Black history, from slavery to freedom, has been a struggle for both men and women. From the time Blacks were brought to America on the first slave ship, women have been just as much a part of the struggle as men. In the past they served in more of a supportive role helping and assisting in the fight for freedom, but during the early part of the 21st century they have taken on more active leadership roles as men have in many cases become inactive.
When we think of women in history we think of Harriet Tubman leading slaves to freedom via the Underground Railroad; Rosa Parks, who by refusing to give up her seat ignited the bus boycott in Birmingham Ala., which brought Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., to prominence and led to the Civil Rights struggle that eventually forced the elimination of legal segregation. Or Shirley Chisholm who defied all odds to not only run but win one of the most coveted seats in the country as she replaced Adam Clayton Powell as one of the U.S. representatives from New York City, and became the first Black woman to run for president. We think of Barbara Jordan, a U.S. representative from Texas, who gave one of the most powerful speeches in the history of the Democratic convention. But most of the greatest female leaders of the past and present are the women who work in the background raising their children to respect themselves and others, and women like Coretta Scott King and Anna Douglass who stood by their men, Dr. King and Frederick Douglass, as they put their lives on the line for freedom.
The Black woman has always been the backbone, the foundation of Black communities throughout this country; the mothers, sisters, wives, aunts, and friends who are willing to sacrifice their all for their children and their people.
Pittsburgh was and is no different. Even though there are many noted leaders such as Thelma Lovette, Alma Fox, Vera Brown, Wilhelmina Byrd Brown and others, most were content to work in the background to bring about freedom for all.
Instead of focusing on the past, the Courier chose to spotlight some of the women who made history as well as women who are making history right now. Thelma Lovette, Katie Johnson and Alma Speed Fox are some of the leaders of the past, where as women such as Esther Bush, CEO and president of the Pittsburgh Urban League; Doris Carson Williams, president of the African American Chamber; Maurita Bryant, assistant Pittsburgh police chief; and Valerie McDonald Roberts who has been a groundbreaker in the political arena, are some of the women in the spotlight in this Special Edition.
In the church at one time women were not allowed to be at the pulpit but today more and more are becoming ministers and women such as Rev. Brenda Gregg and Rev. Barbara Gunn have become pastors and leaders in the church, opening the doors for others to follow.
In the entertainment field the biggest names coming out of Pittsburgh are Phyllis Hyman and Mary Lou Williams who became national R&B and jazz legends, but Etta Cox, even though not a national star, is one of the most popular local stars in Pittsburgh history.
Patricia Prattis Jennings was recently honored as the Courier Legacy Honoree of the 50 Women of Excellence for her role as the first Black female principal keyboardist for the Pittsburgh Symphony. Tamara Tunie from the Mon-Valley has been a star in TV and movies for more than two decades.
Even though marching and protesting is no longer a major method used for human rights, women such as Fox and Connie Craig were part of the many women who marched and protested in the streets in the freezing cold, and hot blistering sun to bring about equal rights for Blacks. Craig never got her due for her role of pulling suburban NAACP chapters together. These women opened the doors for women like M. Gayle Moss the current president of the Pittsburgh NAACP branch.
After a hard fought fight to get more Blacks on the police force, which is reverting back to where it was before the ’70s, Gwen Elliot proved that women could do the job as well as men as she rose to become the first Black female commander which opened the door for Maurita Bryant who followed her path to become the first female assistant chief of Police.
In the court system the Hon. Cynthia A. Baldwin, Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, led the way for women such as Judge Kim Clark, Court of Common Pleas, and Judge Cheryl Allen, Superior Court, who are showing that women can be just as effective as men or White women in the court system.
In education Helen Faison became the first Black superintendent of the Pittsburgh Public School District, opening the doors for John Thompson and Linda Lane to follow.
In the media, it was Cathy Milton and Bev Smith who were the pioneers. Two women with two very different styles but just as effective, one was more militant, in your face, and issue oriented; the other just smoothly did the news or features with class and style. In radio it was Jackie Johnson who became the first female DJ to have a primetime spot with WAMO. But the real queen of radio is Elaine Effort, who joined KQV back during the ‘70s and has been doing news for the station ever since.
In newspapers the pioneers were Jean Bryant who was a feature writer with the Post-Gazette for several years before her retirement, and Edwina Rankin Kaikai who also joined the Post-Gazette during the ‘70s, coming back home from Chicago where she had been a staff writer with Jet magazine. She rose through the ranks to become assistant regional editor before her retirement.
Where as in the recent past there were very few Blacks in any position of power or influence, today, as illustrated by the Courier’s 50 Women of Excellence, there are prominent women in all professions, and the number is growing. As the song goes, “Women are doing it for themselves.”