In the 1960’s, residents of Pittsburgh’s Hill District didn't have access to reliable ambulance services. Emergency calls were handled by the police, who were unequipped to handle serious medical events and often neglected predominantly Black neighborhoods. With the help of Dr. Peter Safar, a Pitt physician known as the "father of CPR," the city’s Freedom House organization recruited 24 Black men from the Hill District for a rigorous medical training program. These men became the country’s first paramedics, and served Pittsburgh through the Freedom House Ambulance Service.
The first group of Freedom House trainees included high school dropouts, as well as people with criminal records who had been deemed “unemployable.” After going through Dr. Safar’s curriculum, the paramedics were able to perform CPR, intubate patients, insert IVs, and more. They began responding to emergency calls in 1968, serving the Hill District, Downtown, and Oakland. Their work saved 200 lives in their first year, and the new ambulance model was replicated in cities nationwide. By 1974, Pittsburgh was recognized by the U.S. government as having the best emergency services program in the country.
Despite Freedom House’s success, the program faced resistance due to racial prejudice and political power dynamics. Mayor Peter Flaherty, an opponent of public-private partnerships, reduced the program’s city funding and denied their requests to serve additional neighborhoods. By 1975, the city created its own ambulance program, ending its contract with Freedom House and dismissing many of their crew.
Though the program faced an unjust ending, Freedom House built a legacy that continues in Pittsburgh and beyond. The paramedics broke cultural barriers in a time of racial unrest and discrimination, and they paved the way for modern-day ambulance services as we know them. This graphic tee honors their revolutionary work and their commitment to serving all of Pittsburgh.