Pittsburgh Fair Housing Movement; and Rabbi Walter Jacob of Rodef Shalom Congregation. In the wake of this stronger antiracist housing legislation, the ULP intensified its campaign against the racially fragmented private housing market.34

Declining demand for public housing among white residents created numerous vacancies. Meanwhile, because of the racial quota system, African Americans languished on long waiting lists of prospective tenants, even as “white” units remained empty. In 1962 the ULP called on the Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh (HACP) to change its policy of “controlled occupancy” and allow blacks on waiting lists to fill vacancies in existing housing projects. ULP board members David T. Epperson and Oswald J. Nickens insisted on retaining racial quotas in public housing in the interest of maintaining integrated units, but Edmunds and others moved steadily toward abolition of the quota system. They placed a priority on meeting the day-to-day housing needs of poor residents. By opposing the continuation of the quota system in public housing, the Urban League broadened its support (p.151) for the poorest segments of the black working class and eased its expectation that public housing could serve as an immediate springboard for ascension into the middle class and home ownership. The NAACP and its militant new arm, the United Negro Protest Committee, reinforced this movement. Rather than screening out families with a history of so-called dysfunctional behaviors—including arrest records, frequent joblessness, and physical and mental disabilities—the new policy targeted these families as a priority for assistance because current policies had “denied civil rights to many” and perpetuated a poor standard of living that the Urban League and the larger African American community could no longer tolerate. In November 1967 the agency also supported the movement to build new “scattered site” public housing units in previously all-white neighborhoods of Sheraden as a way to prevent the segregation and confinement of blacks and low-income families to “certain areas.” The ULP challenged the persistent arguments of white home owners and realtors that African American occupancy led to declining property values and “neighborhood deterioration.” The league urged the HACP and other housing agencies to produce and publish “a comprehensive master plan” for housing low-income residents throughout the city without regard to the existing racial or ethnic makeup of an area. Blacks accounted for 47.5 percent of all Pittsburgh public housing tenants in 1949; this proportion increased to 76.2 percent in 1970.35

The War on Poverty, the Search for Resources, and Internal Conflict

Under the influence of the community action provision of the federal War on Poverty program, the Urban League of Pittsburgh embraced an expanded role for poor residents in the social service structure of the community. A 1965 report recommended that the new Community Action Program (CAP) become the “central agency responsible for the development of appropriate social services connected with urban renewal in the city of Pittsburgh.” The CAP, a nonprofit organization created by the municipality of Pittsburgh, operated under a board of directors that represented a cross section of governmental, educational, business, social service, and “minority” groups. Arthur Edmunds later recalled that one of the major accomplishments of the poverty program was “to encourage (p.152) individuals to become assertive and gain confidence.” He opined, “To some extent it enabled them to get the wherewithal to get additional education. Some of it was through the [ULP’s] inservice training programs and some through actual tuition money. … That’s the reason why, in my opinion, there is a higher level of participation at grass roots level now than there was before.”36

Before the advent of the federal poverty programs of the mid-1960s, the ULP operated neighborhood units, organized at the block level, that put it in touch with the grass roots. While the initial block clubs emphasized “clean up, paint up,” and “fix up,” they gradually broadened the scope of their services to address a host of other issues, including the spread of neighborhood bars and the rise in juvenile delinquency and certain adult crimes. The poverty program soon took over much of this work through the establishment of neighborhood councils with “as many as five staff members in the Hill District neighborhood alone”; previously, all the neighborhood units had been served by only two staff persons, Ella Jackson and James Bradford. According to Edmunds, “That’s why the Urban League got out of that business because we could not justify it. We could never compete with them and we wanted to support them all that we could. We tried to get our neighborhood units to work with them.” NAACP president Byrd Brown reinforced Edmunds’s assessment of the poverty program, arguing that it “accomplished a lot more than people think it did … many of the proposals that originated in the neighborhoods accomplished what they were set out to do.”37

