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Historic Hill Institute to hold event celebrating Freedom House Ambulance Services

The Historic Hill Institute will host a community-wide Freedom House Celebration on May 15 to pay tribute to the first emergency medical service that began in the Hill District, where people of color were at the forefront.

The Historic Hill Institute will organize a community-wide Freedom House Celebration on May 15 to show appreciation for the first emergency medical service that started in the Hill District with people of color at the forefront.

“Whenever someone hears a siren, they should pause and express gratitude to Freedom House,” stated Kimberly C. Ellis, executive director of the Historic Hill Institute, an organization committed to preserving the Hill District.

“We introduced pre-hospital care to the world. In 1973, Freedom House became the first to use Narcan outside a hospital setting to treat heroin overdoses,” noted Freedom House founder John Moon. “Many things we now take for granted, such as paramedics, were not the norm — Freedom House had to lead the way and break new ground.”

Freedom House Ambulance Services, founded in 1967, recognized the necessity for emergency medical services. Initially, individuals in medical emergencies were transported in police vehicles to the hospital. This was problematic because of the strained relationship between the police and the community in the Hill District due to racism.

Racism also contributed to the disbandment of the organization.

Freedom House Ambulance Services was primarily operated and staffed by Black residents of the Hill District under the guidance of Peter Safar and Nancy Caroline. Freedom House served the entire city, not just Black people. At times, people specifically requested their assistance, leading to heightened tension between the organization and the city.

When the City of Pittsburgh took over emergency services in 1975, an almost all-white crew replaced the Black workers of Freedom House. The original employees either underwent additional intensive training or were not retained.

“Perseverance and resilience allowed me to push forward,” Moon said.

Despite the challenges, Moon implemented diversity programs within Pittsburgh EMS and mentored Chief Amera Gilchrist, the first Black woman to serve in that role. The dissolution of Freedom House occurred without formal recognition and appreciation from the city, according to Ellis. She believes Freedom House is owed a public apology.

“The average young person is unaware of what Freedom House represents, and that is a tragedy. Not only does this lead to being overlooked by history, but it also means that young people of color who might have been inspired to become doctors and healthcare workers are impacted,” Ellis said.

Official proclamations are anticipated at the May celebration, and efforts are underway to secure a congressional gold medal.

April is also National Minority Health Month, shedding light on disparities in healthcare.

“If you don’t know where you came from, it's difficult to know where you are going,” stated Sylvia Owusu, a board-certified pediatrician at UPMC Children’s Hospital.

In Pittsburgh, Black individuals make up nearly a quarter of the population.

“Racial concordance in medicine improves healthcare outcomes. If you go to a doctor and see a doctor, EMT or paramedic who looks like you, you are more likely to experience better health outcomes,” Owusu explained, adding that communication is likely to be more open and trust is improved.

“Black EMTs and paramedics make up around 3% to 5%, and active Black physicians account for 5%,” she stated. “This is a tragedy for our healthcare system.”

According to Owusu, she is the sole Black pediatrician at UPMC Children’s Hospital. Owusu is committed to closing the gap by showing respect, honoring, and celebrating the history, and spreading the word.

According to Ellis, Freedom House has never been officially recognized locally, statewide, or nationally. The event will occur at Frankie Pace Park at 3 p.m. There are plans in progress to honor the legacy of Freedom House with a historic landmark at its original location, which is now the Hill District Federal Credit Union.

To sign up for the celebration, click here. here.

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