Who was John Brashear and why was he important to the people in South Pittsburgh?
November 16, 2021
Many South Pittsburgh residents are already familiar with the history of The Brashear Association, but we think it's important to take a quick look back as Brashear prepares to move forward. Brashear was founded in 1917 by Harriet Phillips to honor the renowned, self-taught scientist John A. Brashear, who was a good friend of hers. John Brashear was born in Brownsville, Pennsylvania, and was first introduced to astronomy by his grandfather at the age of nine and it became a passion of his. At the age of 20, he settled in Pittsburgh as a machinist in a rolling mill and met his wife, Phoebe, shortly after.
John and Phoebe built their home in the South Side and studied astronomy together. They began building telescopes, which eventually led to a career for John. The Brashear Company was known worldwide for its manufacturing of lenses, telescopes, and other precision instruments for the world's greatest observatories - including Pittsburgh's own. John Brashear was honored by the most respected universities and scientific societies and served as chancellor of the Western University of Pennsylvania (now the University of Pittsburgh) and a director of Carnegie Institute of Technology.
John and Phoebe Brashear were dedicated to giving back to their local communities, including supporting the improvement of Pittsburgh's educational system and providing advancement opportunities for teachers. John's love of people – especially children – earned him his favorite title. Throughout the city people knew him as "Uncle John."
Mrs. Harriet Phillips, the founder of The Brashear Association and wife of Pittsburgh industrialist and conservationist John M. Phillips, started Brashear as part of the settlement movement, establishing the first settlement house on Holt Street, where John and Phoebe had built their first home. She chose this location because she hoped the children in the community would be inspired by the life of John Brashear. Mrs. Phillips continued to build settlement houses with the help of the community, before The Brashear Association consolidated into one multi-purpose center at 2005 Sarah Street in 1955.
According to Margaret E. Berry in her booklet The Settlement Movement 1886-1986: One Hundred Years on Urban Frontiers, "settlements derived their name from the fact that the resident workers 'settled' in the poor neighborhoods they sought to serve, living there as friends and neighbors." Their goals included building relationships with their neighbors and learning from them, discovering what was needed to build healthier communities. These workers believed in a common national welfare, which they worked toward through their projects in individual neighborhoods.
Since the beginning, The Brashear Association has looked at the needs of the South Pittsburgh community and found ways to meet those needs. As the organization prepares to open the doors at the new Brashear CARES Center in Knoxville, it is with the same community-centered spirit. Looking at where the majority of Brashear clients reside, it became clear that building a social services hub in the Hilltop would be a strategic move, to offer better access to clients who live in Hilltop neighborhoods. At the same time, Brashear plans to maintain a presence in South Side and continue to support the residents there with the services the organization has provided for decades.
The process of building the new Brashear CARES Center has been and will continue to be community-informed and community-driven. Brashear is committed to elevating the voices of residents and community stakeholders by inviting them to participate in the planning and improvement of programs and services offered at the new building. Just as Mrs. Phillips started Brashear with the intention of serving her neighbors, the current Brashear Board and Staff are here to listen and collaboratively work with residents to overcome challenges in our community.