This story was based on reader submissions that placed a spotlight on many powerful, but largely untold Black stories in Pittsburgh. While we could only choose a handful, we want to thank all of our readers who submitted ideas. To see the original call for submissions, visit here; the form remains open. With you, our journalism is made better.
From a bathhouse abolitionist to a stereotype-defying comic, there are countless stories of innovation, courage and accomplishment by Black people in the Pittsburgh region.
While PublicSource strives to represent the Black community in coverage year-round, we are taking some time this Black History Month to honor four historical figures whose inventions, discoveries and efforts are rarely highlighted.
Here are their stories:
Pearl Harris, innovative educator
While living in Washington, Pa., Pearl Harris started her own “head start” program after being denied employment as a teacher in the area. The federally funded Head Start we know today was created in 1965 to help children from low-income families prepare to succeed in school. Harris’ program predated that.
Harris, who began teaching in Maryland, was one of the six million Black Americans who sought opportunity above the Mason-Dixon Line during the Great Migration. From 1916 to 1970, the widespread practice of white supremacy and a lack of economic opportunities pushed Black Americans to Chicago, Pittsburgh, and other Midwest and East Coast cities.
An educator with a keen eye for procedure, Harris noticed the lack of preparation Black students received entering into grade school in her new hometown.
In 1943, many of the Black children in the area that were pre-kindergarten age were being misdiagnosed with learning disabilities or socioemotional delays and failing basic academic skills tests. Many then went on to fail the first grade.
Harris designed a preparatory curriculum specifically designed to reverse the high rates of low achievement that was largely a result of racism and poverty, not academic ineptitude.
The success of Harris’ program, along with work of like-minded educators, went on to be replicated throughout the country.
Benjamin Richards, premier Black businessman
When Pittsburgh was still just a village and many Black people remained enslaved, Benjamin Richards was able to break beyond the usual limitations to become a leading businessman in the region.
Richards was a butcher by trade and amassed great wealth as a contractor with the government to supply meat and provisions to military posts. He was known as the wealthiest man in town in the 1780s, with wealth surpassing even that of notable slave owner Colonel James O’Hara.
It was an unattainable lifestyle for many African-Americans. Richards employed a white clerk, and he owned a significant amount of land.
Richards and his son Charles were two of four Black people who signed the Petition of 1787 that resulted in the creation of Allegheny County.
Jackie Ormes, cartoonist and activist
In a sea of Black caricatures in early 20th century media, when many depictions of Black women were as maids or laborers, Jackie Ormes defied stereotypes.
Her politically charged comics tackled enduring issues from educational equality to environmental pollution to racism.
She was the first Black woman to have a nationally syndicated newspaper comic strip at a time when the cartooning world was overwhelmingly male and often white.
Comic strip characters created by Ormes — Torchy Brown, Patty-Jo, Candy and Ginger — were spunky, politically aware, ambitious, glamorous and socially conscious. They could be seen in outfits from cowgirl costumes to high-class fashions. Her groundbreaking work put Black women in a new light and made them central to her narratives.
How did the little girl who grew up in Pittsburgh become a renowned nationally syndicated cartoonist rewriting the way Black women appear in media and challenging political ideals?
When Ormes — born Zelda Mavin Jackson in 1911— was in high school, she approached the Pittsburgh Courier for a job. They sent her on assignment to a boxing match, which led to her being hired as a journalist (and a lifelong boxing fan).
Her first comic strip “Torchy Brown in ‘Dixie to Harlem’” ran in 1937, focusing on what happens when a country girl relocates to a big city. In total, Ormes created four women-led comic strips between 1937 and 1954.
“Candy” centered on a sharp-tongued domestic worker. “Patty-Jo ’n’ Ginger” featured two sisters and biting political commentary. In “Torchy in Heartbeats,” Torchy was back for readers to follow her love life adventures.
At one point, “Patti-Jo ‘n’ Ginger” was syndicated to 14 cities with editions of the Courier and read by an audience of over 300,000 readers, according to Nancy Goldstein who wrote “Jackie Ormes: The First African-American Woman Cartoonist.” Eventually, Patty-Jo took a step beyond the page and became a doll between 1947 and 1949 (which is now a highly priced collectible). Torchy Brown was made into a paper doll in 1947.
Ormes died in 1985 in Chicago. In 2014, she was inducted into the National Association of Black Journalists Hall of Fame. In 2018, she was honored by the Will Eisner Comic Awards Hall of Fame, which inducts great comic contributors.
Once a Black girl growing up in Pittsburgh, Ormes went on to make a career out of challenging the way we think and view life and each other.
John B. Vashon, abolitionist and philanthropist
John Bathan Vashon is a celebrated Pittsburgher for his dedication to Black liberation in antebellum Pittsburgh.
Vashon was born in 1792 to a free Black woman and the son of her former enslaver . He fought in the War of 1812, during which he was captured and imprisoned by British soldiers for two years. After his release, Vashon settled in Virginia and married. In 1829, he moved to Pittsburgh with his wife and daughter, where he would become a successful landowner and businessman.
Vashon could’ve merely enjoyed the spoils of wealth and success; he was a popular barber and went on to open Pittsburgh’s first bathouse/spa, but he continued to dedicate his life to liberation and education.
In the basement of his bathhouse, he operated a stop for enslaved men, women and children on the Underground Railroad in the heart of downtown Pittsburgh. Starting in the 1830s, under the threat of slave catchers and white deputies, he protected, fed and prepared Black enslaved people for what was to come next for them on their journey to freedom.
Vashon died in 1853. He was a founder of the Pittsburgh African Education Society which established a school for Black youth excluded from public education. He also worked with prominent abolitionist figures like Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison.
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