Alice Pittrell dies at age 87

‘Her deep understanding and caring for Black women, in general, was real.’–Deborah Pittrell-Parker

by Renee P. Aldrich
For New Pittsburgh Courier

At approximately five feet tall, weighing a little more than 125 pounds for most of her life, Alice Pittrell, small but mighty, left an indelible footprint on the Pittsburgh region.

In her 87 years of living, she traveled down enough pathways to fill a couple lifetimes. She was many things, including a strong advocate for bettering the health of African American women. With a history of heart disease in her family, she had a heart attack at age 51, and later suffered three more heart attacks. But the heart attacks were no match for Pittrell, who will forever be known as the valiant fighter for Black women to receive the health education necessary to save their lives.

Pittrell died on Sept. 30 from kidney failure. She was the wife of an accomplished jazz pianist who traveled with him to New York City to pursue his musical career. She was the mother of two talented children: Linda Imani Starkey-Barrett, with whom she co-founded the Legacy Arts Project, an African dance program; and Charles “Poogie” Bell, the noted jazz drummer who traveled for years with singer Roberta Flack, among others, and who’s also the creative energy behind Pittsburgh’s jazz group, the “Funky Fly Project.”

Paving the creative path for her children, Pittrell had her own radio jazz show on WYEP-FM (91.3), called “Sable Vibes.” Pittrell was a photographer with works at the International Library of Photography. She was a poet who started “Group 1,” an African American artist collective that arranged pop-up galleries in various city neighborhoods in the ‘60s.

But to those who really knew Pittrell, they knew her passion was deeply rooted in all matters concerning the health and well-being of her fellow African Americans.

Pittrell, who graduated from Schenley High School in 1951, started out as a Licensed Practical Nurse. “Hands-on patient care” was not her destiny, she later felt. Subsequently, she transferred her skills and attention to supporting other health care providers working to increase health education. Part of that was helping establish an initiative at Allegheny General Hospital that helped hospital staff embrace healthier choices. This included healthy cooking and eating, incorporating daily exercise into their lives and embracing a healthier lifestyle overall—essentially making her an early promoter of “self care.”

Additionally, she worked directly for Dr. George Magovern, a cardiac specialist who was the co-inventor of a sutureless heart valve, which raised the survival rate of patients from less than 50 percent, to 90 percent. All of this was before she had any of her own heart issues.

Pittrell kept the philosophy, “If you see a need, try to fill it,” which was manifested in a few ways. She was part of the development of the Incremental Dental Health Programs for children on the North Side, where families could sign up to have all their children’s dental needs taken care of; and she continued to volunteer to be a part of positive change for her people.

As a program specialist for the American Heart Association in the early 2000s, she delivered the AHA mission to Black communities. After her retirement from AHA, she continued as a volunteer, and chaired the first African American heart conference in Pittsburgh, “Sister to Sister,” targeting Black women and heart disease.

According to her former sister-in-law, Deborah Pittrell-Parker, Alice Pittrell was the real deal. “A lot of people say they care, but Alice put action behind her words,” Pittrell-Parker said. “Her deep understanding and caring for Black women, in general, was real. She was consistent and genuine in every way, a true warrior for the cause of the health of Black men and women—a superstar right here in small-town Pittsburgh.”

Pittrell was a co-founder of Black Women & Health Outreach for Longer Life and Empowerment (B-WHOLE), an organization designed to bring awareness to issues impacting Black women’s health (physical, mental, emotional, spiritual) in Allegheny County.

The producers of “The Oprah Winfrey Show” discovered Pittrell when she was part of the Dean Ornish Heart Disease Reversal Program, and featured her on the show as one of Dr. Dean Ornish’s success stories. Also, from March 1999 to August 2003, she was part of the National Health Sciences Consortium traveling exhibition, titled, “The Changing Face of Women’s Health.” The exhibit traveled to nine cities and Pittrell had her own feature as a survivor of four heart attacks.

“Never in my wildest dreams would I have envisioned that having these heart attacks would cause me to have my own exhibit with my picture the size of Mt. Rushmore,” Pittrell’s known to have said.

Dr. Angela F. Ford, former interim director of the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Minority Health and current Chief Program Officer with the Black Women’s Health Imperative in Washington, D.C., said of Pittrell: “Her death is a tremendous loss. Alice was always the epitome of poise and grace. She was petite, but mighty, with a huge, generous spirit. I was completely in awe of her bravery and courage, given all that she had survived already. When we met in the the late ‘90s and established B-WHOLE, our Black women’s health network, what she wanted most was for other Black women to learn and benefit from her personal experience, and that they did.”

You must always “keep it moving; don’t be stalled as long as you can get up,” Pittrell’s daughter, Linda Imani Starkey-Barrett, told the New Pittsburgh Courier exclusively about what her mother would often say.

“Poogie” Bell, Pittrell’s son, told the Courier that he loved his mother’s resilience and spontaneity, and willingness to help him in his quest for musical greatness.

“When I was 7 years old and playing in New York, she had to help me take my drums down and set them up again,” Bell said. “It was always a struggle because she was so small and I was a child, but we’d end up laughing as we continued to struggle. She never let anything get the best of her.”

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