‘His legacy lives on’: K. Leroy Irvis, Pennsylvania’s only black House speaker, remembered

A portrait of former House Speaker K. Leroy Irvis in the Capitol building. (Capital-Star photo by Sarah Anne Hughes)

K. Leroy Irvis is remembered as “the Lion of Pennsylvania” — a civil rights champion, incorruptible force for good, and the commonwealth’s first black state House speaker.

Perhaps less noted is his great sense of humor.

Once, while criticizing the death penalty on the House floor, Irvis was accused of being a “do-gooder” by a Republican member.

Irvis responded: “When my mother sent me out she didn’t say, ‘Roy, go out and see how much bad you can do.'”

“[Irvis] could use humor in a way that wasn’t malicious,” said University of Pittsburgh history professor Laurence Glasco, his former neighbor.

“They had to laugh.”

Irvis spent three decades in Harrisburg beginning in 1959, all in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. He is responsible for 264 bills signed into law and served as speaker of the House two times — from 1977 to 1978 and again from 1983 to 1988.

Still the only black man to ever hold the position in Pennsylvania, Irvis was also one of the first men of color post-Reconstruction to head a state legislative body.

“K. Leroy Irvis was a true pioneer and embodiment of a statesmen and of what all elected officials should strive to be,” House Democratic Whip Jordan Harris, D-Philadelphia, said in a statement. “His legacy lives on through the countless lives he positively impacted and those his contributions continue to impact to this day. We should all be so lucky as to leave a legacy such as K. Leroy Irvis’.”

K. Leroy Irvis
K. Leroy Irvis. (Pennsylvania House photo)

Irvis was born in New York’s Hudson Valley, with a legacy tracing back to a Dutch freemen who settled in the region. He moved to Pittsburgh after World War II and led the local black community in protests against racism in hiring by downtown firms.

After he was fired for his activism, Irvis earned a law degree from the University of Pittsburgh and beat a longtime state House incumbent in 1958. His seat included the Hill District, a historically black neighborhood with a rich cultural past and a devastating legacy of displacement. 

He quickly rose in House Democratic leadership. By his third term, he was the caucus chairman. He spent the next 26 years in his party’s upper ranks — a Pennsylvania record.

After a decade as the Democrat’s second-in-command, Irvis ascended to the speakership mid-session in 1977 when his predecessor resigned because of corruption charges. Irvis was elected by a unanimous voice vote.

The only other state speaker who can claim the same is Ben Franklin.

“You have not elected a black man to be your speaker, but you elected a man who happens to be black,” Irvis said at the time, according to a House publication honoring his retirement.

Reizdan Moore served as a staffer for Irvis during his first term as speaker. Moore remembers Irvis’ ability to quickly diagnosis a problem and his sly legislative style.

Instead of fighting with a “cudgel or blunderbuss,” Irvis would look for opportunities to divide his opponents with tricky amendments. He called it the “rapier” approach, named for a light, nimble sword.

Moore, who served as a Democratic staffer for decades, said he used what he learned from Irvis during the battles over voter ID laws in the early 2010s.

Building off his cunning legislative mind, sense of humor, and respect for fellow lawmakers, Irvis developed a keen ability to broker deals in an ideologically diverse but less partisan body than today.

He’s referred to as the father of the state community college system. And he was also responsible for advances in childhood health, college financing, and the House’s internal ethics enforcement.

The last weighed on Irvis because he was aware that he’d face extra scrutiny as a black man in high office, Glasco said.

Irvis shot down any attempts at malfeasance early.

According to Glasco, Irvis was once approached at home by a group of men interested in a scheme. When they finished describing it, the newly named speaker turned on a tape recorder and asked them to repeat the plan. The conspirators got the message.

“The word was out. There was no point in talking to Irvis,” said Glasco, who’s writing a biography about the lawmaker.

As for the man, Moore said Irvis “was practical and a dreamer.” That duality could be seen as Irvis pushed to create the state’s Human Relations Commission or took an interest in the careers of other African Americans in state government.

Irvis retired in 1988 on top, still holding the speaker’s gavel. He died of cancer in 2006 at age 86, and his memorial attracted Republican and Democratic lawmakers from across the state.

His legacy can be seen and felt in Harrisburg and Pittsburgh today.

A building attached to the Capitol bears his name, as does a hall at his alma mater. Harris said he plans to hang a picture of Irvis in his new office.

His words also resonate decades later. Speaking on the eve of America’s 200th anniversary, he offered this advice to future generations:

“We need to rekindle our love of liberty and our confidence in our political system. Our institutions will face their greatest test in our third century. Let this be the century in which we demonstrate that we are truly people of plenty and that our plenty is of the spirit.”

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