Philadelphian Ronald Davenport, a professor (and later dean) at the Duquesne University School of Law, succeeded Wendell Freeland as president of the ULP’s board of directors in 1967. With colleague Matt Holden, Davenport spearheaded the formation of an ad hoc committee comprising Byrd Brown, K. Leroy Irvis, and others that monitored and largely controlled the flow of funds from the federal War on Poverty program during the 1960s. The ad hoc committee selected first Dave Hill and later David Epperson to head the city’s poverty program. Davenport later recalled that the ad hoc committee “controlled millions of dollars and made certain that the monies got to the people! We made certain that average and poor people were on the Board and made decisions rather than having pawns of the politicians control the program. I do not believe (p.153) that there was any other program in any other city that involved so many Black people and gave them so much control.”38 The Pittsburgh branch also helped form the Program to Aid Citizen Enterprise (PACE). A predominantly African American social service organization, PACE aimed to broaden the scope of social services by funding grassroots efforts to address the economic, health, and social service needs of the black community.39 Assessments of the War on Poverty in Pittsburgh by Edmunds, Brown, and Davenport were crucial, given the scholarly treatment of this issue by historian Kenneth J. Heineman, who argues that the poverty program in Pittsburgh was ultimately “largely irrelevant” and “left in tatters,” having been “shaken to its core” by deindustrialization and the demise of the manufacturing economy.40

An expanding budget, fueled by a combination of federal contracts and private philanthropic grants, underlay the proliferation of new and more effective Urban League programs and services. The branch finally left what league officials described as the era of the low-budget “tin cup” and entered an era of substantial financial solvency. At one point during his tenure as head of the organization, Edmunds noted that it “had maybe three or four hundred staff people and a budget of six or seven million dollars, but we had a whole lotta contracts.” One contract with the state allowed the ULP “to run twenty-something daycare centers and each daycare center … would have six or eight staff people.” Based on expanding access to federal government contracts and grants from philanthropic organizations, the budget rose from less than $50,000 in 1953 to $60,000 in 1960 and to well over $4 million in 1970.41

The ULP’s improving financial fortunes were not solely thanks to the War on Poverty programs and the Ford Foundation–funded Operation Equality. They were also a product of the financial contributions of African Americans themselves. Civil rights–era fund-raising efforts relied heavily on both volunteers and paid staff members such as Christina Jeffries.42 In the years following World War II, Jeffries continued her stellar service to the ULP. Her influence extended far beyond Pittsburgh and western Pennsylvania. She became the principal organizer and first president of the NUL’s Administrative and Clerical Council. Under her leadership, the NUL provided in-service training for the organization’s clerical personnel across the country. Women also spearheaded the work of the NUL guilds, (p.154) formed in 1941 under the initial impetus of the national office. The Urban League guilds emerged as a major fund-raising source, a vehicle for building bridges between the league and the larger community, and a mechanism for expanding the pool of volunteers available for league projects. The guilds had local chapters in twenty cities by the mid-1950s. In December 1954 Mollie Moon, founder of the national guild, visited Pittsburgh to help launch its chapter under the leadership of Mrs. Toki Schalk Johnson. The Urban League guilds raised thousands of dollars through theater parties, dances, dinners, luncheons, and fashion shows. Guild members also provided summer camps for youth, special programs for teen mothers, and elder-care programs, including assistance for the historic Lemington Home for elderly African Americans, founded in the late nineteenth century. Perhaps most important, the guilds helped host the 1954 meeting of the National Urban League in Pittsburgh and later supported the 1963 March on Washington, an effort cochaired locally by ULP executive director Arthur Edmunds and the NAACP’s Herbert Wilkerson.43

The Urban League’s accomplishments did not come without conflict and turmoil. Following K. Leroy Irvis’s early postwar activism to desegregate the city’s department stores, executive director Maurice Moss fired him as director of public relations. Although Irvis appealed the decision and won reinstatement, he immediately resigned and went on to have a distinguished career in state and local politics. Moss had supposedly fired Irvis for “incompetence,” but the underlying reason was that powerful white opponents of his tactics, including Mayor David Lawrence and downtown businessmen, had called for his removal. Irvis maintained his regard for the Urban League’s work and for Moss. He later recalled that Moss was “honest about what he wanted to get done, and I was a young firebird who was upsetting things around the nest. I had offended the white man downtown.” Furthermore, when the department stores hired their first black female salesclerks, it was a somewhat bittersweet victory for Irvis. One young woman worked in “toys” and the other “jewelry,” but the color factor figured prominently in their hiring. Levi Sanders, vice president of Local 29 of the Building Service Employees Union, reported, “No one could tell whether these girls were white or colored.”44

