Irvis, K. Leroy
K. Leroy Irvis
Politician, civil rights leader
The first African-American speaker of a state legislative body since shortly after the Civil War, K. Leroy Irvis was arguably the most influential legislator in the history of Pennsylvania. He served as the speaker of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives longer than anyone since the commonwealth was a British colony. Throughout his long legislative career, Irvis championed the causes of education, civil rights, and labor, and is considered the father of the Pennsylvania community college system.
Kirkland Leroy Irvis was born in Saugerties, New York, in 1919—although some records claim that he was actually three years older than his official age. His father, Francis Irvis, was biracial, and had been raised by the paternal, white side of his family. Irvis described his father as a man of great intellect; a voracious reader who enjoyed Shakespeare but tragically could not get anything other than menial labor jobs due to the color of his skin. Despite the prejudice he faced, Francis Irvis would not tolerate his children or his friends judging anyone due to the color of their skin. It was a lesson his son took to heart.
Entered Teaching Profession
Prejudice was a luxury that Irvis could not afford—there were not many African Americans in the area of upstate New York where he was raised. Despite this fact, he was a top student and popular with his peers; he was class president in high school, and he dated a white woman through high school and college. After he graduated summa cum laude from the New York State College for Teachers (now known as SUNY Albany) with a master's degree in education in 1939, Irvis took a job as a schoolteacher in Baltimore, Maryland. During his first year there, he lived with the parents of the future U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. Moving from the Northeast to the Jim Crow South was eye-opening for Irvis. However, he did not allow that experience to undermine the values of tolerance and respect his father had taught him.
When the United States entered World War II, Irvis was still eligible for the draft, and he expected to be sent overseas. However, his rare combination of skills resulted in a different fate. Irvis was a model airplane enthusiast—he built them and flew them, and at one point he started his own model airplane club because the local club was open only to white members. This hobby, combined with his vocation as a teacher, led to a noncombat assignment during the war. Irvis trained workers—primarily African-American women—to work with metal so they could build bombers for the war effort. It did not matter to the Army that Irvis had never even seen a bomber before, or that he did not possess any of the metalworking and riveting knowledge he was supposed to teach his civilian charges; it was expected that he had the aptitude to learn those skills and teach them to others, and he rose to the challenge.
After the war Irvis left Baltimore and settled in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, taking a job as a public relations secretary for the Urban League, an organization devoted to the economic and social empowerment of African Americans. Irvis proved to be a natural activist. He organized picket lines in Pittsburgh in 1947 to protest discriminatory hiring practices at local department stores—one of the first protests of its kind. The demonstration was so effective that some of the most powerful people in the city, including Mayor David Lawrence, took notice of him as a force to be reckoned with, and the stores' hiring practices changed. Despite positive results, the protests upset many of the Urban League's financial backers and eventually cost Irvis his job.
After the Urban League, Irvis tried his hand at a wide variety of employments with mixed results. He wrote for the Pittsburgh Courier, worked in radio, and attempted to open a hot dog stand. Eventually, he took a job as a steel chipper with Crucible Steel. After he suffered a near-fatal accident at the mill, Irvis was persuaded by his wife to make another career change. He enrolled in law school at the University of Pittsburgh—where again, as in college, he was the only African American in his class.
Began Successful Political Career
After law school Irvis secured a position clerking for Pittsburgh Judge Anne X. Alpern, a pioneer who would go on to become Pennsylvania's first female attorney general and first female Supreme Court justice. Irvis became the first African-American law clerk in the history of the city's Court of Common Pleas. By this time, he had once again drawn the attention of Mayor Lawrence, the city's Democratic Party leader. Lawrence was responsible for Irvis's appointment to the Allegheny County District Attorney's office, where Irvis was the only African-American staff attorney. Irvis had been a prosecutor for two years when Lawrence called on him to run for the state House of Representatives.
Of politics, Irvis said in an interview with the National Visionary Leadership Project, "I didn't enjoy it, don't enjoy it now…. But I had no choice." Saying no to Mayor Lawrence—himself soon to be governor of Pennsylvania—would have been career suicide. So Irvis ran for office in 1958, and won a seat in the House.
Irvis's first term in the House was miserable. His wife contracted a viral infection and died suddenly shortly after he was elected. As a junior representative in the House he languished in the chamber's back bench, without any legislative experience or guidance on how to do his new job. By watching others, he slowly deciphered the particulars of the legislative process. However, he did not make his first speech on the House floor until his second year in office, and he did not truly feel comfortable in the role until after he had been re-elected to a second term. Nevertheless, he rose quickly through the ranks: by 1963 he was the chair of his party's caucus, becoming the Democratic majority leader within the legislature in 1969.
At a Glance …
Born Kirkland Leroy Irvis in Saugerties, NY, December 27, 1919 (some sources say 1916); died March 16, 2006, in Pittsburgh, PA; son of Francis H. and Harriet (Cantine) Irvis; married Katharyne Anne Jones, 1945 (died 1958); married Cathryn L. Edwards, 1973; children: Reginald (adopted), Sherri (adopted). Military service: U.S. Army, second lieutenant during World War II. Politics: Democratic Party. Education: New York State College for Teachers, BA, 1938; MA, education, 1939; University of Pittsburgh School of Law, LLB, 1954, JD, 1968.
