Back when I was just starting out, I wanted to buy a home. I was in my late 20s, not a long time on the job, wasn’t making a lot of money and had very little credit. The big banks all but laughed when I applied, but at Dwelling House Savings and Loan, even though I was reminded of all these things I had going against me, they also looked at what I had going for me. I had a college degree, I had a full time job I had been at since graduating from college and I wanted to own my own house instead of being content to rent.
ROBERT R. LAVELLE
Instead of just looking at the numbers, they looked at the person. I got the loan not only for the house but also a separate home improvement loan. Even though it was a struggle at times I paid both off in advance.
This is what Robert R. Lavelle was all about. It was giving the average everyday man an opportunity to own his own home, to put a roof over his family’s head even though he wasn’t making the big bucks. He gave Black people an opportunity well before Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac to purchase homes in the Black community and/or repair homes, thus uplifting the community.
In many cases people believe jobs and businesses are the most important thing for Black communities to grow but just as important is home ownership. This leads to pride in your community and an investment you are willing to fight for in your community. If you have home ownership, the other falls into place. Lavelle understood this probably more so than anyone else and this is why he fought and struggled so hard to make sure Blacks had a place to purchase a home, as well as a place to save. Yes, save, a bad word to many of us.
Part of the tragedy, however, was the fact that so many upper income Blacks didn’t support him. When asked about buying their homes through Lavelle, or opening a savings account at Lavelle, most would respond with, “Why should I go all the way to the Hill to open a savings account when there are so many banks Downtown and in my community?” Well, because those banks aren’t lending to middle- and low-income Blacks. Those banks aren’t working to improve the Black community. And those banks are not Black- owned. The money we save there goes directly to helping the Black community by helping others buy homes in our community. But most of us didn’t see that.
Despite the lack of support he should have received, he continued to invest, believe and trust Black people and the Black community. Even though he had an extremely high rate of late payments and no payments, he continued to move forward. When you were late with your payments, as I was many times, you would not receive a threatening letter, phone call or huge late fee. Instead you received a Bible verse reminding you of your responsibilities in the eyes of God. I always wondered, how did he know where to go to find these scriptures, because he had to use several on me alone. But it finally dawned on me, he had plenty of practice because I wasn’t the only one.
Lavelle was not just a business owner, he was a leader who was very active in his church, and he was a community leader who was active in just about anything and everything affecting the Hill District. If it was positive he was a part of it. Even with his involvement in all these things, what really made him such a giant was despite the constant struggle in his business and the community, he remained positive. There was not a negative word, frustration or give up in the man. He sincerely believed that through God all things are possible and even though we are going through hard times the light is at the end of the tunnel.
The Hill is now being revitalized with new homes, with old houses being renovated, with new businesses located on Centre Avenue and finally a major grocery store. While a lot of other people will claim the credit, Lavelle more than anyone deserves it because he was always the beacon of light that gave energy to others to continue the fight and not give up.
His last public event was to lend his support to the Pittsburgh Black Media Federation awards program where he was recognized for being a very important part of the old Pittsburgh Courier. However, he was also a very inspirational part of the New Pittsburgh Courier. Anytime we called on him for anything we knew he would respond in a positive manner.
He recently passed at the age of 94, but his legacy, his spirit, and guiding light will always be there for the thousands he touched. His inspirational spirit will always be with us.
Thank you, Robert R. Lavelle.
(Ulish Carter is managing editor of the New Pittsburgh Courier.)