Elizabeth Davis Pittman - Lawyer/Judge
In what ways was Elizabeth Pittman a pioneer in the legal system of Nebraska? What prejudices and discrimination did she face and have to overcome in order to become a lawyer, and later a judge?
Elizabeth Davis Pittman: A Legal Pioneer in Nebraska
What does it take to be a pioneer? Elizabeth Pittman was a woman of firsts. Under a misty haze of segregation, prejudice, and sexism, Pittman was determined to make her biggest dreams come true. She was the first Black female to graduate from Creighton Law School (1948), be elected to the Omaha school board (1950), and be appointed to the Douglas County attorney's office (1964). In 1971, Governor Jim Exon appointed Pittman to be a Douglas County Municipal Judge, giving her the honor to serve as both the first Black judge and the first female judge in the state of Nebraska. Throughout her career, Pittman advocated for women and Black people in the legal field and she never let racism or sexism stop her. Pittman’s perseverance and diligence made her a pioneer.
Elizabeth Pittman had a great impact on her community, and her ambition far surpassed the obstacles she faced. In her Senior Year at North High School, she was involved in many clubs and community organizations, like Big Sister and National Honor Society. Pittman worked tirelessly as an attorney and was an example for women and the black community in Omaha. She was involved in the Omaha Settlement House movement and was president of The National Federation of Settlements and Neighborhood Centers (1971). Pittman was heavily involved in the YWCA, where she served with her best friend, Ruth Thomas, in her free time. She earned the Woman of the Year Award from the Omaha Business and Professional Women’s Club (1971) and an honorary doctorate from Creighton University, recognizing her work in the legal field and the Omaha community (1973).
The life and career of Elizabeth Pittman was a great inspiration to minorities and will be forever memorialized in the building dedicated in her honor on the Creighton University campus in 1998. The same year, Creighton University established the Elizabeth Pittman Award, which is given annually to Black graduates of Creighton Law School “who possess the same qualities of excellence, perseverance, and dedication that made Judge Pittman such a truly outstanding role model for all law students and lawyers.”
Published on July 22, 2016
Students created this documentary about Elizabeth Davis Pittman as part of the Omaha Public Schools Making Invisible Histories Visible initiative.
North High School Yearbook, 1938
Elizabeth Davis (now Elizabeth Pittman) graduated from North High School in 1938, one of only a handful of non-white students in her class. Her yearbook entry that year details 11 accomplishments, most notably National Honors Society, Honor Roll, and Class Treasurer.
Her achievements, compared to the other students, are very significant in history. They show her ambition and drive for success from an early age, and how she was active in her school, despite the discrimination she faced as a Black woman in that decade. Her high school career shows that she was a diligent worker and a pioneer for Blacks and women alike. Following graduation from North High School, she was ready to face the challenges ahead of her at the University of Nebraska and Creighton University.
(Yearbook information courtesy of North High School)
Elizabeth Pittman, Attorney at Law
This photograph is of Elizabeth Pittman working on one of her many cases as a lawyer. Due to her intelligence and determined personality, it is no surprise that she accomplished her dream of being a lawyer. During an interview with Ruth Thomas, Pittman’s best friend from college, Thomas stated “Pittman did not need encouragement.” In college, her determination kept her on the right track to achieve her goals.
Pittman followed in her father’s footsteps by becoming a lawyer, but later blazed her own trail by becoming a judge. Before she became a lawyer, both white and Black women were seen as inferior to men in the professional field. However, her law career proved that women could work professionally and not simply be housewives. She did not allow stereotypes to put a limit on her dreams.
(Photo courtesy of the Douglas County Historical Society Archives)
The Carver Building, located west of 24th and Lake streets in the heart of the Black community, was built by Elizabeth Pittman’s father, Charles Davis, in 1944 to house his law office and the Carver Savings and Loan Bank (CSLB). The CSLB was the first Black-owned bank in Omaha and one of the few in the entire United States at the time. Not only was this bank the first Black bank in Omaha but, contrary to white banks, it also loaned many Black people money to buy homes. After she joined her father’s firm in 1949, Elizabeth Pittman also worked at the Carver Building until she became a Douglas County attorney in 1964. She acknowledged her father’s influence in giving her the opportunity to practice law at his firm and for teaching her what hard work could accomplish in the face of extreme pressure and discrimination.
(Photo taken July 19, 2016, by Christina Collins)
The Elizabeth Pittman Building on Creighton University’s campus in downtown Omaha was dedicated on Oct. 3, 1998, and houses the Educational Opportunity Center, which provides General Educational Development (GED) classes and helps with financial aid and college enrollment services, as well as assistance to English as a Second Language (ESL) students and financial literacy, money management, career planning, and resume writing workshops. Elizabeth Pittman would be proud of this building because she believed in helping people reach their highest potential. She encouraged others, especially women, to focus on their education and, through her own example, Pittman believed that “fulfillment begins when women respect themselves and what they’re doing.” Her legacy is effectively memorialized in this building as it puts into action Elizabeth’s dream of equal access to higher education for all people.
