After more than five years of planning, the YMCA of Greater Pittsburgh broke ground on the site for their new location in the Hill District. At the ground breaking for the $12 million building on Aug. 9, 2011 close to 100 Hill District residents, as well as other community leaders, came out to celebrate the event.
“This is truly a historical day as we move on for our community, truly a great day,” said Aaron Gibson, executive director, Centre Avenue YMCA.The morning’s guest of honor was Thelma Lovette, for whom the new facility was being named. Beyond her many years as a civil and human rights activist, Lovette was also the first woman to sit on the boards of the Centre Avenue YMCA and the Greater Pittsburgh YMCA.
“The YMCA has always been an important part of the community because it offered programs for young men and women to teach them to care about themselves and our community,” Lovette said. “That’s why I’m so grateful that this is being built.”
Lovette, who moved to Arizona with her family, travelled to Pittsburgh with her daughter, Thelma Morris, to attend the groundbreaking.
“All my mother has been able to say is isn’t that an honor, I’m so thankful. For her to be here at 94 years old, I’m so thankful,” said Morris.
“When my mother talks to people, she tells them there’s no place like Pittsburgh, that’s my home, and for most of us, there’s no place like the Hill District.”
“I was shocked,” Lovette says. “Oh, what an honor.” Lovette retired from Mercy Hospital in 1984 after 18 years as a social worker.
Lovette became a “Y” volunteer in the 1950s and still sits on the organization’s board of managers. Some of her earliest memories relate to the youth facility on Centre Avenue, where her father sat on a previous board of managers and her brothers shot basketball.
“I had a beautiful childhood,” she said. “And I’ve had a happy life.”
She was born Feb. 28, 1916, in the Hill District. Her father, Henry M. Williams, operated his own company, Williams Plumbing & Heating Co. on Crawford Street. Her mother, Alice Mary Johnson Williams, was a homemaker. Thelma had four sisters and four brothers.
Henry Williams taught the plumbing trade to his sons and a son-in-law—William J. Lovette, who married Thelma.
After graduating from Schenely High School in 1934, she worked as a dishwasher, an elevator operator and then a law clerk. When she was in her 40s, Lovette was hired by Mercy Hospital as the hospital’s first Black social worker.
Several years later, she entered the University of Pittsburgh and earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in social work. She earned her advanced degree in 1972, when she was 56.
“She went to school full-time and worked full-time,” said Morris. “My father was very supportive of her, and he was so proud of her.”
William Lovette, a plumber at West Penn Hospital, died in 1977.
In August 1963, she attended the March on Washington for Freedom and Jobs, where Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I have a dream” speech.
“I cried because it was so overwhelming,” she said. “Such a wonderful experience to be with all these people who were marching for a cause—to give people the opportunity to be a total part of the United States of America.”
She was a Democratic committeewoman in the 5th Ward for more than 35 years.
In her job at Mercy, Lovette helped patients with their discharge paperwork and with after-care needs, including making sure they were able to obtain medications. She created a program in the Hill District to help stroke victims stay active. When utilities were cut off for lack of payment, she looked for emergency resources and found ways to have the lights and gas restored.
In 1992, then-Mayor Sophie Masloff appointed her to the city Planning Commission.
“I felt she had the interest of the community at heart, and she did,” says Masloff. “I’ve known Thelma for years and years and years. She is a very caring person.”