Photo: Dorothy Mae Richardson speaks at the 16th anniversary of Neighborhood Housing Services with former Mayor and Pennsylvania State Representative Tom Murphy (from left); former Pittsburgh Mayor Caliguiri; and former Neighborhood Housing Services Executive Director Steve Roberts (behind). Courtesy of NeighborWorks Western PA Archives
Dorothy Mae Richardson was honored in October for her work to spur a national movement for affordable housing.
By Alexis Draut
The late Dorothy Richardson, a Northsider who spurred a nationwide movement for safe and affordable housing, was honored in October with an official State Historical Marker.
“Dorothy was a woman who didn’t take no for an answer,” said Jason Tigano, board of directors’ president of NeighborWorks Western Pennsylvania (NWWPA).
“In Pittsburgh, we talk about Carnegie and Mellon and Mr. Rogers and here was a Black woman in the 1960s who said ‘I’m gonna do this thing,’ and did it.”
Tigano was one of approximately 120 people who gathered in Pittsburgh’s Northside on Oct. 16 to celebrate the unveiling of an official State Historical Marker honoring the legacy of Pittsburgh social activist Dorothy Mae Richardson, who helped found NeighborWorks America. This year marks the 50th anniversary celebration of a NeighborWorks charter in Western Pennsylvania, encompassing the Pittsburgh area.
Richardson was a longtime Northside resident, and in the 1960s when the government threatened to demolish her community of Charles Street Valley for the sake of development, she fought to save it, according to Tigano. Richardson worked with neighbors, politicians and bank officials to create affordable housing opportunities for low-income neighborhoods.
She founded Neighborhood Housing Services (NHS) in 1968, and when the Johnson administration caught wind of what she was doing, they invited her to Washington, D.C. to learn more, said Tigano.
“[The result] was what ultimately became the creation of NeighborWorks America,” said Tigano. “This changes more lives than anything else we could be a part of.”
For the past 50 years, NeighborWorks Western Pennsylvania has helped thousands of low-income families purchase their first homes and maintain them, building a more stable Pittsburgh community. In addition to the Western Pennsylvania branch, there are now around 250 community development affiliates of NeighborWorks in all 50 states.
“She was a very bold and fearless individual to be able to do that,” said NWWPA CEO Colin Kelley. “For somebody who didn’t have professional training in community development, what she did in that time period, working with corporations, the community and the city government – that was just uncharted territory.”
Richardson’s son, Jonathan, who shared a few words at the dedication, remembers as a child how his mother was always busy, touring around the country to share the NHS model. Yet, he didn’t think her efforts would continue after she died.
“It’s indescribable actually, being a part of this,” said Jonathan Richardson. “I know she’s looking down watching this.”
Jerrilynne Kirksey, who grew up in Northside, said her grandmother and Richardson were close friends, adding that Richardson “changed her diapers.”
“To me she was just a lady in the neighborhood that was good friends with my grandmother,” said Kirksey. “I didn’t know how important she was.”
Yet, the impact that Richardson left on her local community spurred a national movement that’s assisted thousands of families, said Kelley.
Pittsburgh Mayor William Peduto spoke at a reception following the dedication, declaring Oct. 16 as “NeighborWorks Western Pennsylvania Day,” acknowledging how Richardson started in her own Pittsburgh neighborhood to help families across the U.S.
“Dorothy Mae Richardson and her neighbors did more than just save their Northside neighborhood from the wrecking ball,” said Peduto. “By bringing together residents, banks and government officials to revitalize their neighborhood, they established the new field of community-based development that spread from Pittsburgh to cities across the country.”
NWWPA provides services to local residents in the form of counseling and education for individuals or families interested in getting on track to homeownership, according to Kelley. Counselors at NWWPA, according to the organization’s website, work one-on-one with clients to help them set financial goals, build credit, and manage debt.
The historical marker is located at the intersection of Jacksonia and Arch Streets, at the location of NHS’s first office, which Tigano said was an old trailer repurposed by Richardson.