In the 19th and 20th centuries, immigrants who arrived in America often spent time at settlement houses where they learned how to speak English, sought work and adjusted to their newly adopted country.
Pittsburgh’s Hill District was once home to three settlement houses — the Irene Kaufmann Settlement, the Anna B. Heldman Center and Hill City. In 1964, those three agencies merged to form Hill House Association.
The new community center was a place where Hill District residents could obtain help finding housing, receive dental and medical care, advice on family planning, legal assistance, tutoring for high school dropouts and job training.
Public officials and civic leaders such as Elsie Hillman and the late Wendell G. Freeland knew there was a pressing need for a place like Hill House Association.
That’s because 50 years ago, the needs of Pittsburgh’s black residents were acute.
The destruction of the Lower Hill District neighborhood, which occurred between 1955 and 1960, displaced 8,000 people and 400 businesses. City officials had used eminent domain to clear the neighborhood so it could build the Civic Auditorium for the Civic Light Opera. (The dome-shaped building, later called the Civic Arena and Mellon Arena, was demolished in 2012, after the Pittsburgh Penguins had moved to Consol Arena.)
In 1972, a new Hill House building opened at 1835 Centre Avenue and served as the home of 18 social service agencies. The new building, which cost $2.5 million, also became a gathering place for the black community and local leaders of the civil rights movement.
Among Hill House’s early leaders were Harry Bray, J. Wendell Ramey and Russell Shelton. James Henry became director in 1978 and his tenure lasted for 25 years. He was succeeded by Evan Frazier.
The current president and chief executive officer is Cheryl Hall-Russell, who happily announced the opening of a full-service grocery store in the Hill District in October 2013. For thirty years, the community had lacked that basic amenity. Today, Hill House is focusing on helping seniors, workforce development and students who have dropped out of school.