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Who was the first African American on Pittsburgh City Council?

Question submitted by: Joe Forbes, South Side

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Just how backward has Pittsburgh been? So backward that it was easier for an African American to get elected to a post in the state legislature ... which ain't exactly the Rainbow Coalition. Yet that's how it was for Paul F. Jones.

 

 

Born in Kentucky in 1909, Jones moved here at the age of 11 and spent the next couple of decades compiling an impressive set of credentials. An attorney and World War Two veteran, he served in a variety of public positions: a 12-year stint on the city board of water assessors, a position in the county treasurer's office, a job as solicitor to the city controller.

 

Jones was elected to the state House in 1950 and stayed there four years. "As a legislator," historian George Swetnam observed in a history of Allegheny County, Jones "identified himself with a forward-looking program." But apparently, he was popular in Harrisburg anyway.

 

Indeed, he got his chance to make Pittsburgh history in 1954, after Councilor William Davis was elected county sheriff. When vacancies occurred in those days, the mayor appointed (with council's approval) someone to fill out the remaining term. While the names of various contenders circulated briefly, legendary political boss Mayor David Lawrence put an end to speculation by publicly stating, "I shall be glad to vote for Mr. Jones." In 1950s Pittsburgh, that meant all the other Democrats would be glad to vote for him too. Or else.

 

And so it was. In January 1954, Jones' name was formally proposed by City Councilor Emanuel Schifano, who noted that "in the short span of life [Jones] has already lived, he has served in many capacities in the public life of this community."

 

Not surprisingly, Pittsburgh's black paper, the Pittsburgh Courier, took special interest in this development. It printed the transcript of Schifano's remarks, in which he identified Jones as "a fellow soldier, a fellow lawyer, a fellow Democrat, a fellow citizen." Schifano apparently made no reference to Jones' race at all; as with many politicians of the day Jones was apparently being judged not by the color of his skin, but at least partly by the character of his support for Davey Lawrence. While lauding Jones' ample credentials, Schifano praised the "valiant effort [Jones] made to continue Pittsburgh's progress under Mayor Lawrence" in the previous election.

 

It may come as no surprise to hear the first African American on city council was appointed: Pittsburgh voters have a reputation for being tough on black politicians. But actually, Jones was re-elected twice, in 1955 and 1959. (And in those days, council members were elected by the entire city, rather than by district as they are today.)

 

Jones' death from a heart attack in July 1960 came as a huge shock to his supporters; "Councilman Paul F. Jones Dies!" the Courier headline blared. He was, after all, only 52 years old. According to press accounts, he had been feeling ill the day before, but felt obliged to attend a council meeting anyway -- ironically, he was fighting for a zoning change that would allow an African American funeral director to start a funeral home in the city.

 

Jones was eulogized at length, especially in the Courier, which praised him as a "man with a future, a future which might still further extend the horizon of the aspirations of his people."

 

Sadly, though, that horizon got cloudier after Jones' death. As a Pittsburgh Press obituary noted, Jones "was the original sponsor of councilmanic legislation paving the way for the Hill slum-clearance program." Just after his death, the Courier quoted Jones gushing about the proposal, which he said would create "comfortable surroundings in the middle of park-like grounds with recreational facilities just around the corner." He also spoke highly of plans to develop East Liberty.

 

Jones' optimism, we now know, was misplaced (though as David Lawrence biographer Michael Weber observes, it had been shared by many groups, including black churches in the Hill). Instead, the Civic Arena and East Liberty developments became synonymous with racially insensitive "urban renewal." In the 1960s, both projects became symbols for, and symptoms of, a city that became increasingly segregated as whites fled to the suburbs. 

 

Would things have turned out differently if Jones had lived longer? Probably not. Apparently, it's sometimes easier to vote for people of different races than to live next door to them. 

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