In his powerful personal account of Pittsburgh’s civil rights and black power struggles, historian Ralph Proctor, a former ULP director of public (p.155) information and research, reveals that, like Irvis, he too left the branch office following clashes over the organization’s relationship to the modern black freedom movement. Early in his tenure with the ULP (sometime around 1967), Proctor traveled to the NUL’s New York City headquarters for “mandatory training.” He vividly recalls that Whitney Young, executive director of the NUL, underscored that the league’s mission was social work. The organization’s job was to provide “training programs” designed “to prepare Blacks for entering the mainstream” of American life and culture. When he was told that Urban League staffers “could not picket, demonstrate, boycott or engage in any other direct action,” Proctor quietly muttered, “That’s a damn shame! They ought to be side by side with the rest of us ‘radicals.’” When Young asked him to repeat himself, he did so without hesitation, and word soon got back to the local office that its upstart young director of public information and research might be trouble. Unlike Irvis, though, Proctor was not fired. Nonetheless, his ideas about the Urban League movement mirrored the growing perception among poor and working-class blacks that the league had lost touch with their needs and with the needs of the larger black community.45

William Robinson worked at the Pittsburgh branch of the Urban League at the same time as Proctor. Both were dedicated to including “poor folks” in the league’s programs and making “sure they were represented at the League.” Born in Pittsburgh to a maid and a porter, Robinson was a graduate of Ohio State University. When his growing militance and embrace of the emerging black power movement put him at odds with the top leadership of the ULP, Robinson was fired. He later recalled interrupting a board meeting and urging greater involvement in the lives of poor and working-class blacks. “The administration said that I was the ring leader of a group of Urban League troublemakers, and I was summarily dismissed. I am not sorry about what I did, because much of what the Urban League does today can be traced back to my demonstration in the board room.”46

Tensions between the city’s grassroots movements and the ULP intensified during the outbreak of street violence following the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968. Edmunds received “threats that the rioters were going to burn down my house. A friend was on my roof with a rifle, ready to protect us. That was frightening but it did not happen.” Epperson (p.156) recalled that because Freeland was light-skinned—he was “very fair, very fair, very fair indeed, as fair as you [the white interviewer]”—his friends warned him, “Hey man, you better get out of the neighborhood because people may not know how to address you.” While taking steps to protect themselves and their families, league officials played an important role in efforts to curtail the racial violence in the aftermath of King’s assassination. Edmunds later praised Mayor Joe Barr and his staff for embracing some of the advice they received from the ULP, NAACP, and other civil rights and black power organizations.47

The ULP’s ongoing efforts to build interracial alliances reinforced its financial solvency and the impact of its social service programs. The league cultivated and maintained the support of influential white residents, including Orleans Ricco, Peg Albert, Moe Coleman, Father Donald McIlvane, and Marguerite Hofer, to name a few. Albert not only supported the league’s wide-ranging programs but also played a key role in researching and writing the ULP’s most comprehensive published history, Daybreakers. Edmunds wrote in the preface to the first edition: “To the League’s Public Information Director, Peg Albert, who initiated the idea for this book, who coordinated the efforts of the research team, who conducted the interviews, and who translated substance into form, my special thanks.” Hofer took a leading role in the ULP’s efforts to desegregate the city’s housing market and swimming pools. As she remembered, “We learned to swim on our backs … so we could see the rocks before they hit us.” Originally from rural New York, Hofer worked part-time for the Pittsburgh Presbyterian Church’s Council on Industrial Interracial Relations. She also served as a “tester” for the housing desegregation movement in Pittsburgh, visited public housing sites and interviewed residents about desegregation of the units, and helped construct Pittsburgh’s first interracial housing development, Calumet City, in the East Hills section of the city.48

In the years after World War II, the Urban League of Pittsburgh intensified its fight for equal employment opportunities for the city’s African American community. In addition to pressing employers and labor unions to eradicate the color line in skilled crafts and supervisory jobs, the organization pushed even more aggressively to expand access to education, to business, and to professional jobs previously closed to black people. As this (p.157) struggle increasingly converged with massive grassroots social movements for economic equality and social justice, the segregationist system gradually gave way to a new era of equal opportunity as federal, state, and local governments moved to stop racial discrimination in employment. But the organization’s role in dismantling the old Jim Crow order was not limited to the job market. It was also an integral part of the larger fight for open housing, school desegregation, and equal treatment before the law. Before African Americans could fully reap the benefits of the city’s new and expanding equal opportunity programs, the confluence of several global socioeconomic and political developments unraveled the industrial economy and signaled the demise of the material foundation for social change. But the Urban League movement adjusted its sights and forged a new roster of services designed to address the challenges of the emerging postindustrial age. (p.158)

Navigating Civil Rights and Black Power Struggles

ULP leaders (left to right) Arthur J. Edmunds, executive director (1960–1985); Leon Haley, president and CEO (1985–1994); and Wendell G. Freeland, board president (1962–1967). (Pittsburgh Courier, 23 July 2003)

Navigating Civil Rights and Black Power Struggles

Esther L. Bush, ULP president and CEO (1994–present).

