There was a period of time when there were a limited number of Black men who were elected to the position of ward chairman and they had real, genuine influence.
In the fifth ward when the Republicans were in power, a Black man, Earl Sams, was the man Downtown with influence.
In 1936 when the Democrats came to power, Robert “Pappy” Williams became the most powerful Black in the party and was the driving force to elect the first Black legislator from this part of Pennsylvania. The man was Homer S. Brown, who eventually, through the effort of Pappy Williams, became the first Black judge in Allegheny County.
After the death of Pappy Williams his brother Jake Williams ascended to the position and became the man of power and influence. Jake Williams some years later became the elected magistrate, and the law required him to resign from the political position of fifth ward chairman. Jake was succeeded by Zack Winston, who continued the tradition that the fifth ward chairman had to be recognized as a person whom the Democratic Party had to deal with.
The Lion of Pennsylvania—K Leroy Irvis, who retired from the most powerful position in the Pennsylvania House, Speaker of the House was elected from the fifth ward and served 35 years.
The demographics in the 12th ward changed and the time was ripe for a Black man to take political control, and that person was Doc Fielder Jr. He lived up to his name. He proved over the years that he had a Ph.D. in politics and a total commitment to elevating the quality of life for Blacks in the 12th ward. At a later time in his political career he became the assistant to Tom Foerster, Allegheny county commissioner and he used his position to extend his concerns across Allegheny County.
The biggest ward in the city of Pittsburgh was the 13th (Homewood) and after Larry Huff stepped down Euzell “Bubbie” Hairston became the ward chairman. He and Doc were cut from the same bolt of cloth. They both were physically and mentally tough, would never back down when they believed they were helping not just those who elected them, but all of those across this county who looked like them. These three Black chairmen had large numbers of registered voters and on Election Day they delivered the votes. Today that does not happen.
They were not without their critics. I was often a critic, not a whispering critic, but one who spoke out and challenged them when I believed they supported certain candidates that did not represent the best interest of the Black community.
However, the positives outweighed the negatives. They helped elect people to office, thereby becoming king- makers. They collectively were responsible for hiring more people than any institution in the entire county. These Black ward chairmen across the city were responsible for thousands upon thousands of jobs that enabled people to provide for their families, buy homes, send children to college, have pensions, and other amenities.
These kind of chairmen no longer exist for a number of reasons, but their demise began when “nobody’s boy, Pete Flaherty” became mayor and it’s been downhill every since.
The tragedy is that these positions in 2010 have become more ceremonial than real.
Please remember Kingsley Association.
(Louis “Hop” Kendrick is a weekly contributor to the Forum Page.)