The City of Pittsburgh will be commissioning a statue or sculpture to honor the important legacy of African American women in Pittsburgh. This sculpture or statue may take the form of a specific woman or will be a way of honoring many.

Listed below are a few prominent figures from our City’s history for your consideration (these women were researched and nominated by Pittsburgh historian Dr. Jessie B. Ramey, and selected to represent a wide range of women’s leadership since the City’s incorporation over 200 years ago). Please feel free to select one of the listed names, or use the boxes at the bottom of this form to submit the names of additional African American women who have made an impact on Pittsburgh’s history for consideration.




Catherine Delany (1822-1894), abolitionist.

Many people have heard of Martin Delany, who was the founder of Pittsburgh’s abolitionist newspaper, The Mystery, and was also the co-author of The North Star newspaper with Frederick Douglass. Delany’s wife, Catherine Delany, was also vital to his work. A mother of seven, Catherine secured agents in other cities to sell newspaper subscriptions and conducted fundraising in the community to support the abolitionist work of her husband. In addition, Catherine also helped feed homeless families in Pittsburgh after the great fire of 1845 that burned much of the city..

Madam C.J. Walker (1867–1919), entrepreneur.

After losing her hair to a scalp condition, Walker invented a line of African-American hair care products. A strategic and savvy business owner, she traveled the country giving lectures and created a beauty and body-care empire. During the years she lived in Pittsburgh, she operated a factory and beauty school. An extraordinarily successful entrepreneur, Walker was one of the country’s first women to become a self-made millionaire and was also known for her philanthropy.

Jean Hamilton Walls, Ph.D. (1885-1978), educator and leader.

Walls was the first African-American woman to earn a bachelor’s degree from the University of Pittsburgh, graduating in 1910 after studying mathematics and physics. She earned a master’s degree from Howard University and taught school in Maryland, North Carolina and Georgia before returning to Pittsburgh to be the executive director of the YWCA’s Centre Avenue branch. She went back to Pitt, becoming the first African American woman to earn a Ph.D. from that university.

Mary Cardwell Dawson (1894-1962), singer.

Dawson founded the Cardwell School of Music in Homewood and operated the Cardwell Dawson Choir, which toured nationally. Barred by white racism from opportunities in the professional music world, she founded the first African American opera company, the National Negro Opera Company, and trained scores of talented artists. Dawson was elected president of the National Association of Negro Musicians, and President John F. Kennedy appointed her to the National Music Committee in 1961.

Selma Burke (1900-1995), artist.

An artist of the Harlem Renaissance and a student of Henri Matisse in Paris, Burke came to Pittsburgh in 1968 as sculptor-in-residence at the Carnegie Institute. She taught tens of thousands of African-American children in the city and opened neighborhood art centers, including the Selma Burke Art Center in East Liberty. She presented her bronze relief, “Together,” depicting an African American family embracing, to the Hill House in the Hill District. Her most famous work was the sculpture of Franklin Delano Roosevelt that became the model for the image used on the dime. She received several honorary doctorates, including one from Spelman College, a historically African American college for women in Atlanta.

Helen Faison, Ph.D. (1924-2015), educator.

Faison had a remarkable career in Pittsburgh’s public schools, eventually becoming interim superintendent in 1999, the first African-American in the position. She was the first woman and first African-American to be a high school principal in the city. Faison also served as assistant and then deputy superintendent for the district, at the time the highest administrative post held by a woman. The district named an elementary school, Pittsburgh Faison K-5 in Homewood, in her honor. Faison earned a bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate from the University of Pittsburgh and later became a professor at Chatham University, where she chaired the education department and directed the Pittsburgh Teachers Institute.

Gwendolyn J. Elliott (1945-2007), police officer.

In 1976, Elliott was part of the first group of women hired to be Pittsburgh police officers following a precedent-setting lawsuit brought by the NAACP and the National Organization for Women. Despite resistance and discrimination on the force, she rose to become the department’s first African American female commander. Elliott served in the Air Force for five years, retiring as a staff sergeant, and later served in the National Guard and the Air Force Reserve. She helped to found the Center for Victims of Violence and Crime, and after she retired from the police force, she founded Gwen’s Girls to support the needs of girls living in poverty.

Leave this empty: