African American History in Western Pennsylvania

The Smithsonian-affiliated Senator John Heinz History Center interprets and preserves African American history and culture in Western Pennsylvania year-round through collections, events, and exhibitions curated by the museum’s African American Program.

The African American Collection, comprised of archives and museum artifacts located at the History Center, is dedicated to the preservation, dissemination, and interpretation of the life, history, and culture of Africans and African Americans in Western Pennsylvania.


Explore a sampling of influential people, rare artifacts, and fascinating historical photographs that document African American history in the region.

People

Dr. George G. Turfley and family (1918)Original Source: Detre Library & Archives at the Heinz History Center

Dr. George G. Turfley

A well-known member of Pittsburgh's Hill District neighborhood, Dr. George G. Turfley was the first registered African American doctor in Allegheny County.

Daisy LampkinOriginal Source: Detre Library & Archives at the Heinz History Center

Daisy Lampkin

When Daisy Lampkin arrived in Pittsburgh in 1909, she brought a passion for social justice and civic engagement. As a member of the Lucy Stone League, Lampkin organized tea parties and street-corner speeches for African American women to engage with the suffrage movement.

She went on to serve in a national role for the National Association of Colored Women (NACW), an organization that she led as President.

She also joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), in which she served as the first woman on the Board of Directors; the National Council of Negro Women; and other civil rights organizations.

She also became a vice president of the Pittsburgh Courier Publishing Company and was deeply involved in the work of the newspaper.

Portrait of James A. Dorsey (1922)Original Source: Detre Library & Archives at the Heinz History Center

James A. Dorsey

Born into a large and athletic family in Allegheny City in 1890, James A. Dorsey, or "Big Jim," was known locally for his athletic prowess.

During his career that spanned a full half-century, Dorsey served as recreation director at many institutions throughout the Hill District, including Washington Park, the Crawford Bath House, Centre Avenue YMCA, and the Ammon Center.

Willie Thrower (c. 1950)Original Source: Detre Library & Archives at the Heinz History Center

Willie Thrower

Willie Thrower, a native of New Kensington, Pa., is acknowledged as the first African American quarterback in the modern era of the NFL, appearing in a game on Oct. 18, 1953 for the Chicago Bears.

Thrower also played football for New Kensington High School, Michigan State (where he became the first African American quarterback in the Big Ten), and in the Canadian Football League.

Althea Skelton with some of her Boeing colleagues (c. 1944)Original Source: Detre Library & Archives at the Heinz History Center

Althea Skelton

Althea Skelton (front row, second from left) with some of her Boeing colleagues, c. 1944.

A 1943 graduate of Schenley High School, Althea Skelton worked for The Boeing Company in Seattle manufacturing fighter planes during World War II.

Skelton was one of the nation’s “Black Rosie the Riveters,” African American women who made significant contributions to the war effort but were often overlooked.

Paul Lawrence Peeler with accordianOriginal Source: Detre Library & Archives at the Heinz History Center

A pioneer in Black education, Peeler’s perseverance in overcoming racist discriminatory practices during the pre-WWII era helped to usher in a new generation of African American educators.

Paul Lawrence Peeler

In 1937, Paul Lawrence Peeler became the first African American full-time teacher hired by the Pittsburgh Public Schools system.


Peeler taught music at the elementary and junior high school levels until his retirement in 1970.

Mary Cardwell Dawson (c. 1955)Original Source: Detre Library & Archives at the Heinz History Center

Mary Cardwell Dawson

Mary Cardwell Dawson was an opera singer and arts activist in Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C.


Dawson is pictured here (left) at an event c. 1955.

She established the Cardwell School of Music in Pittsburgh's Homewood neighborhood, as well as the Cardwell Dawson Choir.

After seeing the lack of opportunities for African Americans in the world of opera, she created the National Negro Opera Company in 1941 to inspire and motivate young artists.