(Photo taken July 14, 2016, by Denaya Lewis)
Racial disputes are far from foreign to the United States, and Omaha is no exception. Despite its geographical location, Omaha’s history includes forceful discrimination and profound segregation. During the late 1800s and early 1900s, Omaha experienced an influx of immigration from many European and Asian countries. Dutch, Italian, German, Bohemian, Chinese, Japanese, Irish, Swedish, and Scottish peoples constitute a mere fragment of the immigrants who came to the United States during this time. However, substantial internal migration accompanied international immigration. Known as the Great Migration, the start of the 20th century saw immense Black traffic from southern to northern states. Omaha became home to an increasing percentage of Black people during this time.
At the outset, Black people settled across all of Omaha and were not restricted to any one part of town. South Omaha and downtown, as well as North Omaha, were homes to large Black communities. However, come the 1910s and 1920s, North Omaha emerged as the burgeoning nucleus of Black prosperity, mainly owing to unwritten but palpable discrimination regarding real estate. In spite of this, the Black community resolved to create their own success and established many businesses around 24th and Lake streets. One of the most notable industries during this era was the music business. North Omaha saw the talents of internationally renowned musicians at ballrooms such as the Dreamland and Carnation.
Omaha was consistently discriminatory toward the Black community. They were still restricted to certain schools, denied jobs, and given lower level jobs. Most of the Black teenagers in Omaha were limited to attending Central High School and Tech High School, due to their northeastern locations. North High School was not acceptable for Black students to attend during Elizabeth Pittman’s generation, as it was too far west. Although not acceptable, Black students still attended, albeit in smaller numbers.
By creating a community of their own, Black people in Omaha strove to live a normal life, free from the confines of discrimination and segregation. Elizabeth Pittman is an example of how one person’s determination can set the stage for success for generations to come.
Written by Madalyn Buller, a student at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
2016 MIHV Project
"The best part of experience was getting the opportunity to meet Ms. Ruth Thomas and Mr. Elmer Crumbley. It was so interesting to learn about Judge Elizabeth from her best friends point of view. It was also really cool to learn that Ms. Thomas was a pioneer herself."
- Lily C
"I learned that I can do more academically than I thought, and that I pushed myself for excellence and to strive for that. This program has provided more information about my heritage then I knew before."
"This program taught me that Omaha has a lot of cultural history that we don’t acknowledge or celebrate. My understanding of Omaha has changed drastically. I feel like my mind is overflowing with knowledge of history from where I am from."
Crumbley, Elmer J. Personal interview. 18 July 2016.
“Educational Opportunity Center.” Pamphlet.
Howard, Ashley M. “Then the Burning Began: Omaha, Riots, and the Growth of Black Radicalism, 1966-1969.” MA thesis. University of Nebraska at Omaha, 2006. Print.
“Pittman Award Winner, John E. Pierce.” Creighton University School of Law. Creighton University. Web. 20 July 2016.
Smith, Alonzo N. “BLACK NEBRASKANS Interviews From the Nebraska Oral History Project II.” Ralston Public Library.
Smith Jr., J. Clay. “Elizabeth D. Pittman: Black Legal Pioneer in the Midlands.” Creighton Law Review 32 (1998): 511-532. Print.
Thomas, Ruth. Personal interview. 18 July 2016.
From the Creighton University Archives
“Creighton University School of Law 1948” Class Picture
“Creighton University School of Law June 1948” Class Picture
From a clipping file at the Douglas County Historical Society
“Freedom Is Called Right, Not Privilege, of Women.” Print.
Hammel, Paul. “The judge: ‘I was going on being the only woman long before there was any women’s movement as such.’” Omaha Sun 15 November 1979. Print.
Heinzl, Toni. “Pittman Mourned as Pioneer, Inspiration.” Omaha World Herald [Omaha, NE]. Print.
“Judge Elizabeth Davis Pittman”. Print.
“Judge Pittman woman of the year.” Omaha Sun [Omaha, NE] 28 October 1971. Print.
Lewis, Lisa. “Black woman judge quiet at being a first.” Print.
Ross, Kate Tukey. “Lots of Only: Mrs. Pittman Is Sole Negro Woman Lawyer.” Omaha World Herald [Omaha, NE] 27 February 1949: 20C. Print.
Research combined by Nyla D., Lily C., & Denaya L.
Nyla D. attended Beveridge Magnet Middle School and will be attending South High School next year. She has amazing interview skills and is looking forward to the Clubs and Activities in High School.
Lily C. attended Lewis and Clark Middle School, and will be attending Westside High School next year. She has great skills with technology and is looking forward to making new friends in High School.
Denaya L. attended Morton Magnet Middle School and will be attending North High School next year. She has excellent writing skills and is looking forward to the STEM program in High School.