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The University of Pittsburgh's Black History Month Program is named after a trailblazing politician who dedicated his life to others.
K. Leroy Irvis (LAW ’54) was born in Saugerties, New York, and forged a path as a political giant, a respected civil rights activist, an artist, a family man and champion of education who sought to better the lives of all Pennsylvanians.
"He was a masterful politician," said Donald M. Henderson, Pitt professor emeritus of sociology who served as Pitt's first Black provost from 1989 to 1994. "There weren't many Black people in the legislature, but it was still unusual to have one as powerful as Mr. Irvis. He was bright, able and fearless. He was also an excellent poet and a nice man. I held him in very high esteem."
Irvis spent more than three decades in politics, moving from the Hill District to Harrisburg and receiving praise across the aisle. In 1977 he was unanimously elected as the first Black speaker of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives and any state legislature since Reconstruction. He held this position until his retirement in 1988.
During his political career, he helped reform the state's fiscal system and expanded education access. He sponsored or cosponsored more than 1,600 pieces of legislation, with several addressing civil rights issues like fair housing, health care, prison reform and racial discrimination. He also supported the creation of organizations such as the Pennsylvania Legislative Black Caucus, the Pennsylvania Minority Business Development Authority and Sickle Cell Society, Inc.
[Register for the Feb. 25 Black Excellence Bash, the closing event of Pitt’s K. Leroy Irvis Black History Month programming.]
One of Irvis’s most significant creations was Act 101, a scholarship program that's benefited thousands of academically and financially disadvantaged Pennsylvania college students. Irvis was also involved in the passage of the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Act, which increased state funding for higher education and created the commonwealth's system of community colleges.
He died in 2006.
In 2003, the South Office Building of the state Capitol complex in Harrisburg was renamed in his honor. In 2017, the University of Pittsburgh passed a resolution to rename Pennsylvania Hall to K. Leroy Irvis Hall.
"He was singularly important in the legislature, and he was singularly important to the Black community in Pennsylvania, particularly in Pittsburgh," said Henderson. "His position and politics in Pennsylvania put him in a position where he could do a lot of things that wouldn't have happened had he not been there. He did a lot of good — not just for Black folks but also for Pennsylvanians. He was important in Pennsylvania and national politics."
— Kara Henderson