It’s the time of year that we all pause to reflect on and honor Martin Luther King Jr., a champion of civil rights and an American hero. But Pittsburgh is home to its own Black trailblazers that broke new ground and paved the way for generations of people who came after them.
This time every year, we pause to observe Martin Luther King Jr. Day in honor of one of our country’s most remarkable men. King was a pioneer of the country’s Civil Rights movement and a key leader in political, social, and religious scenes of the 1950s and 1960s as he sought equal rights and treatment for Black people.
Although Atlanta has the honor of calling Martin Luther King, Jr. a native son, Pittsburgh is also home to many great Black leaders. From sports to art to politics, Pittsburgh has produced notable names who contributed a great deal to our city, state, and country.
Homer S. Brown
Homer Sylvester Brown is considered the first Black judge in Pittsburgh, having been appointed to the Allegheny County bench in 1949. He progressed to the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas, where he worked from 1956 to 1975. Among his accomplishments as a judge was the 1968 ruling that a tax levied on hospitals by the City of Pittsburgh, known as the “sick tax,” was unconstitutional. In addition to his judicial career, Brown was a civil rights activist who fought for the rights of Black teachers in Pittsburgh and against discriminatory employment practices. He founded the Pittsburgh chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and became the first Black person to hold a position on the Pittsburgh Board of Education.
The playwright August Wilson wasn’t just from Pittsburgh; he dedicated much of his career to depicting his home city on the stage. Beginning in the 1980s he penned a series of 10 plays known as The Pittsburgh Cycle, which illustrate the experiences and culture of the city’s Black communities in the 20th Century. During a period of expansion in popularity of theater and Broadway shows largely driven by white composers and writers, all 10 plays made their way to the stage. Since then, two of them, Fences and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, have been adapted into films. His work has drawn award-winning performances from stars like James Earl Jones, Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, and Angela Bassett.
Charles ‘Teenie’ Harris
A prolific and talented photographer, Charles “Teenie” Harris gave the world a window into the city of Pittsburgh through his photos. However, his work was rarely seen outside the city until after his death. He bought his first camera in the 1930s and opened a photography studio, working freelance for various newspapers. Harris took more than 80,000 photos throughout his career, including shots of celebrities like Lena Horne, Harry Belafonte, and Duke Ellington. In 2001, the Carnegie Museum of Art purchased a collection of Harris’s negatives from his estate and has worked to digitize them and identify the people in the photos, opening a permanent exhibition of his photos in 2020.
Daisy Elizabeth Adams Lampkin
Born in 1883 in Reading, Pennsylvania, Daisy Elizabeth Adams Lampkin moved to Pittsburgh and joined the suffrage movement. She launched a long career in social and political activism, fighting for the rights of women and Black people. A skilled public speaker, organizer, and fundraiser, Lampkin worked with the NAACP, the National Council of Negro Women, and the National Association of Colored Women, eventually serving as the NAACP’s first field secretary in 1930. In addition to her advocacy, she is also credited with recruiting future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall to the ranks of the NAACP. Marshall would go on to lead the organization to a victory before the Supreme Court in the famed Brown V. Board of Education case.
Josh Gibson was the second former member of the Negro Leagues to be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. He played primarily with the Pittsburgh Crawfords or Homestead Grays from 1930 to 1946. An acclaimed player in many aspects of the game, Gibson played catcher and was a terrific hitter, with more than 1,000 home runs over his career. Listed among the seminal players in the Negro Leagues, Gibson unquestionably would have been a star in Major League Baseball if he had been permitted to play. When Major League Baseball announced in 2020 that it would incorporate Negro League stats into its own record books, Gibson’s single-season batting average became the second-highest in the league, at .466. he was posthumously inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1972.
There’s no question that these members of the Pittsburgh community have not only represented the city well but have impacted society and history in much more significant ways. And although they represent different corners of culture, those listed here are just a few of the Black trailblazers who called Pittsburgh home.