WQED changes Lives
shop WQED


Western PA History Bridges and Buildings Rivers and Valleys Folks in Community The Arts Having Fun

FYIIndividuals and heroes

What makes a hero?

Unsung heroes

Latter day heroes

Creating Community


Peopling Pittsburgh
Community & culture
Family & faith
Individuals and heroes

Related video
Discussion & Activities

What makes a hero?

A community's history tells the story of people who worked to see change and innovation and growth. They are the local legends whose names filled history books. They are the everyday citizens remembered because they consistently offered simple kindnesses, or reliable service. And in some cases, no actual name of a person exists; but you'll see his or her contribution – in the shape of a business, landmark, or public institution. And that contribution is so distinct it clearly speaks of an "unsung hero's" efforts.

From the wealthiest industrialist to the most humble private citizen, "heroes" are the people whose actions exemplify community values or push the neighborhood one step closer to achieving its goals. But what form can such "actions" take? Perhaps it is innovation and invention, such as George Westinghouse's. Or it may be business acumen, as seen in Andrew Carnegie or Henry Frick. Political activism is another way to distinguish oneself in the community. Father Cox used radio broadcasts from his pulpit at St. Patrick's Catholic Church in the Strip District to organize people to stand against inadequate housing and unfair labor practices.

Phipps Conservatory

Westinghouse Memorial
Tom Altany

Top: Phipps Conservatory, Schenley Park

Bottom: George Westinghouse Memorial, Schenley Park


video icon Related video stories:

What "heroes" grew out of those conflicts? It is a lesson in perspective, since industrial giants like Andrew Carnegie helped to build a strong economy and contributed to many of the city's cultural outlets. Yet from the perspective of a mill worker living in a cramped company house, that same industrialist could be viewed as a rich man living off the underpaid labor of poor immigrants. To the immigrants, the mill worker who challenges authority and demands higher wages for all the workers may be considered the hero of the story.

The word "hero" so frequently gets limited to a comic-book definition, one influenced by caped crusaders and action movie stars. In real life, though, as seen in the pages of history books, and even in the truths of history that exist beyond recorded words, a hero is far more diverse, far more dimensional, far more complex – and, in truth, far more heroic than anything comic books can create. Pittsburgh's "heroes" are no different.

Pittsburgh heroes

While history books are filled with tales of pioneers and military leaders believed to have "settled" the Wild West (as Pittsburgh surely was considered to be in the 1700's), the region's true first inhabitants were Native Americans.

We travel past road signs pointing the way to Aliquippa, Montour Run, the Monongahela Valley – all indications of Western Pennsylvania's population prior to the time of Caucasian settlers.

Sometimes place names commemorate their achievements and contributions. The town of Aliquippa is named after Queen Aliquippa, a Native American leader who settled her people along the banks of the Ohio River after white settlers pushed them from their original home in the eastern part of the state. Montour, the name of several roads, a valley, and a high school, is the namesake of an Indian guide who aided white settlers. Red Poole, buried in Trinity Cathedral Cemetery, helped to win peace with the US government by getting his peers to sign the Treaty of Greenville in 1795, which pushed the Indian Territory west to the border between Ohio and Indiana. He was viewed as a hero by US government, was it likely that he was also revered as a hero by Native Americans?

Other Native Americans received no such commemoration, but they were integral parts of the community nonetheless. Even today, we live with the achievements of Native Americans yet may not recognize the innovators that gave us such agricultural staples as corn, beans and squash. We enjoy water sports on the Ohio River, yet rarely appreciate the fact that "Ohio" is an Indian term meaning "beautiful water." As modern communities strive for diversity, and small groups within the community rally to be heard, Native American achievements are again being recognized, and organizations continue to grow to help promote and support their culture in Pittsburgh.

video icon Description of related video segments:

Latter day heroes

If heroes can be said to save lives, Rachel Carson, a native of Springdale and graduate of Chatham College, is the ultimate hero. Through her book Silent Spring, she had the courage to speak out against widespread use of DDT because it was killing wildlife as well as insects. Her rallying cry began the modern environmental movement, saving millions of birds and sea animals, and likely, not just a few humans.

For more, see Pittsburgh's Top 100 People of the 20th Century from Pittsburgh Magazine.

Roberto Clemente was a double hero, having been the idol of Pirate baseball fans for being an outstanding right fielder in the 1960s. But his philanthropy to his native Puerto Rico and other Latin American nations went largely unnoticed until the tragic day it cost him his life. While delivering emergency supplies to earthquake victims, Clemente's plane crashed. His legacy lives on in showing young people that sports can be much more than money and competition.

Unsung Heroes

Without the contributions of a group of unsung sports heroes of an earlier generation, athletes like Clemente would never have played in the major leagues. The Pittsburgh Crawfords and Homestead Grays, Negro Baseball League teams of the earlier 20th century, withstood discrimination and racism to give their community the first-class teams to be proud of. Players like Josh Gibson and Satchell Paige still inspire awe with their incredible baseball records.

video icon Related video stories:

Other unsung heroes have made great contributions to their communities by putting their faith into action. Father Cox, a priest at St. Patrick's Catholic Church was one person to take political action to change things. In the first half of the 1800s, others in western Pennsylvania took direct action against injustice by becoming "conductors" on the Underground Railroad that smuggled escaping slaves from the South to Canada. The rivers were an important link in the Underground Railroad's transportation system. The Bethel AME Church, an early African American church in the Hill District and Monongahela were especially active in ushering ex-slaves to freedom.

video icon Related video stories:

Some heroes probably would never think of themselves as heroes, but rather helpers. Luana Graves started LaSalle's Beauty School in the Hill District in the mid-1900s to teach African American girls skills the could use to run their own businesses instead of doing housework for white people. Seeing the needs of others and figuring out a way to help is one way everyday heroes make our communities better!

video icon Related video stories:


[Previous] Family and Faith
Teachers' Guide Home