Research combined by Nyla D., Lily C., & Denaya L.
What does it take to be a pioneer? Elizabeth
Pittman was a woman of firsts. Under a misty
haze of segregation, prejudice, and sexism, Elizabeth was determined to make
her biggest dreams come true. She was the first black female to graduate from
Creighton Law School (1948), be elected to the Omaha school board (1950), and be
appointed to the Douglas County attorney office (1964). In 1971, Governor Jim Exon
appointed Pittman to be a Douglas County Municipal Judge, giving her the honor
to serve as both the first black judge and the first female judge in the state
of Nebraska. Throughout her career, Pittman advocated for women and black
people in the legal field and she never let racism or sexism stop her. Pittman’s perseverance and diligence made her
Elizabeth Pittman had a great
impact on her community, and her ambition far surpassed the obstacles she
faced. In her Senior Year at North High
School, she was involved in many clubs and community organizations like Big
Sister and National Honor Society.
Pittman worked tirelessly as an attorney and was an example for women and
the black community in Omaha. She was involved in the Omaha Settlement House
movement and was president of The National Federation of Settlements and
Neighborhood Centers (1971). Pittman was heavily involved in the YWCA, where
she served with her best friend, Ruth Thomas, in her free time. She earned the
Woman of the Year Award by the Omaha Business and Professional Women’s Club (1971)
and an honorary doctorate from Creighton University, recognizing her work in
the legal field and Omaha community (1973).
The life and career of Elizabeth Pittman
was a great inspiration to minorities and will be forever memorialized in the
building dedicated in her honor on the Creighton University campus in 1998. The
same year Creighton University established the Elizabeth Pittman Award, which is given annually to black graduates
of the Creighton Law School “who possess the same qualities of excellence, perseverance,
and dedication that made Judge Pittman such a truly outstanding role model for
all law students and lawyers.”
Published on July 22, 2016
Students created this documentary about Elizabeth Davis Pittman as part of the Omaha Public Schools Making Invisible Histories Visible initiative.
Elizabeth Davis (now Elizabeth
Pittman) graduated from North High School in 1938, one of only a handful of
non-white students in her class. Her
yearbook entry that year details eleven accomplishments, most notably National
Honors Society, Honor Roll, and Class Treasurer.
Her achievements, compared to the other students, are very
significant in history. They show her ambition and drive for success from an
early age, and how she was active in her school, despite the discrimination she
faced as a black woman in that decade. Her high school career shows that she
was a diligent worker and a pioneer for blacks and women alike. Following graduation from North High School,
she was ready to face the challenges ahead of her at the University of Nebraska
and Creighton University.
(yearbook courtesy of North High School)
This photograph is of Elizabeth Pittman working on one of
her many cases as a lawyer. Due to her intelligence and determined personality,
it is no surprise that she accomplished her dream of being a lawyer. During an
interview with Ruth Thomas, Pittman’s best friend from college, Thomas stated “Pittman
did not need encouragement.” In college,
her determination kept her on the right track to achieve her goals.
followed in her father’s footsteps by becoming a lawyer, but later blazed her
own trail by becoming a judge. Before
she became a lawyer, both white and black women were seen as inferior to men in
the professional field. However, her law
career proved that women could work professionally and not simply be housewives. She did not allow stereotypes to put a limit
on her dreams.
(photo courtesy of the Douglas County Archives)
The Carver Building, located at 24th
and Lake Streets in the heart of the black community, was built by Elizabeth
Pittman’s father, Charles Davis, in 1944 to house his law office and the Carver
Savings and Loan Bank (CSLB). The CSLB was
the first black-owned bank in Omaha and one of the few in the entire United
States at the time. Not only was this bank the first black bank in Omaha but,
contrary to white banks, it also loaned many black people money to buy homes. After
she joined her father’s firm in 1949, Elizabeth Pittman also worked at the
Carver Building until she became a Douglas County attorney in 1964. She acknowledged
her father’s influence in giving her the opportunity to practice law at his
firm and for teaching her what hard work could accomplish in the face of
extreme pressure and discrimination. (photo taken July 19, 2016, by Christina Collins)
The Elizabeth Pittman Building on
Creighton University’s campus in downtown Omaha was dedicated on October 3,
1998, and houses the Educational Opportunity Center, which provides General
Educational Development (GED) classes and helps with financial aid and college
enrollment services, as well as assistance to English as a Second Language (ESL)
students and financial literacy, money management, career planning, and resume
writing workshops. Elizabeth Pittman would
be proud of this building because she believed in helping people reach their
highest potential. She encouraged others,
especially women, to focus on their education and through her own example,
Pittman believed that “fulfillment begins when women respect themselves and
what they’re doing.” Her legacy is
effectively memorialized in this building as it puts into action Elizabeth’s
dream of equal access to higher education for all people.