(Courtesy of Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh)


(1.) Joe William Trotter Jr. and Jared Day, Race and Renaissance: African Americans in Pittsburgh since World War II (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2010), 58–59.

(2.) “Plans to ‘Work on’ Department Stores,” Pittsburgh Courier, 3 February 1945.

(3.) “Stores Study Negro Clerk,” Pittsburgh Courier, 6 December 1947.

(4.) “‘Hire More Negroes at Arena!’—NAACP,” Pittsburgh Courier, 7 October 1961.

(5.) “Courier, NAACP, NALC Mass Protest Wins; Arena to Improve Job-Hiring Policy,” Pittsburgh Courier, 28 October 1961. Also see “Kaufmann’s Pledges to Upgrade Negroes,” Pittsburgh Courier, 2 December 1961.

(p.216) (6.) Arthur J. Edmunds and Esther L. Bush. Daybreakers: The Story of the Urban League of Pittsburgh, the First Eighty Years (1983; revised and updated, Pittsburgh: Urban League of Pittsburgh, 1999), 128–31.

(8.) Ralph Proctor, Voices from the Firing Line: A Personal Account of the Pittsburgh Civil Rights Movement, 2nd ed. (Pittsburgh: Introspec Press, 2014), 311.

(10.) Community Renewal Program, A Report on Social Problems in Urban Renewal (Pittsburgh: Department of City Planning, 1965). Also see “Urban Renewal Impact Study Ready Here,” Pittsburgh Press, 23 June 1963; “Fight for Urban Survival: Crises Challenging County to Tackle Future in New Way,” Pittsburgh Press, 24 June 1963; “Fight for Urban Survival: Redevelopment Needs a ‘Face Lift,’ More Coordination,” Pittsburgh Press, 25 June 1963; “Fight for Survival: More Negro Leaders Needed to Equalize Housing and Jobs,” Pittsburgh Press, 6 June 1963.

(11.) “Negro American Labor Council Member Wants to Know about Civic Arena Jobs,” Pittsburgh Courier, 16 September 1961.

(13.) Arthur Edmunds, interview by Jared N. Day, 24 August 2007, RAP.

(14.) Proctor, Voices from the Firing Line, 311, 312. Proctor voluntarily left the ULP after a year because, as he put it, “I was certain that my militancy would eventually cause me to become an ex-employee.” Proctor nonetheless described the ULP’s relationship with the grassroots black social movement during Edmunds’s tenure as substantially collaborative and cooperative.

(15.) David Epperson, interview by Jared N. Day, ca. August 2007, RAP.

(16.) Esther Bush, interview by Ben Houston, 7 August 2007, RAP.

(17.) “County Promises Blasted,” Pittsburgh Courier, 28 June 1969.

(18.) “Three Rivers Stadium Faces Work Stoppage,” Pittsburgh Courier, 9 August 1969.

(19.) “Massive ‘Black Monday’ Protest Set,” Pittsburgh Courier, 15 November 1969. African American activists lamented the dearth of black employees at all Sears stores: 59 of 599 at the East Liberty store, 12 of 469 at Penn Center, 9 of 307 at the Fifty-First Street service center, 13 of 408 at Baldwin, 5 of 393 at Greensburg, 64 of 693 at the North Side location, 19 of 599 at South Hills, and 16 of 444 at West Mifflin.

(20.) “UBPC, Sears Set Meeting,” Pittsburgh Courier, 10 January 1970; “Sears Now Ready for Negotiations,” Pittsburgh Courier, 13 December 1969; “List of Demands to Sears,” Pittsburgh Courier, 20 December 1969; “Sears Boycott Ends, HRCP Plays Key Role,” Pittsburgh Courier, 28 March 1970.

(21.) Edward W. Schuerle, “A Study of the Administrative Decentralization in the Pittsburgh Public Schools” (PhD diss., University of Pittsburgh, 1973), 69, 70, 74, 76, 144–45.

(22.) Edmunds and Bush, Daybreakers, 149–50; Arthur J. Edmunds, executive director, Leon Haley, assistant executive director, and Mildred L. Wade, director of programs, “An Educational and Medical Program for School-Age Pregnant Girls,” (p.217) ca. 27 January 1978, in cooperation with the Pittsburgh Board of Education, Allegheny County Health Department, and Magee-Women’s Hospital, box 122, folder 5, ULP Papers, Heinz; Susan Downs Pettigrew, “Urban League Statement on Pittsburgh Educational-Medical School,” presented to Board of Education 15 April 1975, box 122, folder 7, ULP Papers, Heinz; Leon L. Haley, ULP President and CEO, to Joseph M. Hohman, Director, Department of Development, Allegheny, 4 October 1991, box 26, folder 5, ULP Papers, Heinz.

