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Identity & Community

Two Pittsburghers Receive Martin Luther King Jr. Award

Jessica Nath
90.5 WESA
Paul Ellis, August Wilson's nephew

What does Martin Luther King Jr. have in common with a playwright and a minister that couldn’t swim?

Their commitment to social justice.

The Rev. LeRoy Patrick and August Wilson were honored posthumously by the Kingsley Association, the Port Authority of Allegheny County and the Pittsburgh Pirates with the Spirit of King Award Thursday.

The award celebrates local citizens who pursued human rights and equality like Martin Luther King, Jr., Thursday.

Among other positions, Patrick was the minister of Bethesda Presbyterian Church in Homewood, the president of the Pittsburgh Board of Education and a civil rights activist for integration in the 1950s and '60s.

Passionate about helping children, one of Patrick’s most memorable accomplishments was his mission to integrate the public swimming pools in Pittsburgh and then Allegheny County.

In 1951, he gathered a group of children and they all jumped into the Highland Park swimming pool, but Patrick did not know how to swim.

His son Stephen said Patrick worked hard to integrate the pools until one day he was sitting on the stoop of the Bethesda Church.

“He saw a small boy walking along with a towel under his arm, he says, ‘Where are you going son?’” Stephen said. “‘I’m going swimming,’ and he asked, ‘Well where?’ ‘At Highland Park,’ the little boy was indignant that anyone should ask such a question. That’s when Dr. Patrick knew that that task was done.”

Though described as a “Man of Peace” by his son Gregory, Patrick was not a stranger to picket lines and protests.

“Were Dr. Patrick here today, he would remind us that the struggle for social justice has not ended,” Stephen said. “He would note that everyone is but a few steps away from the unfortunate circumstances that other mend, women and children have to endure everyday.”

The other recipient, famous playwright Frederick August Kittle, Jr. — better known as August Wilson — worked to “offer white Americans a different way to look at black Americans.”

Many of his plays were inspired by the Hill District, where he enjoyed observing people while growing up.

He is best known for his Pittsburgh Cycle of plays that depicted the life of African Americans in the 20th century, which won him two Pulitzer Prizes, a Tony Award and several New York Drama Critics Awards.

But Wilson’s efforts towards social justice did not stop with his plays.

In 1996, he used his keynote speech to the Theater Communications Guild to bring attention to issues that he felt still needed solved.

“He really just, with all fury, talked about the discrepancy talked about the lack of African Americans roles, talked about the lack of funding for black and on and on,” said Paul Ellis, his nephew.

Ellis said his uncle was ahead of his time and created opportunities for himself.

“My uncle used to walk around, and he was a little different, you know he dressed a little different, walking around with a pen and pad in the Hill District, with bowties,” Ellis said. “He just kind of stood out in his own way.”