Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

He faced criticism at his appointment, confronted adversity in his duties, and battled poor health in his later years, but he kept the torch of justice burning brightly for all to see, maintaining his dignity and poise at every turn. He was William Pennington Young (1895-1968), the Keystone State’s fifteenth secretary of labor and industry, from 1963 to 1967, during the administration of Governor William Warren Scranton.

Young, whom intimates called W.P., was a civil rights activist before it became a popular stance. In the uncertain, tumultuous days of racial discord, his ability to unite people for a common cause was lauded. Whether the goal was making his political party more reflective of America or advocating on behalf of disabled laborers, Young fought a good fight, taming his adversaries with finesse and countering opponents with reason. Raymond P. Shafer, of Meadville, Crawford County, governor of Pennsylvania from 1967 to 1971, remembered him as a “beloved citizen of Pennsylvania and pioneer in teaching men of different backgrounds and heritages the art of living together. His contributions as a distinguished Secretary of Labor and Industry have helped make Pennsylvania a place of hope and opportunity for all men.”

He was born on October 28, 1895, in East Orange, New Jersey, son of the Reverend Ulysses and Florence Young. His family included brothers Herman, Isaiah, Bernard, Floyd, and Ulysses, and sisters Edith and Corrie. He was educated at Nassau Public School in East Orange before attending East Orange High School. He then transferred to Downingtown Preparatory School in Chester County, Pennsylvania, where he studied Bible/Religion, English, History, Latin, and Greek, earning remarkable grades before graduating in May 1913.

In September, W.P. enrolled at Lincoln University in southern Chester County. Chartered in April 1854 as the Asmun Institute, it was renamed Lincoln University in 1866 to honor President Abraham Lincoln, who had been assassinated the previous year. During its first one hundred years, Lincoln graduated twenty percent of the nation’s black physicians and more than ten percent of its black attorneys. Its alumni have headed more than thirty-five colleges and universities and scores of prominent churches. At least then of its graduates have served as United States ambassadors or mission chiefs. Notable graduates include Hildrus A. Poindexter (1924), internationally recognized authority on tropical diseases; world-acclaimed poet Langston Hughes (1929); Thurgood Marshall (1930), the first African American justice of the Supreme Court; Nnamdi Azikiwe (1930), the first president of Nigeria; the Reverend James Robinson (1935), founder of Crossroads Africa, on which the Peace Corps was modeled; Kwame Nkrumah (1939), the first president of Ghana; Roscoe Lee Browne (1946), popular author and actor; and Jacqueline Allen (1974), Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas judge. In his 1976 book Education for Freedom: A History of Lincoln University, Pennsylvania, Horace Mann Bond, Class of 1923, eighth president of Lincoln and father of civil rights activist Julian Bond, noted that the university was “the first institution found anywhere in the world to provide a higher education in the arts and sciences for male youth of African descent.” (The university admitted its first female students in 1952.)

At Lincoln University, W.P., alongside his brother Ulysses, let his athletic light shine prominently for the first time. Known as great competitors, the Youngs were lauded as the most famous brother act to hit Lincoln’s cam­pus. As a member of the football, basketball, and baseball teams, W.P. earned the nickname “Pep” or “Pepper.” So great was his athletic prowess that while playing for the Lincoln Lions, he was chosen for the position of quarterback of the Negro All-American Team. In addition to athletics, W.P. also excelled in academics. He majored in German and English. He served as the captain of the debating team, where he refined his oratorical ability, a skill for which he was praised in later years. He also sang with the Lin­coln University Quartet and the choir. In 1916, he was initiated into Beta chapter of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, incorporated at Lincoln University. He addressed the fellow members of the graduating class of 1917 as valedictorian.

W.P. remained at Lincoln where he began working toward a master’s degree in German and English. During the 1917-1918 academic year, he served as a graduate assistant, teaching Ger­man, English, and argumentation (debating), fulfilling one of his dreams to be an educator.

