Pittsburgh's First Black Councilman Paved The Way For Diversity In City Hall
The year 1954 was a significant one in Pittsburgh: Jonas Salk administered the first polio vaccine to students in Lawrenceville, Roberto Clemente was drafted by the Pirates and Hill District resident Paul Jones became the first black man to sit on Pittsburgh City Council.
“I’d say Paul Jones has a good spot in the pantheon of black political figures in the history of Pittsburgh,” said Laurence Glasco, University of Pittsburgh associate professor of history. “Blacks were, in the late '40s and early '50s, just beginning to get mobilized and influential on the local political scene.”
Jones was born in Louisville, Ky. in 1909 and moved to Pittsburgh, where his father became a minister at a local Baptist church. After graduating from the University of Pittsburgh, Jones received his law degree from Duquesne University. Soon after, he started his own law practice and decided to go into politics, winning a seat representing Pittsburgh in the state legislature.
Then, in 1954, Councilman William Davis left his position to become Allegheny County sheriff.
“David Lawrence, the mayor at the time, appointed Paul Jones,” Glasco said. “His appointment represented the beginning of black political empowerment in Pittsburgh.”
Glasco said Pittsburgh’s black community had already been known for a number of significant accomplishments—having the largest circulation black newspaper in the country, with the Pittsburgh Courier; having top-notch Negro League baseball teams with the Pittsburgh Crawfords and the Homestead Grays; and having a nationally-recognized jazz hub in the Hill District.
“The black population here was active and progressive in a lot of ways,” Glasco said. “But politically they were very, very weak, and that had to do with the fact that you did not have a single black concentrated neighborhood in Pittsburgh. Blacks were scattered around in seven or eight different neighborhoods.”
This is part of our Good Question! series where we investigate what you've always wondered about Pittsburgh, its people and its culture.
In the Hill District where Jones lived, for example, Glasco said while there were many black families, their influence was lessened by the majority white Jewish and Italian families. But in the 1950s, driven by the national Civil Rights Movement, Pittsburgh’s black community began to mobilize.
While the country was struggling with race relations at the time, Glasco said Pittsburgh didn’t have as significant of disputes, at least on the political end, partially due to the “machine politics” of Lawrence. Because he was appointed and supported by Lawrence, Glasco said Jones didn’t receive a lot of blowback for being black.
“If Davey Lawrence said, ‘this is what we’re doing,’ that’s what we did,” Glasco said. “People didn’t really buck that.”
Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto said while he doesn’t agree with all of Lawrence’s decisions, he did have a strong vision for the city that included diversity efforts.
He pointed to the 1964 Atlantic City Democratic National Convention, for which Lawrence was responsible in choosing delegates, where he gave the Mississippi African American delegation priority floor seating over the white group.
“Lawrence was committed to civil rights and making sure the convention respected that,” Peduto said.
While in office, Glasco said Jones was a key player in urban housing and development initiatives, including the overhaul of the lower Hill District.
“It just shows you that history is more complex than you think,” Glasco said. “We tend to simplify and come up with some simple statement about something like urban redevelopment, but when we get into it and really look, the story gets more and more complex.”
In the 1950s, the Hill District was experiencing overcrowding, with the black population alone reaching near 100,000 residents. Former Councilman George E. Evans, in 1943, called the Hill District “probably one of the most outstanding examples in Pittsburgh of neighborhood deterioration.”
The original plan that Jones sponsored, according to Glasco, was to hire black workers to tear down decaying buildings, then work with the community to design and build quality public housing units. Terrance Village and Bedford Dwellings, constructed in 1944, had been successes in the eyes of city officials, and an improvement for residents on their previous conditions.
“They thought they would get new and better housing and they thought they would get jobs,” Glasco said. “They got neither. The places were torn down, no new housing went in.”
Instead, Glasco said, the project didn’t go as planned and displaced many in the black community. Jones, however, would not be alive to see the development fail. After being re-elected twice in 1955 and 1959, he died of a heart attack in 1960.
“It was a sad thing,” Glasco said. “But the reason he died also is a sign of what a good civic servant he was—his doctor had told him, ‘there’s a problem with your heart,’ and he said, ‘well, OK, but they need me on council, there’s going to be an important vote.’”
Jones died on July 7, just days before he was slated to go to the DNC in San Francisco, Calif.
What have you always wondered about the Pittsburgh region? Submit to our Good Question! series and we’ll go investigate and find answers.