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.

11 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

    1. Mz. Robles ,
      Mr. Peeler was my favorite music teacher and director of the Boys’ Glee Club at Knoxville Jr. High School in Pittsburgh, Pa. I am so grateful for having had him as my music teacher and director. This was in 1962, four years before I graduated from High School and eight years prior to his retirement. I recognized him immediately center photo , although several years before he taught me.
      Are you aware of any photos of him from the time around 1962 which I may obtain?
      Mr. Peeler was a great teacher, a friendly person who encouraged song, and a good man.
      Michael Pastor

  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

  3. So happy to see this account of what was without a doubt one of my favorite and most influential teachers. As a child growing up in the early 60s I was blessed to be taught by Mr.Peeler at Fort Pitt school.Those life lessons were many. He fostered a life long love for music that fuels me still. His energy, compassion , and patience towards a room full of boisterous kids was unwavering. And although I was on the receiving end of the ‘magic wand’on my knuckles a time or two ( deservedly I might add! ) I am still able to recall his smiling face at the piano as he put us thru our paces,whether it be “Dona Nobus Pacem “or “Love letters in the sand”. I was a freckled faced skinny little white girl, unaware of the struggles he endured and was enduring to become my teacher. His lessons were colorblind. Everyone of us treated equally. So very grateful that my public education included the gift of music with Mr.Peeler.He most certainly deserves to be honored .

  4. Mr. Peeler will again be recognized at the History center as part of the Music & Memory fundraising dinner on June 8th. More information to come.

  5. Mr. Peeler was my favorite teacher,he taught me at Fort Pitt in the 50’s.Glad he is being recognized.

  6. Mr. Peeler was my music teacher in Fort Pitt. He taught me how to play the violin. He was a fantastic teacher.

  7. Hello all,

    Thank you for leaving this breadcrumb of valuable history and knowledge for people to discover! I am a new Art Educator with the PPS district and I graduated form the PPS district. For the month of Black History Commemoration, I have designed the main hallway of the Elementary School I currently work at with,facts of Pittsburgh Trailblazers. I will include Mr. Peeler along with a wealth of forgotten, little told, and over looked achievements. Many of you mentioned that his memory should be told in the PPS Curriculum; Lord willing, I will have the time to do that, as I embark on my art teaching career.

  8. Wow – I stumbled across the article that shows my maternal Grandfather – David L. Peeler, uncle Paul Lawrence Peeler and uncle Melvin Eugene Peeler. I was moved by the comments of his students. I too graduated from Carnegie Mellon University and so did another cousin. I am proud to be part of this legacy! Virtual hugs and many blessings. We appreciate the recognition.

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