Young held high regard for Lincoln University, never forgetting that his education prepared him for his life’s work. Years later he reminisced fondly of his student days in a letter to Mar­vin Wachman, who served as university president during Young’s tenure as a member of the board of trustees, from 1964 to 1967. “There are just no words with which to register my gratitude and thanks for what Lincoln gave me,” Young wrote, just one month after beginning his term as secretary of Labor and Industry. “In my efforts to face up squarely to the duties and responsibilities of my present office, I can still draw on the seemingly inexhaustible store of things acquired during my student days there. The years have been many since my enrollment there, but in my memory, the past is very fresh and green.”

In 1918, Young moved to the Homewood section of Pitts­burgh, married his first wife, Lillian R. McCray, and joined the personnel department of the Lockhart Iron and Steel Company where he would spend the following forty-three years. It was at Lockhart that Young’s compassion for his fellow man first became evident His work at the Lockhart Iron and Steel Compa­ny, located in McKees Rocks, was likened to that of a compassionate social worker. He assisted replacement workers, mostly from southern states, become acclimated to living in the North, helping them to find adequate housing, good health services, and suitable recreation. He directed them to company housing, and tried to make their stay in Pittsburgh as comfortable as possible. The compassion he showed to the transplants from below the Mason-Dixon Line who filled in during periods of strikes and employment unrest, was as acute as the altruism that drove him to become active in local organizations. This volunteerism inevitably thrust him into a leadership position in the Pittsburgh community.

Just as Young pursued his goal of improving the quality of life for blacks, he continued to pursue his love for sports, signing on with the Homestead Grays, a Negro League baseball team that was founded, managed, and co-owned by Pittsburgh athlete Cuberland Posey. On the Grays, Young played among the likes of legendary sportsmen Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson (see “Josh Gibson, The Heartbreak Kid” by John B. Holway, Fall 1994).

During this period, Young also graced the basketball court, playing for the famous Loendi Club, an independent team – and the first recognized as a national champion, a position it held for many years. He served as president of Loendi’s Social Club for four years. In 1934, Young retired his catcher’s glove, passing the baton to Josh Gibson, who took his place in the lineup. After playing baseball for fifteen years, Young remained active, managing basketball teams and arranging their road trips.

Without the considerable time commitment required by play­ing sports, Young was able to devote himself even more fully to his family. He and his wife adopted Rabia Ginn, the young daughter of a Pakistani missionary whose work caused him to travel extensively. Rabia flourished under their guidance. With Lillian Young’s active involvement in music and W.P.’s burgeoning political connections, she enjoyed a well-rounded childhood. (After Lillian’s Death, Young married his second wife, Wilnette B. Jones, in April 1959.)

Young became president of the Homewood Community Improvement Association, and served on boards of several orga­nizations, including the Homewood Branch of the Young Men’s Christian Association and the American Service Institute. Deter­mined to see people comfortably assimilated into the community, Young was also a member of the board of directors of the Anna B. Heldman Social Center, originally founded as the Irene Kauf­mann Settlement in 1897 to aid primarily Russian, German, and Central European Jewish immigrants settling in Pittsburgh’s Hill District. He also joined the ranks of leadership of the Pittsburgh Branch of the National Urban League, going on to serve as a board member for fifteen years.

The Urban League attacked the very problems that concerned Young. The organization grew out of a grassroots movement for freedom and opportunity that came to be called the “Black Migrations.” When the U.S. Supreme Court declared its approval of segregation in its 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision, the brutal system of economic, social, and political oppression the White South quickly adopted transformed what had been a trickle of African Americans moving northward into a veritable flood. Newcomers to the North soon discovered that they had not entirely escaped racial discrimination. Excluded from all but menial jobs, victimized by poor housing and education, and inexperienced in the ways of urban living, many lived in terrible social and economic conditions. Young used his knowledge of employment practices in his civic work, merging the two disparate worlds when he aided the organization in its attempts to provide more job opportunities and better living conditions to African Americans and other minority groups.

Because community activism and political activism often go hand in hand, it surprised few that Young ultimately tossed his hat into the political arena. A longtime member of the Republican Party, Young was an Allegheny County Committeeman of the mostly black Thirteenth Ward from 1936 until 1952. When he decided in 1953 to run for an elected position – a seat on Pittsburgh’s City Council – he called on Wendell Freeland, a prominent attorney, fellow civil rights leader, and vice presi­dent of the National Urban League, to chair his campaign.

