Distinguished African-American Alumni Honored for Service, Achievements

the awardees smiling in a row

Trailblazers, role models and inspirations are just a few words to describe five Pitt alumni who were recognized in June for their accomplishments and community outreach.

The alumni, Elayne Arrington (ENG ’61), Martha Richards Conley (LAW ’71), Robert Grier (BUS ’57), Dame Vivian Hewitt (SIS ’44) and Cecile Springer (GSPIA ’71) were each honored by the African American Alumni Council with its Distinguished Alumnus Award.

More about the honorees:

Elayne Arrington

Arrington cleared many hurdles in her quest to become an aeronautical engineer. She earned the second-highest SAT score in mathematics the year she graduated from Homestead High School as class valedictorian. When she was accepted into Pitt’s school of engineering, the University recommended that Arrington receive a scholarship to study mechanical engineering. But the company that sponsored the scholarship refused to give it to a woman.

Despite that, in 1961, Arrington became the first black female to graduate from Pitt’s Swanson School of Engineering. Afterward, she worked as an aerospace engineer at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base’s Foreign Technology Division. And in 1974, she earned a PhD in math — the 17th black woman in the country to do so — and returned to Pitt to teach mathematics for the next 40 years.

Martha Richards Conley

Conley was Pitt Law's first black female graduate and the first black female lawyer to practice in Allegheny County. She was employed by the U.S. Steel Corporation for 27 years and retired from there as senior general attorney. A longtime opponent of the death penalty, she was chair of the Pittsburgh chapter of Pennsylvanians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. She is a longtime member of the historic Aurora Reading Club in Pittsburgh. She is an official visitor with the Pennsylvania Prison Society and escorted Cape Town Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu on a prison visit in 2007. At the AAAC event, she raised the issue of mass incarceration in the U.S.

“Mass incarceration has taken a tremendous toll on our community, both the black community and the white community,” she said. “Sometimes I feel like Sisyphus pushing a rock up a hill and it keeps rolling back down. This award will remind me of the work I still have to do, and I’m going to keep on pushing.”

Robert Grier

Grier broke the color barrier when the Pitt Panthers fullback became the first African-American college football player to play in the Sugar Bowl in the Pitt–Georgia Tech game in New Orleans on Jan. 2, 1956. The governor of Georgia strongly opposed Grier’s participation in the game, as did the Georgia Tech Board of Trustees, whose members said Georgia Tech would forfeit the game if Grier was not benched. But Grier had strong support from his teammates and Pitt, who vowed “No Grier, no game.” Support for Grier also came from students and football players from Georgia Tech, who strongly protested against a forfeit. Pitt lost the game, 7-0, on a controversial pass interference call on Grier. Later, evidence appeared to show it was a bad call. Pitt won a major victory off the field that year, thanks to Bobby Grier and his Pitt teammates.

His message Saturday was for people to “drop the cell phones” and start talking to people face to face. “There is a beautiful bunch of people in this world. We’re all different,” Grier said. “Always look at them and say, ‘How are you doing?’ Learn to love your people from all over.”

Dame Vivian Hewitt

Hewitt received her library science degree from Pitt’s School of Library and Information Sciences. She began her career as the first black librarian for the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. Later, she became the first black chief librarian at The Rockefeller Foundation, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Council on Foreign Relations. Hewitt and her husband began buying works of Haitian and African-American art while still a young couple, and now the Hewitt Collection is considered to be one of the finest collections of its type in the world. It was purchased by Bank of America and gifted to the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Art + Culture in Charlotte, North Carolina. The collection recently was on display at Pittsburgh’s August Wilson Center.

Cecile Springer

Springer holds a bachelor’s and master’s degree in chemistry and a master’s degree in urban and regional planning from the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at Pitt. She achieved professional distinction in a number of fields throughout her diverse career, which has included positions as a research chemist for Bristol Myers Laboratories in New York, a principal planner for the Southwest Regional Planning Commission, president of the Westinghouse Foundation and founder of her own firm, Springer Associates, which provided comprehensive strategic planning. She has been recognized as a Distinguished Daughter of Pennsylvania, a Carlow University Woman of Spirit and a Legacy Laureate of the University of Pittsburgh — the highest honor for an alumnus. Springer is a past president of the Pitt Alumni Association.

Each honoree also received a framed painting by artist Saihou Njie, titled “Possibilities,” and communications consultant Robert Hill read citations of their achievements and contributions. 

“It’s a pleasure to be associated with this award,” Hill said of his role in the ceremony.