Date of Award

Spring 5-1-2016

Level of Access Assigned by Author

Campus-Only Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Richard W. Judd

Second Committee Member

Liam Riordan

Third Committee Member

Scott See

Additional Committee Members

Nathan Godfried

Elizabeth McKillen

Joe W. Trotter


This study examines the early civil rights movement in Pittsburgh through the perspectives and actions of professional-class black reformers in the city’s three major racial advancement institutions: the Urban League, NAACP, and Pittsburgh Courier. During the height of the Jim Crow era, when direct-action tactics often were not feasible, these activists strove to promote racial advancement through the most achievable and efficacious channels available. They co-opted bourgeois values to wrest concessions from industrialists, fostered racial solidarity and consolidated black voting strength, opposed lily-white unionism and supported the interracial labor movement, and led a national campaign against Jim Crow segregation. Reformers’ tactics changed over time as new challenges emerged and fresh opportunities arose; what remained constant was their dedication to achieving the maximum possible benefit for the greatest number of African Americans. I call this racial utilitarianism: a commitment to taking full advantage of practical opportunities for incremental progress, wherever and whenever they could be found, while keeping in sight the ultimate goal of racial equality.

The racial utilitarian perspective was born out the desperate circumstances African Americans confronted in the early twentieth century, when segregation and lynching were ways of life in the South, when de facto segregation and racial violence was common in the North, and when white-supremacist ideology (expressed through pseudo-scientific literature and popular culture) enjoyed widespread support in both regions. Racial discrimination, which was directed towards African Americans across class lines, inspired in black reformers a race-first orientation and a willingness to forge alliances with whites across the political spectrum—depending on who could best support their interests at a given time—from Republicans and employers in the 1920s, to Democrats, liberals, labor leaders, and radicals in the 1930s. As Robert L. Vann, editor of the Courier, remarked in 1928, black reformers had a duty “to espouse the cause of the colored man of this country. The greatest good for the greatest number ought to be the program.”