Career: Baltimore, MD, public school system, high school teacher, 1939-42; National Urban League, public relations secretary, 1945-47; Allegheny County, PA, assistant district attorney; law clerk to the Honorable Anne X. Halpern; Pennsylvania House of Representatives, member, 1958-88; speaker of the house, 1977-78, 1983-88.
Memberships: University of Pittsburgh Medical School, member of advisory committee; National Urban League; NAACP; Phi Beta Kappa; Phi Delta Phi; United Black Front, board member; Urban League, board member; WQED (Public Television), board member.
Awards: B'nai B'rith Anti-Defamation League Man of the Year, 1987; K. Leroy Irvis Diversity Fellowship dedicated to him, 1994; building in the Capitol and reading room in University of Pittsburgh Library named after him.
As he worked his way up into leadership, Irvis established himself as a strong humanist in the legislature. A self-described "do-gooder" he frequently rebuked his colleagues for making abstractions of the public they served. "These are human beings we are discussing," he reminded his fellow representatives during a welfare debate. "They aren't ‘bodies’ on the welfare rolls." Discussing prison reform, he admonished his colleagues: "We have to make up our minds whether we consider the people we put behind bars as animals or human beings. We must not put them behind walls so high that they cannot see the daylight and we can't hear their cries."
Irvis's commitment to civil rights was not simply limited to speeches on the House floor. One night in December of 1968 he went with Representative Herbert Fineman and a few others to the Harrisburg Moose Lodge for a late dinner, where they were refused service because Moose Lodge would not serve blacks. Irvis initiated a lawsuit against the Lodge, which he pursued all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. He lost the case in 1972, but the suit was a reminder that a man some considered a political pacifist still had plenty of fight in him when he encountered injustice.
Elected First Black House Speaker
Irvis considered his collegial manner a benefit to his work in the legislature. "I feel blessed in many ways that I am able to disagree with a man or woman without disliking him or her. There is no one in the Hall of the House to whom I will not talk and to whom I will not listen." This quality would prove a major asset in May of 1977, when Fineman, who had been Speaker of the House for six and a half years, was convicted of obstruction of justice charges in relation to an influence-peddling scheme. With the Speaker's post empty, and indictments swirling around other members, the House needed someone of unimpeachable character to take charge. Irvis was the unanimous choice. The Republican Minority Leader, Robert J. Butera, hailed Irvis as "Absolutely honest, intellectually and morally." Irvis was elected speaker by acclamation, that is, without a formal ballot being held.
Irvis served four terms as Speaker of the House, the most of any Speaker in the Commonwealth's postcolonial history. He was hailed for his leadership, his statesmanlike ability to build consensus between opposing factions, and for his reverence of the House and its rules. As Speaker, Irvis ensured that no new representative would have the same type of experience that he had when he was first elected to the House, by setting up a system where veteran legislators tutored new arrivals.
He finally retired from the House of Representatives in 1988, after thirty years of service there. During that time he championed many education initiatives and oversaw the formation of the Pennsylvania community college system, an effort he spearheaded in 1963. He established a system whereby schools such as Pennsylvania State University and the University of Pittsburgh became state-affiliated entities, a move that saved Irvis's law school alma mater from financial disaster. His legislative initiatives were also responsible for the creation of the state Higher Education Assistance Agency, Minority Business Development Authority, Equal Opportunity Program, and Human Relations Commission. Irvis also took great pride in a bill he sponsored that required mandatory phenylketonuria (PKU) testing of infants for a disease that can cause brain damage if untreated. Over the course of his career he had sponsored or contributed to more than 1,600 pieces of legislation in the House; 264 of the bills he authored became law.
After his retirement, Irvis remained active, pursuing his lifelong hobbies. He sculpted and painted, and a number of his works were exhibited publicly. He wrote poetry—a book of his poems was published the same year he retired from the House. He also continued to add to his collection of model airplanes, which he built throughout his life. On March 16, 2006, he died after a long fight with cancer, leaving behind his second wife, Cathryn, and her two children, whom he adopted in the mid-1970s.
This Land of Fire, Temple University, 1988.
Paul B. Beers, Pennsylvania Politics Today and Yesterday: The Tolerable Accommodation, Pennsylvania State University Press, 1980.
New Pittsburgh Courier, October 25-31, 2006; April 10, 2008.
Pitt Chronicle, January 22, 2008.
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, March 17, 2006.
"K. Leroy Irvis," Community College of Allegheny County, http://www.ccac.edu/default.aspx?id_150207 (accessed April 30, 2008).
"K. Leroy Irvis," National Visionary Leadership Project, http://www.visionaryproject.org/NVLPmemberTier/visionariest1/VisionaryPages/irviskleroy/index.asp (accessed April 30, 2008).
"Speaker Portrait: K. Leroy Irvis," Pennsylvania Legislature, http://www.legis.state.pa.us/WU01/VC/visitor_info/gallery/irvis.htm (accessed April 30, 2008).
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