In the fall of 1976, Brashear High School opened in Beechview. At the time of its construction, the Pittsburgh Public Schools had not built a school since 1927. The creation of the massive facility was the district’s effort to comply with a state order to desegregate
On Sept. 25, 36 years after the school opened, more than 200 members of the historic first five classes— 1977, 1978, 1979, 1980, 1981, of John A. Brashear High School—came together at the Monroeville Doubletree Hotel, for their first true reunion.
When the school was opened the city waited for the expected fallout of what the opening of the school would mean for the 2,500 students who would be entering that fall. These students came from the Hill District, Hazelwood, the South Side and some South Hills neighborhoods including Beechview, Brookline and Mt. Washington. As a result, two neighborhood schools were closed, Fifth Avenue High School in the Hill District (which was historic in its own right since it was the oldest school building in Pittsburgh) and Gladstone High School in Hazelwood. Black and White students were bused to the new school and folks held on to their seats to see what impact this would have.
An aura of tension was created around these changes that could have been compared to that which transpired six years earlier in Alexandria, Va., when then all-White T.C. Williams High School hired its first African-American coach, Herman Boone, who was brought in to coach the first interracial football team.
As depicted in the 2000 film, “Remember the Titans,” that community was on edge. This similar dynamic was fostered here in Pittsburgh at that time as well.
The media anticipated trouble, the new staff and administrators were nervous at best, and parents were nervous about the prospect of having their children bused away from their neighborhood and everyone wondered about the success of the school. But nothing happened, the students as a whole got alone just fine.
After a year and a half long planning process that included meetings, mixers to fund-raise, brain storming, looking for venues, the eight-member planning committee reached its goal of a celebration done up in grand style. Committee president and vice president, Laura (Babe) Mitchell-Dendy, and David (Fuz) Thompson agreed that it was not an easy time, but watching these thrilling results, it was all worth it.
The foyer outside the ballroom in the Doubletree Hotel was filled with gorgeous ladies and handsome gents, most all whose looks belied their ages which were from 45 to 50. They were attired in after five sequins and silk, suits and ties, and there was a genuine spirit of delight about mixing and mingling with friends that they had not connected with for years. It was an atmosphere of family, one that was born out of necessity. These first five classes of the new school set the bar. They took the trek on buses across the Liberty Bridge, through the liberty Tunnels, up to Beechview to Crane Avenue, away from the comfort zone of their neighborhoods.
The students, who would be seniors in 1977, gave up the legacy and tradition of the schools in which they had spent their previous three years of high school and so on down the line.
It did not appear that there was any negative effect for those in attendance that night. Angel (Spano) Stahl, a member of class of 1980, said of this reunion, “I came tonight because I felt the need to reconnect with old friends. Our life gets so busy sometimes we stop connecting—a reunion like this is an opportunity to have a few hours away from our busy lives and have some fun.” Arthur Sledge, class of 1977, agrees that the fun part is seeing all the old faces, and says, “This is pretty special since this is the first time for us from the class of 77.”
Also in attendance from the class of 1977 was Kim Wood, who happens to be the current executive assistant to David Morehouse, CEO of the Pittsburgh Penguins.
There were staff members from some of the other closed schools who were invited to come on board at Brashear that year. Chatman Bolden, who taught history at Fifth Avenue, was in attendance at the Doubletree that night. Bolden, who had been at Fifth Avenue for 13 years, and at Brashear for 17 years, said why he accepted the offer to teach at Brashear.
“I felt it was a good opportunity. I had loved Fifth Avenue and I loved the students, and I wanted to stay connected. This new facility was going to be superior and I was excited about the opportunity to teach in what was going to be a ‘state of the art building.’”
The reunion continued with the entrance of the energy-packing mistress of ceremonies, Deanna Turner, who set the pace for the program. She entered the room in her old cheerleading outfit, complete with pompoms to vintage Frankie Beverly and Maze, right from the ’80s. Her energetic personality added a unique dimension to the evening.
Amid cheers, exuberant shouts and rousing applause, Turner introduced the school’s first principal, Eugene Khoury, 84, who held the principal’s job for all five of these classes. He spoke with passion and pride as he praised the students over and over again about the important role they played in the success of the school in those first early weeks. He recalled, “There was so much hype about the school’s opening. The media was waiting to pounce on us. They said this was going to be a bloodbath, the kids were not going to connect. You’re talking about busing in 980 Black students to join 1,500 White kids under one roof. You were talking about seniors in 1977 who had given up their history, their ring and their colors to enter an unknown space.
“You proved everyone wrong! You made everyone waiting for trouble, keep waiting. I was so uptight the night before school opened. I couldn’t sleep so I arrived at the building that morning at 4:30—expecting the worse. I got the best.”
Khoury also stated that being asked to speak at this reunion was by far one of the great highlights of his life. “In all my life, I’ve never heard of a group inviting a former principal back to speak at a class reunion. I have butterflies in my stomach!” he said.
During those early years, a lot like the case in Alexandria, Va., at T.C. Williams, sports would unite all the students at Brashear and bring the communities together as well. In 1977, the second year of its existence, the Brashear basketball team was number one in the city. Also in 1977, they had the first graduating class, and between 1978 to 1988 they won seven City League football championships. Of the five classes celebrating that night, the one of most historical relevance is the clas
s of 1980, the very first class of the school whose entire class members completed all four years—from grade nine to grade 12 at Brashear.
After a few more speakers, and emotional sharing, the party began, and the happy party-goers danced the night away to the sounds of their former classmates and professional deejay’s Marty Morgan and Melvin Moyer. Committee members agreed they want to catch their breath, come to the table and debrief, then move to make plans for the next gathering—in the meantime they seek new participants.