The James A. Dorsey Story

For many people, time off from work or school is an opportunity to engage in physical activity, whether it’s hunting and fishing, enjoying swings on a playground, or a pick-up game with friends. Pittsburgher James A. Dorsey had a passion for sports and recreational activities as well, and he devoted his life to sharing that love with others.

“Big Jim,” holding the basketball, poses with the Delaney Rifles basketball team, 1915.
“Big Jim,” holding the basketball, poses with the Delaney Rifles basketball team, 1915. Dorsey-Turfley Family Photographs, MSP 455, Detre Library & Archives at the History Center.

Dorsey developed his passion early. Born into a large and athletic family in Allegheny City in 1890, his interest was sparked as a 9-year-old watching students play basketball in the basement of the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. A few years later, he landed a job as a janitor at the Phipps School of Physical Training, a three-story gymnasium and bath house constructed by philanthropist Henry Phipps. There, on Sundays when the gym was “closed,” Dorsey gathered other local boys and formed his own basketball team.

“Big Jim” – he topped out at 5’10 ½” and 240 pounds in later years – was well known locally for his athletic prowess. He played on a number of football and basketball teams in his teens and early 20s. By this time, he had decided to make recreation a career and began working for the Pittsburgh Playground Association as a recreation supervisor at Washington Park in the Hill District. He continued working at the park when the city created a Bureau of Recreation and took over the daily operations. Dorsey was the first African American to serve in that capacity.

Desiring more formal training, Dorsey enrolled at the University of Pittsburgh and took classes in physical education. But he wasn’t only interested in sports; Dorsey also won local renown as the only African American to pass the examination required to join the English Folk Dancing Society.

Dorsey supervises the high jump practice at Washington Park, 1922.
Dorsey supervises the high jump practice at Washington Park, 1922. Dorsey-Turfley Family Photographs, MSP 455, Detre Library & Archives at the History Center.
Dorsey captured this photo of his wife Zerbie and eight of their stair-step children on a camping trip to the forest at Sidling Hill in 1932.
Dorsey captured this photo of his wife Zerbie and eight of their stair-step children on a camping trip to the forest at Sidling Hill in 1932. Dorsey-Turfley Family Photographs, MSP 455, Detre Library & Archives at the History Center.
The Rex Racket Club gathers around the net on their court at Centre Ave. and Morgan St. with the Minersville School in the background, 1925.
The Rex Racket Club gathers around the net on their court at Centre Ave. and Morgan St. with the Minersville School in the background, 1925. Dorsey-Turfley Family Photographs, MSP 455, Detre Library & Archives at the History Center.
Dorsey watches men play a rough and tumble game at Washington Park, 1922.
Dorsey watches men play a rough and tumble game at Washington Park, 1922. Dorsey-Turfley Family Photographs, MSP 455, Detre Library & Archives at the History Center.
Zerbie Turfly poses with the Della Robbia girls' basketball team, 1910s.
Zerbie Turfly poses with the Della Robbia girls’ basketball team, 1910s. Dorsey-Turfley Family Photographs, MSP 455, Detre Library & Archives at the History Center.

The Dorsey-Turfley Collection at the Heinz History Center illustrates the breadth of influence James Dorsey had as a ground-breaking African American in the developing field of recreation. Photos show Dorsey in his jerseys for the Monticellos, Delany Rifles, and Collins Tigers teams. They picture drills and volleyball games he supervised at Washington Park, swimmers at the Ammon Pool, and the Rex Racket tennis club. Photos also show that he passed on his love of recreation to his own family. In 1918, he married fellow University of Pittsburgh graduate Zerbie Turfley, who had played with the Della Robia girls’ basketball team. Together Jim and Zerbie had nine children with whom they shared their interests in the outdoors and physical activity.

Dorsey’s career spanned a full half-century when he retired in 1960. During his career, he served as recreation director at many institutions throughout the Hill District, including Washington Park, the Crawford Bath House, Centre Avenue YMCA, and the Ammon Center.

Additional images of James A. Dorsey and his family can be viewed online at Historic Pittsburgh. To learn more about the Dorsey family materials at the Detre Library & Archives, please view the finding aids for the Dorsey-Turfley Family Papers and Photographs.

Lauren Uhl is the museum project manager & curator of food & fitness at the Heinz History Center.

The History Center’s Food & Fitness program is sponsored in part by

UPMC MyHealth Community

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