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Longtime civil rights activist Thelma Lovette, 98, dies in Arizona

| Saturday, May 24, 2014, 3:44 p.m.
Thelma Lovette smiles during a ceremony Wednesday morning April 18, 2012 dedicating the new Hill District YMCA in her name. James Knox | Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
Thelma Lovette, 97, who marched on Washington in 1963, with some of the memorabilia from that day.
Former local community activist, civil rights proponent and social worker, Thelma Lovette, tours the new Hill District YMCA that has been named in her honor on Tuesday April 17, 2012. Lovette enthusiastically tries one of the new weight machines at the facility which bears her named and has the ribbon-cutting ceremony tomorrow. Her daughter Thelma Morris watches in the background. Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review

While president of the board of directors of the Hill Community Development Corp. in the 1970s and 1980s, Thelma Lovette would use her family's money to pay some of the organization's bills.

“And that's from a family that didn't have much,” said her daughter, Thelma Lovette Morris. “But it was always important to her to help build up the community.”

Thelma Williams Lovette — a longtime civic, political and civil rights activist, who was cherished in the Hill District for her grace and steely resolve — died on Saturday in Mesa, Ariz., following a recent stroke, her daughter said. She was 98.

To honor her lifelong dedication to the community, the YMCA on Centre Avenue opened in 2012 as the Thelma Lovette YMCA. She was the first woman to serve on both the board of the Hill District's Centre Avenue YMCA and the board of the YMCA of Greater Pittsburgh.

“She and her family are the archetype of stalwarts in the Hill District,” former City Councilman Sala Udin said. “She loved the Hill District, and she was dedicated to doing what she could to improve the lives of people who lived there.”

Mrs. Lovette was the fifth of 11 children born to Alice and Henry Williams. Mrs. Lovette's father started a plumbing business on Crawford Street in 1919. Her oldest brother, Robert E. “Pappy” Williams, was the first black magistrate in Pennsylvania, an ally of Mayor David L. Lawrence and a powerful Democratic chairman of the city's 5th Ward.

Another brother, Frank, worked as a deputy County Controller under Frank Lucchino, now a senior Allegheny County judge. Her third brother, Jacob, was a district justice. Her husband, Bill, became a plumber.

Mrs. Lovette's own political career consisted of 35 years as a Democratic committeewoman. She turned down patronage jobs that politicians gave ward leaders in exchange for delivering votes. Mrs. Lovette washed dishes, became an elevator operator at Bell Telephone and was a team mother, akin to a teachers' aide, in the team teaching program at Pittsburgh Public Schools.

Mrs. Lovette became the first black social worker at Mercy Hospital. While she worked there, she earned her bachelor's and master's degrees in social work from the University of Pittsburgh. She would attend classes in the day and work evenings and weekends while in her 50s. She worked 18 years at the Uptown hospital.

“She always said, ‘Whatever you do, be the best at whatever you're doing, and other opportunities will come your way,' ” Morris said of her mother.

When Morris' husband, Gregory, took his mother-in-law grocery shopping in the South Side, Morris said, they would be greeted by people who knew Mrs. Lovette from her work at Mercy, saying, “You told me to do such and such to get a better job, and I did that and I got a better job.”

Mrs. Lovette participated in the 1963 march on Washington, witnessing Martin Luther King Jr. giving his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Morris said her mother participated in other civil rights demonstrations in Pittsburgh.

“She would go and march, but she wasn't loud,” Morris said. “She would make her point quietly and subtly.”

During rioting following the King assassination in 1968, Mrs. Lovette confronted a group of men who had kicked in the front door of a store along Wylie Avenue.

“She said that outsiders had come in to burn down our stores and our businesses,” Morris said.

Mrs. Lovette's last trip to the Hill District was during the April 2012 dedication of the YMCA, Morris said. When she visited her namesake, said Shannel Givner, the facility's youth development director, Mrs. Lovette radiated joy.

“She was just so vibrant,” Givner said. “It was a dream come true for her.”

Longtime equality activist and civil rights leader Alma Speed Fox said Saturday that Mrs. Lovette was a trailblazer for blacks in the Hill District. Her activism allowed them opportunities that had been unattainable.

“She and her family had strong political ties, and growing up in the Hill District, they had a lot more access than most. They opened a lot of doors for others,” Fox said.

Funeral arrangements were incomplete in Arizona, Mrs. Lovette's daughter said. An Aug. 1 memorial is planned for Pittsburgh, though details have not been finalized.

Bill Vidonic is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5621.

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