African American HistoryMakers Speak to Students
On September 23, two Pittsburghers spoke to Allderdice students as part of the national Back to School With The HistoryMakers program. Vernell Lillie, a theater director and educator, and Herbert Douglas, businessman and Olympic medalist, are members of the HistoryMakers archive, a collection of oral and video histories of notable African-Americans. The Back to School event was one of over 200 such events in schools across the country, all taking place on the same day.
The HistoryMakers recognizes men and women who are perhaps less well-known than Martin Luther King, Jr. and Harriet Tubman but have still overcome social obstacles to make a difference in the world. Every HistoryMaker, most of whom are still living, is interviewed about his or her life, and the interviews along with photos and a biography are collected into a comprehensive archive.
Social studies teacher Molly Braver organized the event. Following the program in the library, Douglas and Lillie took question from students in Michelle Papalia’s African-American History classroom. After a short introduction, Braver presented the two speakers.
“I’m here to convey to you what it’s like to overcome obstacles,” Douglas began. He talked about his four basic principles, something he learned from his parents: analyze, organize, initiate, and follow through. He said that one of the most important things in life is to develop relationships, and he told students that if they overcome their obstacles, “each one of you will go to college.”
Douglas wanted to attend Allderdice because it was one of the leading high schools in the city, and he graduated from Allderdice in 1940. African-Americans weren’t a strong presence in sports at that time, he said, but he took inspiration from Jesse Owens’s performance in the 1936 Olympics, and he had tremendous success in sports. At Allderdice, where he was class president, he participated in track and field, gymnastics, football, and basketball, setting city records in track and field and winning city championships in football.
He was recruited by Xavier University’s track and field team to train with Olympic medalist Ralph Metcalfe, but Douglas left after two years, at the height of World War II, to work in his father’s parking company in Pittsburgh. He later received a football scholarship to the University of Pittsburgh, where he had an award-winning track and field record as well. At the 1948 London Olympics, Douglas placed third in the long jump competition, becoming Pittsburgh’s first Olympic medalist.
After graduating from the University of Pittsburgh, he worked at the wine and spirits company Schieffelin & Company, eventually becoming the vice president of the company and only the third African-American to hold a senior position in a major North American corporation.
In 1980, Douglas founded the International Amateur Athletic Association, Inc. and two associated awards: the Jesse Owens International Trophy Award, honoring track and field athletes annually, and the Jesse Owens Global Award, which has been awarded to Nelson Mandela and President George H. W. Bush, among others.
Following Douglas, Vernell Lillie spoke about her life and her long career in education and theater, touching on a few common themes that she wished to pass on to students. The first theme was chance.
Lillie grew up in Houston and attended college in New Orleans. She was leading a teaching training program–a mock lesson on Lord of the Flies–when representatives from Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh both offered her fellowships to obtain postgraduate degrees at their schools. She came to Pittsburgh to study at CMU, and from that point she said, “life became an exciting process for me.”
“I was very happy in Texas; I was up to that in my bones,” she said. “But you have to make sure you understand that very often things happen by chance.”
In Pittsburgh, Lillie founded the Kuntu Repertory Theatre with the purpose of examining African-American life through drama. The theatre features the plays of Rob Penny, the friend of another notable Pittsburgh playwright, August Wilson. Lillie directed the theatre and produced many of the plays while teaching at the University of Pittsburgh in the department of Africana Studies.
Lillie mentioned her dream of acting on stage, and she brought up her second theme of commitment. “I knew that Broadway was my world and that teaching was not my thing,” she said, “but then I discovered my students.”
She continued to teach at the University of Pittsburgh, believing that “there is very little that you can offer except an interest in education and a commitment to move forward in the world.”
“I committed myself to staying in Pittsburgh and working with Wilson and Penny. I committed myself to building a body of literature that expands beyond ridiculous stereotypes.”
“You are given life to do things for other people, not yourselves,” she said. She dedicated her life to her students, reflecting back on her childhood when teachers cared if their students missed class or not.
Lillie told students to understand that “life is something you can control.” She recalled a time when her mother said to her, “Vernell, why don’t you just listen?” She replied, “If I stay quiet for too long, folks may not see my vision.”