Earl Johnson (c. 1935)Original Source: Detre Library & Archives at the Heinz History Center

Earl Johnson

Earl Johnson won the bronze medal in cross country at the 1924 Olympics in Paris. He also won a silver medal as part of the U.S. team in cross country.

He was a welfare worker for the Edgar Thomson Steel Works and a sports columnist for the Pittsburgh Courier.

He also ran for the Edgar Thomson track team and was the manager of their baseball team.
 
Johnson is wearing an Edgar Thomson Steel jersey in this action shot, c. 1935.

Artifacts

“Am I Not a Women & a Sister,” anti-slavery token (front)Original Source: Heinz History Center Museum Collections

“Am I Not a Woman & a Sister,” anti-slavery token (front)

The American Anti-Slavery Society commissioned the firm of Gibbs Gardner & Company of New Jersey to strike varieties of a kneeling female piece, with the motto “Am I Not A Woman and Sister.”

The token features a kneeling African American woman in chains, and on the reverse, a laurel wreath inscribed with “Liberty,” “1838,” and “United States of America.”

“Am I Not a Women & a Sister,” anti-slavery token (back)Original Source: Heinz History Center Museum Collections

“Am I Not a Woman & a Sister,” anti-slavery token (back)

The imagery and text of this token are related to anti-slavery seals used in Britain in 1795 and 1828 and the U.S. from 1832. Carried by abolitionists, the coin served as a symbol of their faith in the movement.

Anti-slavery pitcher (side A)Original Source: Heinz History Center Museum Collections

Anti-slavery pitcher (front)

Anti-slavery pitcher, made by E. Ridgeway & Abington, Hanley, England, c. 1853.

Likely made for the American market and specifically designed for the anti-slavery movement, this relief-molded stoneware pitcher depicts two scenes from the American enslavement of Africans.

Anti-slavery pitcher (side B)Original Source: Heinz History Center Museum Collections

Anti-slavery pitcher (back)

One side of the pitcher features a slave auction while the opposite side features an incident from slave lore probably from the novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” where Eliza flees across the partially frozen Ohio River with Harry.

Donald Jefferson's U.S. Army uniform and boots (1917)Original Source: Heinz History Center Museum Collections

Donald Jefferson's U.S. Army uniform and boots, WWI

Donald Jefferson became a Second Lieutenant in the newly formed 351st Field Artillery Regiment of the U.S. Army during World War I.

After the war, he completed his studies at the University of Pittsburgh School of Pharmacy and became a pharmacist in East Liberty from 1923 to 1967. Jefferson’s business, the Lincoln Drug Company, became the first African American-owned store in East Liberty.

Conley Safety Camera used by Charles “Teenie” Harris (1920s)Original Source: Heinz History Center Museum Collections

Conley Safety Camera used by Teenie Harris, 1920s

Prolific photographer Charles "Teenie" Harris (1908-1998) began as a freelance photographer with the Pittsburgh Courier newspaper in 1936 and joined the staff in 1941. He retired from the New Pittsburgh Courier in 1975.

George Benson's Guitar (1980s)Original Source: Heinz History Center Museum Collections

George Benson's guitar, 1980s

A native of Pittsburgh's Hill District neighborhood and a 1958 graduate of Schenley High School, Benson is known as one of the best jazz guitarists of his time. This Ibanez guitar, model GB10, was made exclusively for the eight-time Grammy Award winner.

Swin Cash's U.S. Olympic Women’s basketball jersey (front)Original Source: Heinz History Center Museum Collections

Swin Cash's U.S. Olympic Women’s basketball jersey (front)

A native of McKeesport, Pa., Swin Cash played for McKeesport Area High School and UConn.

Named first team All-American by Kodak/WBCA and the U.S. Basketball Writers Association in 2002, she contributed to two NCAA titles won by the Huskies.