(24.) “Urban League Supports Pittsburgh School Board: Wendell Freeland, President; Ronald Davenport, Chairman of Education Committee; and Arthur J. Edmunds, Executive Director,” Pittsburgh Courier, 21 August 1965; “Urban League Backs School Mixing Plan,” Pittsburgh Courier, 3 June 1967.

(25.) “Community Applauds School Hiring Policy,” Pittsburgh Courier, 7 March 1964.

(26.) Ralph Proctor, “Racial Discrimination against Black Teachers and Black Professionals in the Pittsburgh Public School System, 1834–1973” (PhD diss., University of Pittsburgh, 1979), 174.

(27.) Schuerle, “Study of Administrative Decentralization in Pittsburgh Public Schools,” 69, 70, 74, 76, 144–45; “Education Department, 1968,” and “Statement of Education or Crisis in Public Education—A Call for Effective Schooling,” 11 February 1969, box 87, folder 1, ULP Papers, Heinz.

(28.) “Statement of Education or Crisis in Public Education,” 11 February 1969.

(29.) Hugh B. Springer, “The Dynamics of Policy Formation in Urban Schools: Pittsburgh’s Education Park/Great High Schools Concept” (PhD diss., University of Pittsburgh, 1973), 155.

(30.) “Urban League Supports Pittsburgh School Board”; “Urban League Backs School Mixing Plan.”

(31.) Fidel Makoto Campet, “Housing in Black Pittsburgh: Community Struggles and the State, 1916–1973” (PhD diss., Carnegie Mellon University, 2011), 14–15, 244, 251–59, 339–50, 364–67; “The Woman behind CASH,” Pittsburgh Courier, 26 August 1967.

(32.) “Urban League to Help in Minority Housing,” Pittsburgh Courier, 24 December 1966; “Fair Housing Program Starts,” Pittsburgh Courier, 16 September 1967 (on the launch of Operation Equality); Campet, “Housing in Black Pittsburgh,” 296–98; James V. Cunningham, “The Rising Urban Neighborhood,” press release, 22 March 1964, ACTION-Housing Inc., personal files of J. V. Cunningham; James Frazier, interview by Fidel Campet, ca. August 2007, RAP.

(33.) Campet, “Housing in Black Pittsburgh,” 296–98, 364–65, 367–89, 417–19; “Fair Housing Program Starts”; Frazier interview; Milton Washington, interview by RAP staff, ca. August 2007, RAP.

(34.) Pittsburgh Commission on Human Relations, “Time Is Running Out,” 1967 annual report, City of Pittsburgh; Edmunds and Bush, Daybreakers, 133–34; Trotter and Day, Race and Renaissance, 80–88, 102.

(p.218) (35.) “Urban League Backs Project in West End,” Pittsburgh Courier, 18 November 1967; Campet, “Housing in Black Pittsburgh,” 286–89.

(36.) Community Renewal Program, Report on Social Problems in Urban Renewal. Also see the Pittsburgh Press articles cited in note 10.

(40.) Kenneth J. Heineman, “Model City: The War on Poverty, Race Relations, and Catholic Social Activism in 1960 Pittsburgh,” Historian 65 no. 4 (2003): 889–91.

(41.) Edmunds interview; Peter Schrag, “Pittsburgh: The Virtues of Candor,” in The Politics of Urban Education, ed. Marilyn Gittell and Alan G. Hevesi (New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1969), 207, 208, 209–10; Edmunds and Bush, Daybreakers, 153.

(42.) “Annual Report of the ULP for 1955,” NUL Papers, Library of Congress; Edmunds and Bush, Daybreakers, 5, 12, 75–76, 131–33, 146, 228–39.

(43.) “Urban League to Honor Barton, Mrs. Jeffries,” Pittsburgh Courier, 7 March 1953; Edmunds and Bush, Daybreakers, 75–76, 228–29, 227–31.

(44.) “Store Heads ‘Mum’ about Race Issue,” Pittsburgh Courier, 24 October 1947; Edmunds and Bush, Daybreakers, 122, 167, 230.

(47.) Proctor, Voices from the Firing Line, 314, 317, 320–21, 325; Bob McCarthy, Malice toward None: Remembering Pittsburgh Mayor Joe Barr (Pittsburgh: Dorrance, 2002), 1–5, 18.