K. Leroy Irvis
National Visionary

Born December 27, 1919 in Saugerties, New York

The first African-American speaker of any State House of Representatives in the Nation

K. Leroy Irvis is known as the first African American Speaker of any State House of Representatives in the nation and as a civil rights activist. Irvis attended public schools in Albany and his parents were both from the Hudson River, New York area. His mind on civil rights even as a young boy, Irvis was known to picket department stores in Albany as early as 1934, when he was 14 years old—and later in Pittsburgh against unfair hiring practices. Reportedly, the first such protest of its kind, this 1947 demonstration cost Irvis his job at the Urban League; it apparently offended white backers.

A committed student, Irvis has had a long and distinguished educational background. He graduated summa cum laude from New York State Teacher’s College (now the University of New York at Albany) in 1938. Having come from a poor family, he was known for having never bought a book—instead using library resources and borrowing texts. He received a Master’s in English Literature from that same school in 1939, and a law degree in 1954 from the University of Pittsburgh.

Irvis’ early work included blue-collar jobs as well as journalistic work as an editor and commentator at the Pittsburgh Chronicle, where his “crusading articles” became well-known civil rights pieces. Having served during the Second World War as a civilian attaché, he also worked as a public relations secretary for the Urban League.

After graduating with his Master’s, Irvis got a job in Baltimore through the aid of family friend and NAACP member Daisy Lampkin—and taught high school there for several years. An avid hobbyist, Irvis formed his own club for African American model airplane hobbyists there, after being refused entry into the whites-only club. He later used his law degree to get a job as a law clerk and then assistant district attorney.

It was 1958 when he was elected to the Pennsylvania House of Representatives—and would be consecutively re-elected for 15 terms. Known as “The Lion of Pennsylvania” for his effectiveness in office, Irvis was selected as Majority Leader in 1969. He served seven years in that capacity, and four years as Minority Leader as well. Irvis was once described as “the soul of this House” by a Republican opponent. He is often referred to as a “Great Commoner,” for his natural instinct for representation and legislation.

During his tenure in the House, Irvis used much of the 1960s to fight racism and urban neglect. He once proposed using Vietnam War funds to rebuild and improve city slums. In 1969, Irvis himself sued a Harrisburg, PA Moose Lodge after being refused service as a guest of a member of the whites-only club.

Irvis is best known for his time as the Speaker of the House of Representatives in Pennsylvania—the first African American Speaker to serve in any state House in the nation. Elected to that post first in 1977, he joined Benjamin Franklin as the second man elected to that position by acclamation (unanimously). He served longer than any other person since America’s independence from Great Britain. Revered for his oratory skills, Irvis’ respect for all people, including opponents, is legendary. He finally retired in 1988 from politics, after three decades of service.

More than 875 pieces of legislation have been sponsored by Irvis over the span of his career, of which a record 264 were signed into law. He contributed to another 800 estimated pieces of legislation as well. Major themes of his work include education, health, prison reform, consumer protection, housing and governmental reform, and civil rights.

This interview has
been archived in the
NVLP Collection of
African American
Oral Histories at the
Library of Congress
American Folklife
Often referred to as the ‘father’ of Pennsylvania’s community college system, Irvis was the first state representative to introduce such a system to the Pennsylvania House. The University of Pittsburgh also owes its continued existence to Irvis’ legislation.

Having received several awards for his public service and commitment to his community from organizations such as the NAACP and the B’Nai B’rith Anti-Defamation League, Irvis has also had several buildings named after him. In 1999, Pennsylvania’s Governor, Republican Tom Ridge, named Irvis as the first recipient of the Pennsylvania Founder’s Award.

Irvis has worked throughout his life for civil rights, equality, and the rights of all men. He has also managed a wide and varied personal life, and has donated his time to many philanthropic and educational causes.



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