Pittsburgh of the 1960s and 70s was a city in dire need of economic help. In the predominantly Black Hill District, a majority of the residents fell well below the poverty line and fought constantly against racial injustice. Many of the residents were deemed “unemployable” by the city welfare offices and had bleak prospects for long term stability.
In 1966 the Freedom House Enterprise was founded with a grant from the federal government to provide economic stimulation to the people of Pittsburgh, and specifically those in the Hill District. The goal of Freedom House Enterprises was to create job training and employment opportunities for those in the area and to provide an opportunity for the “unemployables” to train and work in the city.
Then, in 1967, Freedom House Enterprises started an ambulance service under the supervision of Dr. Nancy Caroline and Dr. Peter Safar. Caroline and Safar were responsible for training the first paramedic crew in the United States. The first class was a mix of men and women and achieved their qualifications in no time and quickly got their service running. But they weren’t without their challenges.
In addition to training men and women who were unfamiliar with medicine, and who had never considered a job in emergency services, Caroline and Safar’s crews also faced reluctance from white patients to be treated by black paramedics. Many refusing service altogether.
Undeterred, Freedom House Ambulance Service continued to train crews and run calls throughout the Hill District and the city of Pittsburgh and earning acclaim from a grateful city until 1975 when the city announced it would be starting its own EMS training program and service which forced Freedom House Ambulance Service to cease operations. Dr. Nancy Caroline, then Medical Director of Freedom House Ambulance Service, pushed the city to hire the Freedom House crew, but in keeping with the racial discrimination of the time, many were quickly reassigned to non-medical duties or left the emergency services all together. Of those who stayed, the legacy of Freedom House stayed on through one on one training and opportunities to remember the past, but many of the founding members of this instrumental group are no longer with us, and if we aren’t careful, the story of Freedom House Ambulance Service will be lost forever.