Swin Cash's U.S. Olympic Women’s basketball jersey (back)Original Source: Heinz History Center Museum Collections

Swin Cash's U.S. Olympic Women’s basketball jersey (back)

Selected number two overall in the 2002 WNBA draft by the Detroit Shock, Cash helped lead the Shock to the WNBA Championship in 2003, then added an Olympic gold medal as a member of the 2004 U.S. women’s basketball team.

A three-time WNBA champion, Cash added another gold medal in 2012. She retired from play after the 2016 season.

Teams, Groups, and Organizations

Homestead GraysOriginal Source: Detre Library & Archives at the Heinz History Center

Homestead Grays

The 1913 Homestead Grays won a remarkable 42 straight games. The Grays defeated industrial, sandlot, and semi-pro teams in Western Pa. Nearly 25 years later, the team would go on to win an unprecedented nine consecutive league pennants and three Negro League World Series titles.

The Freedom House Ambulance ServiceOriginal Source: Detre Library & Archives at the Heinz History Center

The Freedom House Ambulance Service

The first community-based emergency medical service with trained paramedics launched in Pittsburgh in 1967.

A 1966 report documented the lack of emergency medical care and health disparities across the U.S. and found that African Americans had the least access to emergency medical care in the nation, resulting in a public health crisis.

Pittsburgh's largest African American neighborhood, the Hill District, suffered most acutely from this crisis. Freedom House addressed this through a strong collaboration between the Maurice Falk Medical Fund, Freedom House Enterprises, and Presbyterian Hospital.

The Freedom House Ambulance Service served the Hill District, Oakland, and downtown Pittsburgh from 1967 to 1975.

National Negro Opera Company ballet group (c. 1940-1960) by Arrington StudioOriginal Source: Detre Library & Archives at the Heinz History Center

National Negro Opera Company ballet group

The National Negro Company, the first Black opera company, was established in William “Woogie” Harris’ house in Homewood, Pittsburgh.

The company was founded by Mary Cardwell Dawson in 1941 and was disbanded in 1962 upon her death.

 In the company’s operating years, Dawson strived to create productions of original works by Black composers such as R. Nathaniel Dett’s "The Ordering of Moses" and Clarence Cameron White’s "Ouanga."

The Ledbetter Athletic Club boxing team (c. 1950)Original Source: Detre Library & Archives at the Heinz History Center

The Ledbetter Athletic Club boxing team

Lou Ledbetter was a Pittsburgh fight trainer who helped launch the career of "Big Bob" Baker, a 6-foot-2, 215-pound slugger from Pittsburgh's Hill District. Baker won the national Golden Gloves championship before turning pro in April 1949.

Later, some of the era's most recognizable fighters, including Archie Moore and Tommy "Hurricane" Jackson, used Ledbetter as a stepping-stone to heavyweight-title bouts.


This photograph from the archives shows Bob Baker (back row, first on the right), Fred Mans (back row, first on the left), and trainer Lou Ledbetter (front row, first on the left).

Hill District Satellites softball team (1970)Original Source: Detre Library & Archives at the Heinz History Center

Hill District Satellites softball team

In 1960, Mildred Allen (pictured in second row, far right) played a key role in developing the Tri-Boro Softball League.

Allen coached while playing shortstop and second base for the Satellites. The Satellites actively chose an empowering civil rights stance while seeking an equal playing field and opportunities in athletics.

In 1970, the team was sponsored by the United Black Front, a cultural nationalist organization involved with progressive community activities that included economic development and civil rights.

Aurora Reading Club (1984)Original Source: Detre Library & Archives at the Heinz History Center

Aurora Reading Club

Founded in 1894 by Rachel Lovett Jones, the Aurora Reading Club is the oldest African American women's club in Western Pa.

The club's motto is "Lifting as we climb," meaning to encourage and provide for others while making one's way in the world.

The Aurora Reading Club dedicates its funds and services to promoting literacy through collaborations with local organizations, events, and book donations.

Credits: Story

Learn more about the African American Program and archives at the Heinz History Center.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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