Breaking Down Barriers: Paul Lawrence Peeler and the Pittsburgh Public Schools

Viola used by Paul Lawrence Peeler, Sr.
Viola used by Paul Lawrence Peeler, Sr., as a music teacher in Pittsburgh Public Schools.

Like many other major American city school districts, Pittsburgh’s public school system has a history of discrimination against African American educators. Unlike its recent history during the post-World War II era, Pittsburgh Public Schools held a de facto restriction against hiring African American educators from the 1870s to the 1930s. But the growing population of African Americans during the first half of the 20th century dictated that changes in the district’s hiring practices needed to be made. A trickle of black educators taught as part-time or substitute teachers before 1936. In its August 1916 issue, Crisis Magazine printed that “Miss Eleanor Pulpress is the first colored teacher to be appointed in the public schools of Pittsburgh.” However, there is no record of Miss Pulpress as a full-time teacher in the school system. Most likely Pulpress was the first appointed to teach as a substitute or part-timer.

For decades, the Pittsburgh Public Schools school board and superintendent professed that African Americans were not qualified or that white students would not learn from black teachers. Things began to change between the war years, after World War I in 1919 and before World War II in 1941. This period that also included the Great Depression from 1929 to 1941, witnessed the election of Pittsburgh’s first African American state representative in Homer S. Brown in 1934. One of Brown’s first initiatives as chair of the state appropriations committee was to investigate the Pittsburgh Public Schools’ board hiring practices. Brown looked at the roster of 3,300 teachers and did not see one African American. Brown’s point was that the board was comfortable in denying equal opportunity to African American teaching applicants and would restrict African American teachers from instructing white students. By limiting African American teachers to Hill District schools only, the school district could maintain segregated schools, negatively impacting teacher employment and students as well. In its efforts to maintain segregation, the district discriminated against qualified African American educators such as Paul Lawrence Peeler.

Paul Lawrence Peeler, Sr. holding violin, c. 1920s.
Paul Lawrence Peeler, Sr. holding violin, c. 1920s.

Paul Lawrence Peeler Sr. graduated from the Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University) in 1932 with a Bachelor of Arts in music education. The Carnegie Tech School of Music would graduate its first African American students in Peeler and James Miller. Miller would serve as a piano teacher to jazz pianists Ahmad Jamal and Horace Parlan and was active in music culture around Pittsburgh. Peeler received an additional degree from the Carnegie Institute in 1933 when he earned a Bachelor of Arts in Violin. Between 1936 and 1970, he completed graduate study and attended workshops at Carnegie Mellon University; the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee; Elon University, North Carolina; Boston University; and Northwestern University. In 1937, he became the first African American teacher hired by the Pittsburgh Public Schools system. Peeler had impressive credentials and was more than qualified to teach music in the Pittsburgh Public Schools. He would teach music at the elementary and junior high school levels from 1936 until his retirement in 1970.[i]

As the district’s first full-time African American educator, Peeler was a pioneer in black education. His perseverance in overcoming racist discriminatory practices during the pre-WWII era helped to usher in a new generation of African American educators, including John Brewer, Helen Faison, Doris Brevard, and other educators who would diversify and integrate Pittsburgh Public Schools.

[i] Biography of Paul Lawrence Peeler, Paul Lawrence Peeler Papers, Detre Library & Archives at the History Center.

Samuel W Black is the director of the African American Program at the Heinz History Center.

3 thoughts on “Breaking Down Barriers: Paul Lawrence Peeler and the Pittsburgh Public Schools

  1. This little known history, about Paul Lawrence Peeler, Sr., should be incorporated in the school system’s curriculum for all children. More local and regional African American profiles are needed to illustrate successes in T he African American community. Well researched and well written this profile should be published. with others in a stand alone series.

    Dr. Dorothy J. Fields
    Retired Educational Specialist
    Miami-Dade County Public Schools

  2. Thank you Samuel W. Black for capturing the struggle of my father Paul Lawrence Peeler Sr. He would often share with us his experiences in confronting racism and discrimination on his journey to become the first African American educator in the Pittsburgh Public Schools. As one of his seven children, we were each the recipients of the strong partnership of our father and mother. He was a consummate intellectual and required all of us to read, know our history and strive for excellence. Our mother, Grace Holmes was unrelenting in providing that strong ethical and spiritual core essential for life. I will always cherish those years of my fathers’ guidance and keen insights especially during my first teaching position at Oliver High School and later when I received my Masters’ Degree from his beloved Carnegie Mellon University. The lessons that my father taught his children and those students like George Benson, one of his thousands of students, have endured through the many years of Jim Crow and the Civil Rights Movement. These lessons will serve us well during these current tumultuous times. What a legacy he has given to each of us, our children and grandchildren, who have been taught to appreciate and celebrate the greatness that is part of their DNA.

    The name of Paul Lawrence Peeler Sr. should be added to the history books for every Pittsburgh Public School student to learn.

    Elaine Peeler Davis

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