Chicago film legend, Ronn Pitts, the man who broke the color barrier in the Chicago film industry 50 years ago, died Sunday after a short illness. Mr. Pitts, 76, a Bronzeville native, was “a man of uncommon humor, courage and compassion, a fine cinematographer and an excellent teacher,” said Columbia College’s Bruce Sheridan, Cinema Art + Science Chair.
Sheridan called him “the spiritual father of several generations of Columbia College film students.”
Mr. Pitts was the first African American in the film industry, when he was hired as a shipping clerk by Jack Behrend, owner of an equipment rental company in what is now the Optimus building.
He was also the first African American to teach at Columbia College and was still enthusiastically teaching at the time of his death.
“He challenged and broke color barriers throughout his life, including the segregated Chicago television and film industries,” Sheridan wrote in a letter to school community.
In 1965, Mr. Pitts broke the color barrier as a filmmaker when he and his best friend, Joe Stratton, were hired to shoot Chicago Bears footage by club owner George Halas. As it happened, he captured the death on the field of wide receiver Chuck Hughes.
Mr. Pitts worked as a documentary filmmaker for nearly 40 years. His footage of historic events has been edited into countless Chicago-produced social action documentaries that received national acclaim.
His most recent footage may be seen in director Haskell Wexler’s “Four Days in Chicago” (screening here Friday) about the demonstrations surrounding the NATO Summit held here last year.
In fact, Sheridan noted, “When iconic filmmakers Haskell Wexler and Andy Davis came to the department, Ronn was the first person they wanted to see.”
Deservedly, Mr. Pitts enjoyed career honors. He was given Lifetime Achievement Award by the Bronzeville Cultural Festival in 2010 and his Columbia College lifetime award in 1998 was recognized by Mayor Daley who officially designated Oct. 10 as “Ronn Pitts day in the City of Chicago.” And he garnered a CINE Golden Eagle for excellence in film.
Mr. Pitts was a native of Bronzeville. He and his siblings were raised by a widowed mother whose strength of character imbued Mr. Pitts with determination and a sense of social justice that he strived for in his work and personal life.
As a way of paying it forward, he had established the Ronn Pitts scholarship that helps defray tuition costs for a full-time undergraduate student who has demonstrated genuine commitment to his/her community.
Visitation and funeral will be held at WW Holt Funeral Home, 175 W. 159th St. in Harvey; 708/331-0310. Visitation Thursday, 3-7 p.m., funeral services Friday; wake, 10 a.m., funeral, 11 a.m.
A memorial service in his honor is being planned by Columbia College.
To see Columbia students’ tribute on Facebook, “Ronn Pitts got more cool than I do,” click here.