(photo taken July 14, 2016, by Denaya Lewis)
Racial disputes are far from foreign to the United States, and Omaha is no exception. Despite its geographical location, Omaha’s history includes forceful discrimination and profound segregation. During the late 1800s and early 1900s, Omaha experienced an influx of immigration from many European and Asian countries. Dutch, Italian, German, Bohemian, Chinese, Japanese, Irish, Swedish, and Scottish peoples constitute a mere fragment of the immigrants who came to the United States during this time. However, substantial internal migration accompanied international immigration. Known as the Great Migration, the start of the twentieth century saw immense black traffic from southern to northern states. Omaha became home to an increasing percentage of black people during this time.
At the outset, black people settled across all of Omaha and were not restricted to any one part of town. South Omaha and downtown, as well as North Omaha, were homes to large black communities. However, come the 1910s and 1920s, North Omaha emerged as the burgeoning nucleus for black prosperity, mainly owing to unwritten but palpable discrimination regarding real estate. In spite of this, the black community resolved to create their own success and established many businesses around 24th and Lake streets. One of the most notable industries during this era was the music business. North Omaha saw the talents of internationally renowned musicians at ballrooms such as the Dreamland and Carnation.
Omaha was consistently discriminatory toward the black community. They were still restricted to certain schools, denied jobs, and given lesser jobs. Most of the black teenagers in Omaha were limited to attending Central High School and Tech High School, due to their northeastern locations. North High School was not acceptable for black students to attend during Elizabeth Pittman’s generation, as it was too far west. Although not acceptable, black students still attended, albeit in smaller numbers.
By creating a community of their own, black people in Omaha strove to live a normal life, free from the confines of discrimination and segregation. Elizabeth Pittman is an example of how one person’s determination can set the stage for success for generations to come.
Written by Madalyn Buller, a student at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
J. Personal interview. 18 July 2016.
Opportunity Center.” Pamphlet.
Howard, Ashley M.
“Then the Burning Began: Omaha, Riots, and the Growth of Black Radicalism,
1966-1969.” MA thesis. University of Nebraska at Omaha, 2006. Print.
Winner, John E. Pierce.” Creighton
University School of Law. Creighton University. Web. 20 July 2016.
Smith, Alonzo N.
“BLACK NEBRASKANS Interviews From the Nebraska Oral History Project II.”
Ralston Public Library.
Smith Jr., J.
Clay. “Elizabeth D. Pittman: Black Legal Pioneer in the Midlands.” Creighton Law Review 32 (1998): 511-532.
Personal interview. 18 July 2016.
Creighton University Archives
University School of Law 1948” Class Picture
University School of Law June 1948” Class Picture
clipping file at the Douglas County Historical Society
Called Right, Not Privilege, of Women.” Print.
“The judge: ‘I was going on being the only woman long before there was any
women’s movement as such.’” Omaha Sun 15
November 1979. Print.
“Pittman Mourned as Pioneer, Inspiration.” Omaha
World Herald [Omaha, NE]. Print.
Davis Pittman”. Print.
woman of the year.” Omaha Sun [Omaha,
NE] 28 October 1971. Print.
“Black woman judge quiet at being a first.” Print.
Ross, Kate Tukey.
“Lots of Only: Mrs. Pittman Is Sole Negro Woman Lawyer.” Omaha World Herald [Omaha, NE] 27 February 1949: 20C. Print.