Even though many individuals believed that W.P. was the best candidate, there was one insurmountable obstacle to get­ting the black vote, even for a black Republican-splitting the ticket. “He was endorsed by all four newspapers: The Courier, of course, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, The Pittsburgh Press, and The Pittsburgh Sun Telegraph, which was a Hearst paper,” Freeland recalls. “And there is no question that he was the best candidate the Republicans had.

“I had a very good neighbor, Mrs. Small, and I gave her instructions on how to split the ticket and vote [for Young]. That night I came home and said, ‘I know we got your vote, Mrs. Small.’ She said, ‘Mr. Freeland, I got to tell you I went in there and just got frightened.’ She just pulled the Democratic lever. This is my next-door neighbor! But that’s how it was. Splitting the ticket is something that requires training to this day.”

Despite not being able to persuade Mrs. Small and many like her to split the vote, Freeland was able to attract votes for Young in other areas. Tireless civic leader and philanthropist Elsie Hilliard Hillman, one of Young’s political associates (and the first female recipient of the Pennsylvania Founder’s Award, in June 2002), remembers well the election. “Wendell was the one who did a superb job of getting them to split the vote. That was really the first time that Republicans really cracked the Democratic vote in Pittsburgh.”

Although unsuccessful in his bid, Young ran again for a City Council seat in 1955. He again lost, but his hopes for change were not dashed. Young continued to help the community through his service activities with civic organizations. He also remained active on the political front. In 1962, he and other African Americans formed an organization, the Western Penn­sylvania Republican Committee, to galvanize the area’s black Republicans. In addition to serving as committee chairman, he also helped with campaigning. Attracting recognition on a statewide level was inevitable, as Young continued with his philanthropic, civic-minded blend of political action. With his commitment to economic uplift demonstrated through his chairmanship of the Urban League’s Committee on Unemployment, it was only natural that he would catch the eye of William Warren Scranton who was running for the governor­ship (see “The Gentleman from Pennsylvania: An Interview with William W. Scranton” by Michael J. O’Malley in, Winter 2001).

In 1960, following a stint in public service as a special assistant to Secretary of State Christian A. Herter during the admin­istration of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, Scranton won a seat in the Eighty-Seventh Congress, representing northeastern Pennsylvania’s Lackawanna, Pike, Sullivan, Susquehanna, Wayne, and Wyoming Counties. He next set his sights on the Keystone State’s governor’s office. As he canvassed the Com­monwealth, looking for individuals to contribute ideas to his campaign, his path crossed that of William P. Young’s. Like Scranton, Young sought to change the face of the Republican Party, making it one to welcome all of America’s sons and daughters. Heralding Abraham Lincoln as his hero, Scranton noted that over time the party had lost favor with African Americans. With inclusion as a priority, Scranton set out to develop a platform that spoke to the people. And as he did, he had William P. Young in mind.

“When I went into office,” Scranton said, “we had all of the legislation put into being. That’s why we got so much accomplished. He … worked closely with us in trying to get a thoroughgoing platform. He knew exactly what was in it and what the Department of Labor and Industry needed, which was the unemployment compensation problem. All the funds were in bad shape at that time, and we were trying to clean them up and fix them up. I asked him when I won the election, ‘Would you come because you’re familiar with this whole platform that we have? You know exactly what we’re trying to do. It would be very helpful having you there.’ He gave up his job and came and did it. I’m forever grateful because it was wonderful of him.”

The appointment drew an annual salary of twenty thousand dollars, but it also brought recognition that only one other African American had enjoyed-holding a cabinet position in state government. (Andrew Bradley held the position of secretary of property and supplies in the administration of Governor George M. Leader, from 1955 to 1959.) “I am happy to make this appointment,” Governor Scranton announced, “because Mr. Young has the ability to do a first-class job in this vital office. He has won this appointment on his merits, and I am convinced that he will accomplish excellent results in the Department of Labor and Industry. I am happy, too, that because Mr. Young is a Negro, he exemplifies the points made in the Republican platform and which I made in my campaign, namely, that I believe all Pennsylvanians have the right to fill positions for which they are qualified.” Young’s response was simple and sincere. “The only thing I can say is that I am grateful for the confidence and the faith that he has in me. It is a challenge, and I’ll try to measure up to it.”

