Another icon of civil rights, equality, women’s advancements, and a mentor of youth has left us in death: Mrs. Thelma Williams Lovette. Born on February 28, 1916, and raised as one of 11 children on Wylie Avenue in the Hill District neighborhood of Pittsburgh, Lovette was modest and demure, but quite spunky, which surprisingly offset her outstanding moral strength and civic duty. She never was one to take the spotlight, which is most evident in the Teenie Harris Archive photos of her (only in several instances did she look directly into his lens), but rather she gave focus to the others with her and to the occasion at which she was being photographed. This subtle observance denotes one of her most honorable qualities—humility. I say one of her qualities, because Mrs. Lovette had many.
She came from a family of reserved yet stoic political workers. Graduating from Schenley High School in 1934, she worked full time while attending the University of Pittsburgh to earn both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in social work. She was an elevator operator at Bell Telephone, taught in the Pittsburgh Public Schools, served for 35 years as a Democratic Committee woman, and became the first black social worker at Mercy Hospital. Having grown up spending much time at her local YMCA at the corner of Centre and Herron Avenues, it was only natural that she became an avid YMCA board member as an adult. She was a member of virtually every local and many national civic organizations, and attended the 1963 March on Washington. Her name lies on Freedom Corner in the Hill District with those of other local leaders who played a key role in the struggle for social justice during the civil rights movement in Pittsburgh. She was married (to William J. Lovette), had a daughter (Thelma), and was a pillar in her church. Amazingly, at the age of 80 years old, she ran in the Western Pennsylvania leg of the torch relay for the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. For all of these reasons, and so many more, Mrs. Lovette was honored in 2012 when the new Hill District YMCA was named after her.
Personally, I knew Mrs. Lovette my entire life, and like everyone else, I admired and loved her gentle nature and loving attitude. Her cheerful quips of, “Hi sweetie, what have you been up to lately?” or wry comments about how she was feeling (“not bad for an old lady”) and always leaving you with “Thanks for everything” and “I love you too!” will echo in my head and heart forever. It’s nice when someone so dynamic takes a personal interest in you. Once, to my great surprise, she helped me in a business matter like no one else could have. I was the president of an organization that had to come before the Pittsburgh Planning Commission. I was quite nervous, because my opponent was a major entity, and I felt like a little David to the marauding Goliath that I faced. As the members of the council filed in, I heard a soft and familiar voice—a more than 80-year-old Thelma Lovette’s cheerful “good morning” to her fellow council members. I rushed up to her as she placed her notepads down, and asked her, “Are you on this commission?” She said, “Yes dear, what are you here for?” Hurriedly, I explained my plight, and she assured me she’d make certain that my issues were heard. As the meeting progressed and it came to my portion, Goliath roared and I did my best to counter his arguments. But just when I thought the battle was lost, the true David (Mrs. Lovette) firmly and distinctly asked so many direct questions and demanded responses, that not only was my issue on the official record, but it was regarded with respect because she had come to bat for me. She saved the day.
She also was of prime support in helping the Teenie Harris archivists identify a barrage of people from his photographs. I held a “ladies’ luncheon” at my home, so that some of the senior ladies could go over the archive images in a comfortable setting. Thelma knew absolutely everyone in the photos, and she was so excited to tell us stories about each person she recognized, that she stood on her feet like a teacher, the whole time!
I was also privileged to be one of her “party” friends. No one loved to dance more than Ms. Thelma, and she was known far and wide to be the official “electric slide” starter at most recent events. Once she got started, you couldn’t make her sit down—she could out-dance me! Though her body began to falter in recent years, her mind and spirit were as sharp as a tack to the end. Her daughter, Thelma, and I attended an event together this past June, and she took back photos for her mother to see. When daughter Thelma showed mother Thelma the pictures from the event, she said to her, “Oh look, there’s Charlene!” She still knew every face and could recall every story she ever shared. She was made of durable stock.
A few years ago Mrs. Lovette was asked by WQED television what advice she thought a good life should include, she said: “Stay in school—get an education. Do what your parents tell you. Go to church—be part of something, and join organizations like the YMCA.”
Though her funeral was recently held in Arizona, a local memorial service for Mrs. Lovette is being held on August 1 at the Thelma Lovette YMCA on Centre Avenue in her beloved Hill District.
Mrs. Lovette’s spirit reminds me of a quote by another woman of distinction we recently lost: author and civil rights activist Maya Angelou, who once said: “I can do anything—any good thing—and do it well because God loves me and I am amazed and humbled at it.” That was truly Thelma Lovette—she did good things with great humility. And she did them well—a lesson for us all.