Pitt in the making: Some of University’s Black history has gotten lost over time


If the news is the first draft of history, often that draft gets lost, and the writers of official histories never learn of important incidents … like that time in 1936 when the Pitt marching band objected to segregation in a New York City restaurant.

But first … in anticipation of Black History Month this February, we’ve discovered a few other firsts for local African-Americans at Pitt that may have gotten lost. This news appeared in the Pittsburgh Courier, the Black-run and Black-focused newspaper published in the Hill District beginning in 1910.

The Courier sometimes placed the following message at the bottom of its columns, when there was extra room: “There are plenty of white people who would appreciate our side of the story … if they knew!! Pass your Courier along to such a friend.”

Consider these items passed along:

In what is likely a first for local Black women — although not specifically acknowledged at the time — Pitt Pharmacy graduates Edith P. Hawkins and Alta L. Gibbs in April 1927 opened a “smart and up-to-date ethical pharmacy (at 2177 Center Ave.) … the only ethical pharmacy in the city.”

This was the middle of Prohibition, and many pharmacies filled doctors’ prescriptions for alcohol and supplemented the sales of aspirin with bins of bathing caps for sale and a busy soda fountain. In contrast, Hawkins and Gibbs’ “ethical pharmacy” meant their entire business was compounding drugs for local doctors and dentists, hospitals and other pharmacies. They boasted prompt delivery, and Hawkins “declared they were endeavoring to render a larger service.”

The very same issue of the Courier, on April 16, notes that Pitt’s Quill Club and the Pitt Lyceum would be welcoming Countee Cullen to the Carnegie Lecture Hall in Oakland. The Courier had, that very year, begun publishing articles by such celebrated Harlem Renaissance writers as Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes, but this is the first time the paper was able say such a prominent figure was coming to town. Among the poems Cullen read that night was “Heritage,” which answers his own question, “What is Africa to me?”

Also in 1927, the Courier announced that “Miss Janie Everett of Harvard street” was the first Black woman to receive a master’s degree in education from Pitt. In January 1945, the Courier used page one to trumpet that Harry Bray was named “field instructor for the School of Applied Social Sciences” at Pitt — the first Black faculty member in that particular school at the time.

But it was the 1936 move of the University’s marching band, seemingly all in formation, that is most surprising, and nowhere mentioned in the band’s official history on the University website.

On Nov. 14 of that year, the Courier printed a front-page piece from the ANP (the Black equivalent of the Associated Press wire service) saying that the Pitt Panthers marching band, in town for the football team’s game against Fordham, had entered a New York City café for breakfast — all 172 of them. Among the members were just a few Black students.

A waiter, noticing the Black band members, “came over and politely whispered” that no Black people were served in that particular restaurant, the article says.

“One of the white members of the band rose just as quietly,” the piece continues, “went over and told the leader of the group what had happened, (and) even though the whole troupe had ordered breakfast, as one man, they rose and walked out of the cafe. They went to an Automat nearby and enjoyed a most substantial meal.”

Pitt had played Fordham to a 0-0 tie in a non-conference football game on Halloween that year, but it’s understandable that a weekly paper like the Courier might get some stories quite late. But according to the official band history, its membership had only reached 103 by 1930 and 120 members by the mid-1930s. So maybe “172 members” is a typo, or a bit of an exaggeration. And while it’s hard to picture 172 people, or even 72 people, ordering breakfast in a single restaurant — any restaurant — if it could happen anywhere in America at that time, it might have been New York City.

Pitt had just gotten its first Black marching band member four years earlier, Frank Bolden, who went on to become the Courier’s city editor. It will be a lot easier to confirm any incidents involving female Pitt marching band members for Women’s History Month in March, but that is no consolation. The band didn’t welcomed its first woman member until 1972.

Marty Levine is a staff writer for the University Times. Reach him at martyl@pitt.edu or 412-758-4859.


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