Pittsburgh’s Black Community saw the passing of a number of its icons in 2011, among them political titan Dock Fielder, and activists El Gray and Nate Smith.
Nate Smith, who passed away March 31, was known internationally for his tremendous contributions to Black labor movement in Pittsburgh and nationwide. His greatest accomplishment was Operation Dig, which served as the construction trades’ training and employment vehicle for the Pittsburgh Plan to integrate trade unions. His marches and protests paved a way for thousands of Blacks to gain union employment.
El Gray, who died Aug. 18, dedicated his life to fighting the senseless violence plaguing the streets. He was most known for his work with One Vision One Life where he led rallies and vigils for the victims of street violence. Respected by police and gang members alike, rain, snow, or shine, Gray was out there with his bullhorn and a positive message.
Dock Fielder, last of the city’s Black political power brokers, died Sept. 29. For 30 years, Fielder and his frequent ally, the late Ezell “Bubby” Hairston, were kingmakers. If a Pittsburgh politician needed support from Black voters in the 1960s and 1970s, they needed to go through Fielder, who more often than not, used that clout to help people in the 12th ward and beyond get jobs.
But the community also lost a number of businessmen who toiled to improve opportunities for African-Americans. Among them, was Detroit native Don Barden, who died May 19. Though not a Pittsburgher, Barden made a major contribution to the city when he won its lone Casino license. His Majestic Star fell victim to bankruptcy following lawsuits and the economic downturn, but its successor, the Rivers Casino, lived up to Barden’s commitment to fund millions in economic development on the North Side and in the Hill District.
The Hill District, itself, saw the passing of a business institution March 9 with the death of Walter Hamm, who operated his barbershop at the corner of Centre Avenue and Kirkpatrick Street for 40 years.
Likewise, East Liberty mourned the March 23 loss of Stanley Paul Drummond, community stalwart and long-time operator of the Corner Market on Shetland Street.
The loss of John Adams on June 5, saw the passing of another Hill District native, who as one of the region’s strongest advocates for Black entrepreneurship, boosted the growth of African-American businesses across Allegheny County and beyond as the founding director of what is now the Western Pennsylvanian Minority Supplier Development Council.
Pittsburgh also lost long-time advocates for social and neighborhood development with the deaths of former Operation Better Block Executive Director Carrie Washington, Nov. 13, and former Dean of The University of Pittsburgh School of Social Work David Epperson, June 20.
Washington brought coordinated development to Homewood and saw more than 100 units of new housing developed during her 20-year tenure.
David Epperson holds the record as the longest serving dean of any American school of social work, according to the University. Under his direction, its enrollment more than tripled, and it became ranked as one of the top schools for graduate programs in social work.
The arenas of sports and entertainment were not immune from loss in 2011. On July 5, former NBA star Armon Gilliam died of a heart attack at age 47. He played professionally until 2000 and still remained active in the community through basketball camps he started, making sure that tomorrow’s youth could have the resources he did not.
Also passing from a heart attack at the age of 40, Dwayne Muhammad’s Dec. 3 death was a surprising loss to Pittsburgh’s Hip Hop Community. Not only was he a concert promoter and talent agent, but he founded Pittsburgh’s annual Hip Hop Awards, and gave young Black men the insight and opportunity to take their talents to the national level.