THROUGHOUT THE DECADES
When Westinghouse High School opened in 1917, Homewood had a diverse population including middle-class professionals, small business owners, domestic servants for the wealthy, and blue-collar workers. (Ethnographic study, 1993) George Westinghouse was a progressive employer, and his company, Westinghouse Electric, provided housing and a new school for the workers who came to Pittsburgh to work for him. George Westinghouse developed a reputation for hiring a world-class faculty for Westinghouse High School to educate the young minds of Homewood. (Bullock Williams interview)
In 1920, the students of Westinghouse published A Book of Verse that featured poetry by students describing life in and out of the school as well as their thoughts on the future, war, and women’s suffrage. One poem by Ruth McFarland, class of ’17, titled “Appreciation Class” featured a frustrated music appreciation teacher trying in vain to play classical records on the Victrola and trying to get the player piano to run. (p. 63)
In addition to English, mathematics, history, and science, boys could also take courses in engine repair while girls took home economics. These courses became popular in the United States in the 1920s, designed to give students skills that they would need in their work lives. (Kline)
1940'S AND 1950'S
By midcentury, the most famous Westinghouse alumni were the world-renowned musicians Billy Strayhorn, Mary Lou Williams, and Errol Garner. In the 1940s, Westinghouse served a growing number of sons and daughters of Italian immigrants as well as former residents of the Lower Hill District—then being decimated by the city’s “slum clearance” program. (Trotter)
In the 1950s, Westinghouse began a run of sports championships that few other schools have matched. Its basketball and football teams brought home numerous city championships and trophies and featured many athletes that would go on to play in college and even for professional teams.
During the 1950s, the neighborhood was quickly changing and so was the student population at Westinghouse. In 1955, the 897 African American students at Westinghouse represented 53.4% of the total enrollment. In 1960, they numbered 1,965 and were 86.2% of the enrollment. By 1965, 2,914 African Americans attended the school and were 99.3% of the school. (The Quest for Racial Equality in the Pittsburgh Public Schools (1965), p. 12.)
African Americans made up larger and larger percentages of the students at Westinghouse during this period of “white flight” as it became known.
In the 1960s, WHS students continued to excel, and more and more students were awarded college scholarships. The number who won scholarships increased from 17 in 1961 to 41 in 1964. (Pittsburgh Board of Public Education, pp. 44-46.)
In 1965, the Pittsburgh Board of Education expressed alarm at trends they observed. “We deplore,” the commission wrote, “the fact that many white families have chosen to leave the city altogether rather than take part in the great social evolution upon us.” The report also noted: “We have stated without qualification that we believe in integrated schools.” (Pittsburgh Board of Public Education, pp. 44-46.)
Yet, the commission knew that their revenue was falling short and that they faced a budget shortfall without an additional $12 million per year above and beyond what local taxes supplied. And that budget did not include bold initiatives the commission proposed to address the challenges and needs they identified.
Despite these challenges, numerous Westinghouse grads went on to great achievements in government, business, sports, entertainment, and the military.