Young began his tenure with a well-conceived plan. In an early interview, he made clear his goal as the Pennsylvania’s new labor leader. “A prime objective of the present State Government’s new administration under Governor William W. Scranton is to develop such a favorable economic climate that existing industry will be encouraged to expand here, rather than in some other state, and that new enterprise will be attracted here rather than go elsewhere.”

A cogent, highly organized strategy was necessary because, as secretary, he immediately donned many hats. His was no easy task; at sixty-eight, he was the oldest cabinet secretary in Scranton’s administration, followed by Secretary of the Com­monwealth George I. Bloom, born in 1898. Young’s responsibilities were staggering. In addition to numerous administrative duties, the secretary of Labor and Industry was designated to serve as chairman of the State Workmen’s Insurance Board, the Industrial Board, the Governor’s Committee on Migratory Labor, the Governor’s Committee on Employment of the Hand­icapped, and the Advisory Board on Problems of Older Work­ers. The secretary was also a member of the Workmen’s Compensation Board, State Council for the Blind, Pennsylvania Industrial Development Authority, and Air Pollution Commission, as well as executive officer of the State Board of Vocational Rehabilitation.

Young’s chairmanship of boards was only the tip of the proverbial bureaucratic iceberg. Created in 1913, his agency “serves the tabor and industrial interests of the Commonwealth and enforces the laws relating to, and promoting the health, welfare and safety of employes.” The department included the Bureau of Employment Security, which employed five thousand individuals alone; the Bureau of Industrial Standards, charged with promulgating safe and sanitary conditions in the workplace; the Bureau of Inspection, responsible for inspecting and issuing permits for the operation of elevators, escalators, boilers, as well as regulating the manufacture and sale of upholstered furniture; and the Bureau of Mediation, “to encourage the making and maintaining of agreements concerning wages, hours and conditions of employment between employ­ers and employes.” Others were the Bureau of Research and Statistics; the Bureau of Social Security for Public Employes; the Bureau of Women and Children, Hours and Wages; the Bureau of Workmen’s Compensation; and the Bureau of Rehabilitation. Young was responsible for thousands of employees of the Penn­sylvania Department of Labor and Industry.

“He was a public official of the highest caliber,” recalled former Governor Scranton. “His performance as Pennsylvania’s Secretary of Labor and Industry crowned a lifetime of achievement in business, journalism, education, politics, and civic affairs.” Outside of state government, in the uncertain realm of politics, the year 1964 brought optimism for some Pennsylvania Republi­cans. It was a year woven with hopes that Pennsylvania would receive heightened recognition in politics. According to a January 13 article in The Patriot, Harris­burg’s morning news­paper, “The Republican State Executive Committee organized a ‘recruitment committee’ to recommend a slate of party candi­dates for the 1964 state elections. The twenty-member task force also was charged with proposing ten delegates-at-large and ten alternates to the GOP [Grand Old Party] national convention in July. The thirty-man executive committee met ostensibly to recommend candidates … but instead it adopted a resolution urging Governor William W. Scranton to become an active candidate for the GOP Presidential nomination.” Pennsylvanians had faith in their governor, sensing that if he could lead Pennsylvania during a period of employment blight, that he could lead America during the turmoil that wracked the nation in the uneasy sixties.

Despite the growing optimism about the possibility of Scran­ton’s nomination, 1964 was a turbulent year for America’s Black Republicans. Following a meeting of the Pennsylvania State Republican Council on May 22, Young, the council’s chairman, had gone on record opposing the nomination of Arizona’s Senator Barry Goldwater (1909-1988), whom some Republicans thought “looked good for the part.” Part of the opposition to Goldwater’s nomination was his refusal to vote for the Civil Rights Act of 1964. African American Republicans were beginning to feel marginalized. “They reorganized the party in many states,” Young said. “James Edwards of Greenville, South Carolina, was a delegate in 1956 and in 1960, and he was denied the opportunity to run. He was told, ‘This party is not for Negroes.’ George W. Lee has been a delegate before from Memphis. He was blocked out by an illegal party reorganization, and when the action was contested here, he was still kept out…. The only Southern. Negro left in the convention from below the Mason-Dixon Line with the exception of [George} Park­er from the District [of Columbia] is one lone alternate from Georgia.

