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Pitt's Historic Impact

From Doorway to Distinction


In 1829, a Black man sat outside a classroom, listening to a teacher offer lessons to White students inside. Because of his color, he wasn't allowed to sit with the rest of the class.

This young African American from Pittsburgh's Hill District was tutored by Pitt’s first chancellor, the abolitionist and minister Robert Bruce. The student was segregated from his classmates, but he took the opportunity to learn. His name remains lost in time, but his story marks the beginning of nearly two centuries of achievement and distinction for Blacks at the University of Pittsburgh.

Despite the nation's legacy of racial injustice, Blacks at Pitt have always aspired and accomplished. Among them are:

William Hunter Dammond, a civil engineer, who became the first African American graduate of the University of Pittsburgh;

• Alumnus Robert L. Vann, publisher of the Pittsburgh Courier, a widely circulated newspaper that fought racial injustice and fostered the civil rights movement;

Virginia Proctor Powell Florence, the first African American woman to graduate from a professional library school, now Pitt's School of Information Sciences; and

• Law alumnus K. Leroy Irvis, who became the first Black speaker of a state House of Representatives since Reconstruction.

These are just a few of the thousands of stories of success that began for Blacks in Pitt classrooms, which also have produced a Nobel Peace Prize winner, Rhodes scholars, Olympic gold and bronze medalists, a MacArthur "Genius" Fellow, and a National Book Award winner.