February is Black History Month, and March is Women’s History Month. As far as making history, you have to get ready to say the word “first” frequently when you talk about Judge Elizabeth “Betty” Ann Davis Pittman (June 3, 1921-1998). Although she was originally from Council Bluffs, her advocacy for North Omaha’s African American community may have been unparalleled in Omaha history.
Here are some of the firsts attributed to Judge Pittman.
- In 1948, she became first African American female to graduate from Creighton University Law School;
- In 1950, she became the first African American woman to get elected to public office in Omaha when she was elected to the school board;
- In 1950, Pittman was one of only 39 African-American women lawyers in the United States;
- In 1964, she became the first African American female to get appointed to the office of Douglas County Attorney, serving until 1971;
- In 1971, she became the first woman and first African American person to be a judge for the State of Nebraska when she was appointed as Douglas County Municipal judge, serving from until 1986 on the Omaha Municipal Court;
- In 1971, she was named “Woman of the Year” by the Omaha Business and Professional Club;
- In 1973, her alma mater Creighton University awarded her an honorary doctorate;
- In 1998, Creighton dedicated the Elizabeth Davis Pittman Building on its campus to mark the 50th anniversary of her receiving her law degree there.
The 1938 graduate of North High School went to UNL for two years, earned her bachelor’s degree from Creighton University, and in 1948 she became the first African American woman to graduate from Creighton Law School. After she became the first African American member elected to the Omaha Public Schools board in 1950, there was at least a single African American member on the board from then to now. Deeply involved in the city’s Civil Rights Movement, Pittman was personal friends and allies with many of the historic and current leaders and activists throughout her life.
Elizabeth Davis Pittman was a daughter, a mom and a wife. As a student at North High in the 1930s, she was hired as a stenographer for the district court clerk. In her 20s, she participated in several beauty pageants in North Omaha, while in her 30s she sought to become one of the first female national representative in the Episcopal Church and lost. Justice Pittman was an active member of St. Philip Episcopal Church, Omaha’s segregated congregation for that denomination. She attended throughout her life, including when the church was closed and the congregation merged to become Church of the Resurrection, which is still open today on North 30th Street.
In 1950, she was included in the Who’s Who in Colored America for the first time, an honor which repeated for many years.
Her father and husband are notable in their own right, too. Her father and mentor, Charles Davis (1902-1959), was also an attorney who lawyered during the Great Depression and beyond. Convinced that Omaha’s African American community needed their own bank, in 1944 he worked with a group of African American leaders in the community to establish the Carver Savings and Loan Association, one of the first Black-owned banks in the United States. He and his daughter shared a legal office in the building in the early 1960s. The building still stands today in the 24th and Lake Historic District. When he passed away, Charles Davis was lauded for his life of service to Omaha and the African American community.
Her mother Mabel Davis (1906-1972) was also a member of St. Philip’s Episcopal, and was a library aid at Kellom School until 1971. She had two children, including Elizabeth and her sister Charleszine (1933-2017). Mabel’s mother, Bettie Hawkins, lived with her daughter and died four years after her in 1975. The mother and daughter were buried in Forest Lawn.
Her ex-husband, Dr. Arthur B. Pittman (1915-1990), was a notable figure in Omaha history, too. He was the only Black veterinarian in Nebraska from the 1940s through the 1970s, volunteered for many locally and nationally important roles, and was recognized with the Brotherhood Award from the National Conference of Christians and Jews. When she later divorced him, Arthur was awarded custody of her only daughter, Antoinette Marguerite Pittman (1947-2018). However, Justice Pittman regularly credited him with encouraging her success. The building where he practiced is still standing today on Dodge Street, and was declared an Omaha Landmark in 2005 for its role in the city’s history and its distinct Art Moderne architectural style.
Living in a large brick home surrounded with a black wrought iron fence at 976 North 25th Street, Justice Pittman’s house and car were constantly broken into and vandalized. Without ever laying direct blame, she regularly reported her car being shot, windows being smashed, house being burglared and more.
When she died in 1998, Justice Pittman was buried at Forest Lawn.
Honoring Justice Pittman
Omahans who stepped into her courtroom said she had an incredible presence and she most definitely “held court.” She was characterized as “no nonsense”, “intense” and “brutally fair.”
During her life, she was frequently recognized for her contributions to Omaha, the African American community, and society in general. She’s remembered for her service statewide on the Governor’s Commission on the Status of Women, and nationwide as a leader in the National Federation of Settlements and Neighborhood Centers and the National YWCA. She was also a lifetime member of the Near North Side YWCA, Omaha’s NAACP chapter, and the Urban League of Omaha. She was named the 1971 “Woman of the Year” by the Omaha Business and Professional Club, and her legacy has gotten local press. Creighton honors a black law student with the “Elizabeth Pittman Award” annually, and there is the “Educational Opportunity Center – Judge Elizabeth Pittman Building” at Creighton, named for her.
But ladies and gentlemen of the jury, how will history treat the first female judge in Nebraska? How will history treat the only black female lawyer in the whole state of Nebraska in 1948?
“In 1948, the entry of a black woman into the legal profession was a challenge, but even more so in the Midlands where by 1950 the census had recorded a total of 1,110 white and 13 black women lawyers West of Illinois. Thus, Pittman was an anomaly. After Admission to the Nebraska bar, she joined her father’s law office and became one of the few women in the West to enter into private practice. It might have been more difficult for the only black woman lawyer in the state, but her father ‘helped the local law community accept her …in a male-dominated profession.'”
In The Omaha History Club, a virtual group on Facebook, there is a lot conversation about how history is recorded and remembered in Omaha. In a Creighton Law Review article, Judge Pittman was called “A Legal Pioneer” but the question of how her legacy will be treated by history is questioned. Here is an excerpt:
“How will Judge Elizabeth Davis Pittman be remembered? History matters. As Professor Gerda Lerner has written: ‘Women’s History has become one of the ‘frontiers’ of historical scholarship.’ However, the ideas of black women lawyers are not often captured by legal historians. Thus, historians have their work cut out for them. Historians will have to construct a matrix just for Pittman because of her groundbreaking appointment to the bench by the Governor of a state with few black citizens. If historians are true to their profession, they might sum up her career in the words she used to describe the reaction many people had when they saw her on the bench: ‘There’s democracy at work.’ In the end, historians may never understand the real challenges that Judge Pittman faced as she met the sunshine of the day and the moon light of nights. There is something about the lives of pioneers that is beyond direct discovery.”
Today, the Creighton Law School and the Black American Law Students Association occasionally bestows the Elizabeth Pittman Award on its graduates, including the Honorable Wadie Thomas and Brenda Council, among others.
Judge Pittman’s legacy and impact on the city is still felt, and the acknowledgment of the history she made is surely just beginning.
You Might Like…
- A History of African American Firsts in Omaha
- A History of Community Leaders in North Omaha
- People from North Omaha
- A History of Racism in Omaha
- “Elizabeth D. Pittman: Black legal pioneer in the Midlands” by J. Clay Smith, Jr. for the Creighton Law Review.
- “Elizabeth Davis Pittman: A Legal Pioneer in Nebraska” by Nyla D., Lily C., & Denaya L. for the Omaha Public Schools Making Invisible History Visible project.
- “Editorial: Elizabeth Davis Pittman, Nebraska’s first black judge, left an admirable legacy” by the editorial staff at the Omaha World-Herald.