In recognition of Women’s History Month, the Teenie Harris Archive invited women whose father and/or mother were integrally involved with the local civil rights movement, to reflect on their personal experiences living with such involved parents. Knowing that a public figure lets their hair down at home, so to speak, prompted the question: What was it like to grow up with a civil rights leader? Teenie Harris often photographed these dynamic men and women—parents of a proud generation of women.
Cortlyn Brown on Byrd R. Brown, Esq.
Dynamite, the most talented candidate, a real giant, civil rights hero, one of the best trial layers that the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania has ever produced, one of the first 40 African American lawyers in the United States, Yale law school graduate, love of my life. Imagine growing up with such a prodigious father that these words do not even begin to suffice explaining who he was or his contributions to the civil rights movement in Pittsburgh. Now imagine doing it with blonde hair, green eyes, and fair skin. Whereas many children with highly accomplished parents are stifled by expectations placed upon them, I was encouraged to follow my own dreams and supported when those dreams were missed. As far as growing up with an external Caucasian appearance, my father, president of the Pittsburgh branch of the NAACP and voice of the black community, helped me understand and take great pride in both my black and white heritage and biracial identity. He was his own man and would never allow himself to be trampled over by those who viewed his skin color as a rug to step on.
My father was terminally ill from the time that I was seven years old, but somehow continuously fought death with a spirit that would not die. He was too weak to walk; yet taught me how to soar. At times he was in too much pain to talk but taught me how to find my voice and speak for the causes I believed in. He fought until he knew I was ready. He passed away in 2001. At his funeral he taught me a last lesson through the words of a poem: “Though wise men at their end know dark is right, because their words had forked no lightning they. Do not go gentle into that good night.”
Thelma Lovette Morris on Thelma Williams Lovette
As a child growing up in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, Thelma Williams Lovette, my mother, lived in an ethnically diverse community. She learned to understand and respect others, their religions, and cultures. As she got older, she experienced the sting of racism. She often shared an experience when her Schenley High School girls basketball team went to Taylor Allderdice to play. Although Schenley was diverse, as she and her teammates walked up the long steps to enter Allderdice, the white students chanted “Africa speaks.” That was an experience she never forgot.
It was important to her that all people be treated with dignity and respect. She wanted life to be better for all. She was involved in community and political organizations. She believed strongly that voting was important to achieving opportunities. She was a Democratic Committee Woman for over 35 years. She supported the NAACP as a member and purchased my first membership when I was eight years old. She wanted to support organizations that worked to break down barriers.
She was an active member of many organizations, including the Hill District Community Council and the Hill District Citizens Committee for the Office of Economic Opportunity (now the Hill District CDC). As a member of the United Negro Protest Committee, she marched against Duquesne Light’s employment practices. It was the United Negro Protest Committee that helped in the creation of Freedom House Ambulance Service. Prior to Freedom House Ambulance, residents of the Hill District were transported to hospitals in the back of a paddy wagon. She talked about how degrading it was that other ambulance companies refused to serve the Hill District.
She participated in the 1963 March on Washington because its goals were jobs and freedom. Until the day she died, she told me with great pride about being at the march. My mother’s motto in life was “I am my brother’s keeper.”
What was it like growing up with Thelma Williams Lovette? My father was supportive of her political, community, school, and church activities. She was a model for how to treat everyone and to stand up for others who cannot stand up for themselves.
Charlene Foggie Barnett on Bishop Charles H. Foggie
“Dad, I’m putting June 11 on your calendar, so don’t schedule anything that day, ok? That’s my graduation, so you’ve got to be here!” I said this to my father, Bishop Charles H. Foggie, a few weeks before my high school commencement.
This was not an uncommon comment for me to make, nor a jarring testimony to his memory. The fact is that my father was an extremely busy man, and he did not make a commitment he could not keep. Cancellation was rarely used in his vocabulary, replaced by obligation, or better yet responsibility. After all, this man’s name lies in Freedom Corner for a list of humanitarian efforts. As a result I was raised with my parents’ example of accountability; utmost to God, undoubtedly to family, and altruistically to those one represents. In my father’s case, he was attending meetings for those who could not get their foot in the door to negotiate with legal authorities, and those who could not afford time off from underpaying jobs to protest for better employment. That was my dad’s job—ethically, as head of a religious denomination; morally, as a respectable citizen; and literally, as president of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), Board of Bishops and Housing Authority, founding member of NEED (Negro Emergency Education Drive), first black board member of the Pittsburgh Symphony, and a lifelong member of the Urban League. He made appearances on radio and television, and there were usually reporters and photographers around him as he pushed through injustices toward equal rights. For example, by initiating the first NAACP Human Rights Dinner in Pittsburgh in 1954, he not only increased the organization’s membership, but opened wide the barrier of hotel usage by African Americans.
And why was he so driven? Probably, because his own father had narrowly escaped lynching. Or because he learned that education was the tool to gain access to opportunity. But I suspect mostly because his parents had taught he and his eight siblings that hard works pays off, but you can’t make it alone in this world—you’ve got to think about others too. For example, we once moved to a white area of town, not just to live in a nice home, but to open listings to blacks in a neighborhood ironically founded by an abolitionist.
Whatever the psychological stimulus, it resulted in our home being a constant hub of activities centered around the civil rights movement, or as it was often called—“the cause.” My older brother says that every important national or local civil rights leader was in our living room or in dad’s pulpit, and we had a front row seat. As a youngster my part consisted of being hospitable, looking and speaking appropriately, and treating all people with the same respect I deserved despite how they may treat me. In my teens, I was part of dad’s “staff,” and often booked his weekly flights, even some abroad. As an adult, he encouraged me to find my unique path to pick up where he and others left off, so that future generations—especially his grandchildren—would live better lives than he and his parents.
In actuality, he spent plenty of quality time with me, despite the cacophony around us. Seeing the Ice Capades was on top of my list, and we went every year. Good grades and special occasions meant my favorite restaurant and Isaly’s ice cream. We had season seats at the symphony, and tickets to the ballet. Together we sat spellbound watching movies and TV shows, as I buried my head in his chest when the bad guys frightened me, or laughed our way through episodes of comedy shows. He took me to baseball games, the driving range, swimming in hotel pools, and not one summer passed without our annual trip to the family reunion on Cape Cod. He also took me to hospitals or homes where he called on sick parishioners and friends. He often mentioned that we attended some events so that people of color were represented when given the opportunity. However, on all of these occasions he’d point out that every ethnicity deserved to be treated with dignity.
I have served on many executive boards, as a trustee, as PTA president, and school board member, chaperoned students and volunteered with organizations. I didn’t plan to do any of this—being involved just became important to me as time has gone by and I attribute that to the example my father set. I loved this man like no other person, for as his child it seemed he could move mountains, and no matter what was happening (even a hateful racial slur painted on our door), I felt safe with him. He was a lion whose roar was mostly a purr, but if obstructed or provoked, would change to a mighty growl. I always felt assured that he could make things right for me and for many. Yes, I am truly fortunate to have called this man my father.
Teenie Harris Photographs: Civil Rights Perspectives is on view in the Lobby Gallery at Carnegie Museum of Art until April 26, 2015.