“When the Goldwater organizations took over in the South, we were put out,” Young continued. “I’ve been a Republican all of my life, but if this man is going to make this a lily-white party, where does a man like myself go?”

In July 1964, San Francisco opened its gates to the Republican National Convention. Young’s cadre of political cronies began holding secret meetings at the Fairmont Hotel where twenty-five African American delegates and alternate delegates met to decide their course of action. Although they wanted to remain active in the party, they aimed to rebuild it to make it more inclusive. In a statement, the group declared, “We shall work to oust those who are attempting to make the party of Lincoln a machine for dispensing discord and racial conflict.” The stage was set for a political showdown between Goldwater and his supporters and Republican African Americans led by Young.

With Goldwater’s nomination in place, Young’s adherents sought to sound a silent alarm, making their intent clear. In a show of solidarity, they planned to stand and walk out during the convention at a critical moment during Goldwater’s acceptance speech as the party’s standard-bearer. But all did not go according to plans.

After a brief exchange with several Goldwater supporters, Young discovered a pocket of his jacket was burning. He snuffed out the fire, slightly burning his hand in the process. In a July 16 interview with a San Francisco newspa­per, Young recounted the incident. “This was no accident. I was seated on the floor of the convention when I noticed smoke and discovered it was coming from my pocket.” He recalled an exchange between him and the hecklers in which a person said, “You need us too” to which he replied, “Like hell I do.” Despite the ugliness of the episode, Young comported himself in a dignified manner befit­ting an individual of his standing.

Among the issues confronting Young in his position as secretary of labor and industry were concerns about Pennsylvania’s migrant labor workforce. In his capacity at the Lockhart Iron and Steel Company, Young frequently dealt with migrant workers who served as interim laborers during labor strikes, so the challenge was not new to him. As the chairman of the Gover­nor’s Committee on Migratory Labor, Young was actively involved in the resolution of issues affecting these laborers. From the committee’s inception, the membership was comprised only of officials representing state agencies and departments affected by migratory problems. This changed, however, by 1963 when the committee expanded to include fourteen non-governmental organizations, in addition to eight government agencies and six canner and farmer groups. Representatives of these groups convened to discuss issues that related to the influx of approximately seven thousand migratory workers who arrived each year from the South and Puerto Rico to harvest fruits and vegetables in Pennsylvania.

At a two-day conference on migrant health at the Harrisburg­er Hotel, in the shadow of the State Capitol, Young reviewed the work of Pennsylvania’s migratory work program in recent years, cited necessary improvements, and gave an optimistic prognosis of the future of that field. Addressing the opening session, he said, “The purpose then [in 1952], as now, was to assure that migrant farm labor is brought to, maintained, and employed in Pennsylvania under satisfactory conditions with respect to housing, sanitation, health, and welfare.”

Young sought to commend those individuals and groups which had the best interests of the migrant workers at heart. At the Ninth Annual Migrant Camp and Crew Award Ceremony held at the William Penn Memorial Museum (now The State Museum of Pennsylvania), he presented sixty-two award certificates to fifty farmers and food processors and to a dozen migratory labor crew leaders from twenty counties, citing their contributions in ameliorating the plight of migratory workers. Young pointed out that the presentation of the awards to the farmers and food processors was proof that maintaining excellent living conditions for migrant workers was possible. However, he also admonished crew leaders with substandard living quarters for their migrant workers, stating that such poor conditions would no longer be tolerated.

Under Young’s leadership, the Governor’s Committee on Employment of the Handicapped was sure to be active in the quest for equality for the disabled. “This is my pet,” Young said in an interview with The Williamsport Sun-Gazette. “I feel that we’re doing something positive when we hire them. They don’t ask for charity. All they ask for is a chance.”

