Black excellence: 3 generations of a prominent Pittsburgh family

Dr. George G. Turfley, the first registered black doctor in Allegheny County, poses with his wife, Mary Bryans Turfley, and their children in a circa 1905 photo. They are: (back row) Mary, left, John and Zerbie. (Front row) George, left, Alice, Mary, Richard, Dr. George and Melissa. (Dorsey-Turfley family photos, Detre Library & Archives, Sen. John Heinz History Center)

Family album: Photo archive chronicles Turfley-Dorsey family

It’s hard to live up to a man who was the first licensed African American doctor in Allegheny County. Yet the children and grandchildren of Dr. George G. Turfley have done it — and they have the pictures to prove it.

About 15 years ago, Zerbie Dorsey Swain drove from her old house in Dunbar, W.Va., to the Sen. John Heinz History Center in the Strip District. Samuel W. Black, the center’s director of African American programs, had agreed to meet her that Saturday to examine family photos from the early 1900s, when her grandfather was treating patients and living with his large family in a Tudor-style mansion on Centre Avenue in the Hill District.

Zerbie Turfley during Christmas in the Hill District in the early 1900s.
(Dorsey-Turfley family photos, Detre Library & Archives, Sen. John Heinz History Center)

“Mr. Black was very interested,” Mrs. Swain, 92, recalled during a phone interview from her home in Lynchburg, Va. “I said, ‘I have some more in the trunk of my car.’”

Mrs. Swain had over 220 photographs, carefully cataloged and captioned by her brother, James A. Dorsey Jr. of North Versailles, before he died in December 2002. She donated them several years later, and the Dorsey-Turfley family photos can now be viewed online as part of the Detre Library & Archives at historicpittsburgh.org.

The sepia-toned images chronicle a Pittsburgh story rarely told: three generations of a prominent black family whose members include doctors, athletes, public servants,Tuskegee airmen and some of the smartest, most determined women you’ll ever meet. Though tiny compared with the 80,000 images shot by Pittsburgh Courier photographer Charles “Teenie” Harris, the Dorsey-Turfley photo archive is just as compelling for one simple reason: We know almost everyone in the pictures.

The family tree starts with George Glasgo Turfley and Mary (Molly) Bryans. His family was from Culpepper County, Va. Mrs. Swain is not sure how they ended up here, but she knows her grandfather was one of the first African Americans to graduate from a Pittsburgh public school, Central High School in the Hill District in 1876. He was also one of the first black medical school graduates from Western Reserve University (now Case Western Reserve) in Cleveland.

Mrs. Turfley, meanwhile, was the first African American to graduate from Homestead High School and valedictorian of the class of 1894. Much younger and with much lighter skin than her husband, she surprised some acquaintances when she showed up with her seven children.

“They said: ‘Molly, what are you doing with these black children?’ She got mad and said, ‘Are you kidding? These are my children!’” Mrs. Swain said.

 

A stained-glass window at Grace Memorial Presbyterian Church in the Hill District honors Mrs. Turfley as the presbytery’s first female elder.

Being the children of a doctor didn’t shield the Turfley children from racism. In July 1928, 22-year-old George was beaten by a group of white men who said he had tried to seize two white girls in Schenley Park. The morals charge was dismissed after the girls didn’t show up at the hearing, according to The Pittsburgh Press and Pittsburgh Courier.

Mrs. Swain’s mother, also named Zerbie, was the oldest girl in the Turfley family. She told her youngest daughter, Lois Dorsey Aldridge of Sacramento, Calif., that her father sometimes took her in a horse-drawn buggy to visit patients.

“He delivered babies up and down Fifth Avenue,” Mrs. Aldridge said in a phone interview.

A standout basketball player at Central High School, Zerbie Ella Turfley is the only black face in a sea of white graduates in a 1917 photo from the University of Pittsburgh, where she earned a certificate in “household economy.”


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She met James Arthur Dorsey of the North Side at a sporting event. That’s no surprise since he excelled at baseball, basketball, football and other athletic pursuits, including English folk dancing. He played basketball alongside Cumberland Posey, later owner of the Homestead Grays baseball team. A photo in the archive also shows a Homestead Grays football team.

Mr. Dorsey, another Pitt grad, once lost a job at a city bath house because he refused to put up “Negroes Only” signs, Mrs. Swain said. He later became director of Washington Park, Crawford Bath House, Centre Avenue YMCA and Ammon Recreation Center, all in the Hill District, and the city recreation center in Glen Hazel.

The Dorseys initially lived with the Turfleys in the house at 2555 Centre Ave., then bought his mother’s house on Lawn Street in Oakland. They were the only black family on the street, and the seven Dorsey boys regularly got in fights at first.

“Mama said, ‘Your shirts are always torn. You boys need to learn to get along,’” Mrs. Swain recalled. “Johnny said, ‘When they call me names, I’m gonna fight, Mom.’”

That soon changed, their sisters said, and the boys became standouts on local sports teams. Their father often supplied the bats, balls and other equipment.

Four Dorseys served in World War II, one as a pilot trained in Tuskegee, Ala. Sgt. James A. Dorsey Jr. was an engineer in Europe and North Africa with the Army and later became executive director of the Allegheny County public assistance office.

All nine Dorsey children graduated from Schenley High School. One picture in the archive shows a teenage Zerbie in a white flowered dress. Her brother Bill’s girlfriend got sick before a dance, Mrs. Swain said, “so I went with him.”

Mrs. Swain graduated from Pitt with a degree in social work. After battling institutional racism in West Virginia in the 1950s, she rose to leadership roles in government-sponsored foster grandparent programs.

Her first cousin, Mary Burley of Cranberry, lived with her family in the Centre Avenue house until she married in 1959. Her mother, Alice Turfley Scott, continued to live there as the neighborhood declined. Mrs. Burley notified her cousins when the house was about to be demolished in the mid-’80s, but couldn’t bear to watch.

“It had been in the family so long…”

All seven Dorsey boys have passed away. Only the two girls are left. Mrs. Swain and Mrs. Aldridge are pleased that their family home still stands on Lawn Street. They remember lying in bed and watching the sky glow red from the J&L Steel mill across the Monongahela River.

Zerbie Turfley Dorsey, right, with eight of her children in a campground at the summit of Sideling Hill in Breezewood, Pa., circa 1934. (Dorsey-Turfley family photos, Detre Library & Archives, Sen. John Heinz History Center)

“On a hot summer night, I could feel the heat from the steel being poured. It was a lovely life, a lovely life,” Mrs. Aldridge said.

After leaving Pittsburgh, she earned associate’s and bachelor’s degrees in California and taught English, speech, retail and sales at Bauder College in Sacramento. She retired as an associate governmental program analyst for the state. Mrs. Aldridge now volunteers with Women’s Empowerment, training formerly homeless women to be apartment managers or hold other jobs. She believes she inherited her love of education and service from her grandparents and parents.

“My father put the fear of God in us: Don’t you mess with the Dorsey name. He said, ‘Your word is your bond. If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.’”

Zerbie Dorsey Swain, left, with her sister, Lois Dorsey Aldridge, in 2018.

Kevin Kirkland: kkirkland@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1978.


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