Young shirked the idea that hiring disabled people was charity, regarding it instead as simply good business. “This is more than an advertising slogan. The reliability of such persons when placed in a job for which they are qualified will stand up under the most searching examination,” he said. “They have a higher degree of motivation than those without handicaps and a fierce desire to hold their own in our competitive society. Their unquenchable desire is one of their greatest assets.” He also alluded to their desire for success was leading disabled workers into white-collar and executive positions. Governor Scranton and Secretary Young sought to reward those who, despite their disabilities, persevered and overcame the obstacles confronting them.

Call it foreshadowing, or coincidence, but with all of his devotion to the plight of Pennsylvania’s disabled, William P. Young suddenly found himself in a similar situation. He had been experiencing hardening of the arteries, which led to excruciating pain in his left leg. In addition to the pain, Young would sometimes experience swelling of the leg and foot that was so severe that at times he could not stand, let alone walk.

On July 8, 1966, Young underwent surgery at Presbyterian University Hospital in Pittsburgh to amputate his left leg, just below the knee. Following the operation, surgeon Theodore Drapanas offered a promising prognosis. “Gangrene had set in,” he reported. “While we do not know as yet what causes this hardening, we know that it is a degenerative disease that comes on with age. We are glad, however, that the Secretary took it in good stride. He is in good spirits, is getting about nicely, and is undergoing a rehabilitation program at this time.”

Despite his condition, he maintained daily contact with his office. After being discharged from the hospital, he recuperated at the St. Francis Hospital, also in Pittsburgh. His recovery was speedy, and he returned to work in a wheelchair in mid-­August. Upon his return to work, Young said, “Now that I am back, I am most anxious to complete this term with record activities to boost even higher the overall administrative results of Governor Scranton, and to help wherever possible Lt. Gover­nor Raymond Shafer as he prepares to carry on the outstanding score of the present administration.” He maintained an active schedule, and by December, Young described himself as being – with the use of a prosthesis – “back on his own two feet.”

At the conclusion of the Scranton administration, Young attempted to settle into an ordinary life – no small task for such an extraordinary individual. Although he had been advised to curtail his activities, it was difficult for a man who had been so active for so long. He continued being politically active, working as a consultant to the Department of Vocational Rehabilitation under Governor Shafer. Six months after leaving office, though, Young’s health took a turn for the worse. By July 1968, he had been admitted to Harrisburg’s Polyclinic Hospital, where he would spend his remaining days. At seven o’clock on the evening of Saturday, November 30, Young died.

William P. Young’s diligent work did not go unnoticed. Despite the recognition bestowed by others, perhaps the greatest award for Young was knowing that he had done his job well, leaving a legacy for others to follow. He was accomplished, earning two degrees by the age of twenty-three. He was a trailblazer, achieving much for African Americans in the days before the civil rights movement became a cause célèbre. He was a unifier, uniting members of his party, without regard to race. He was courageous, meeting obstacles and staring them down, preferring to take the high road. William P. Young was a man of conviction and compassion, and one whose contributions for the common good have been little appreciated.


For Further Reading

Alderfer, Harold F. William Warren Scranton, Pennsylvania Governor, 1963-1967. Mechanicsburg, Pa.: Local Government Ser­vice, 1976.

Beers, Paul B. The Republican Years: The Scranton-Shafer Era of Change and Controversy from 1963 through 1970. Harrisburg: The Patriot News Company, 1971.

Cupper, Dan. Working in Pennsylvania: A History of the Department of Labor and Industry. Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 2000.

Harris, Howard, ed., and Perry K. Blatz, associate ed. Keystone of Democracy: A History of Pennsylvania Workers. Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1999.

Miller, Randall M., and William Pencak, eds. Pennsylvania: A His­tory of the Commonwealth. Harrisburg and University Park: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission and The Pennsyl­vania State University Press, 2002.


Nicole Bailey-Williams teaches English in the Ewing Township (New Jersey) Public School District. She is a freelance writer and co-host of The Literary Review, a book review program broadcast by radio sta­tion WDAS (1480 AM) of Bain Cynwyd. She received her bachelor of arts degree from Hampton University in 1993 and her master of edu­cation degree from Temple University in 1995.