A turning point for the Black Action Society 40 years ago prepared Pitt to lead the way. Now what?
Written by Lisa Kay Davis
Something remarkable happened at the University of Pittsburgh between the academic year that spanned 1969 and 1970. Within roughly a year, enrollment of Black students doubled to more than 600, a Black Studies Program was created, and the number of African American faculty members began to increase. Looking back, that period marked a defining moment in Pitt’s long and complex history, making progress toward a more multicultural campus.
Today, African American professors at Pitt continue to attract national and international distinction. A Department of Africana Studies (formerly Black Studies) offers a multitude of courses, academic paths, and perspectives on the Black experience worldwide, advancing the work of both faculty and students. Thousands of Black students apply to attend the University and, each year, many are accepted to enroll as undergraduate or graduate students. Among these students, some have earned top academic honors, including prestigious Truman, Goldwater, Marshall, and Rhodes scholarships—and even a MacArthur genius award and a Nobel Prize.
“I hope what has happened at Pitt in recent decades will set a standard and be a model for other academic institutions,” says Linda Wharton-Boyd, president of the University’s African American Alumni Council.
What has happened at Pitt was sparked by an event that took place four decades ago. At the time, the nation was experiencing political turmoil and social unrest. The Vietnam War was dividing the nation, stirred by a national military draft. The civil rights movement was advancing. Sit-ins and street protests were common. Violence sometimes erupted in this sea of change, including the assassinations of three national leaders: President John F. Kennedy in 1963 and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Senator Robert Kennedy in 1968.
During that turbulent era, many students at Pitt and other universities were swept up in the issues of the day. Black students, for instance, often felt invisible—enrolled in small numbers, lacking Black faculty mentors, excluded from the fullness of campus life, and studying in courses that largely ignored their culture and history. Following King’s assassination, some Pitt students pressed the administration for change, without satisfactory results.
So, on January 15, 1969—the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr., nine months after his 1968 assassination—the students took action. On a crisp winter night, about 50 students who were part of the new Black Action Society left the William Pitt Union, crossed Bigelow Boulevard, and entered the Cathedral of Learning. They took elevators to the eighth floor, where they gathered in the campus computer center, a central depository of important University records. There, they barricaded the center’s doors and began a sit-in to bring change to campus.
The students, led by Joe McCormick (A&S ’73G, ’79G), wanted active recruitment of more Black students, faculty, and administrators. They wanted greater campus recognition of Black life and culture. They wanted to be visible, full members of the University community.
News of the sit-in traveled quickly. Student organizers entered other classrooms and recruited additional protesters. Members of the local community arrived with food and warm clothing. Several academic leaders served as intermediaries between the students and the administration, assisting negotiations. It took about seven hours, but eventually the doors to the computer center opened and so did a new era of progress at Pitt.
Today, more than 16,000 Black students are Pitt alumni, living and working as leaders, professionals, and contributing citizens of the world. Among them are Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai (A&S ’65G), MacArthur Fellow and Pitt trustee William Strickland (A&S ’70), Rhodes scholar Donna Roberts (A&S ’85), Marshall scholar Rebecca Hubbard (A&S ’99), Truman scholar Adam Iddriss (ENGR ’07, A&S ’07), Goldwater scholar Benjamin Gordon (ENGR ’07), and super-achiever Daniel Armanios (ENGR ’07, A&S ’07) who won Rhodes, Truman, and Goldwater scholarships during his years at Pitt. Today, the Black experience is routinely celebrated on campus through activities like the K. Leroy Irvis Black History Month Program, the art of the Kuntu Repertory Theatre and Kuntu Writers Workshop, the performances of the Black Dance Workshop and the African Drum and Dance Ensemble, and the endeavors of the Black Action Society. Today, the University of Pittsburgh is enrolling some of the best students—of many heritages—from throughout the nation and around the world. And much of this was sparked by courageous students who, in 1969, had their own dream of what the future could be.
To commemorate that dream and all that has become possible since 1969, Pitt’s AAAC—led by Wharton-Boyd, who is CEO of the Wharton Group, a consulting firm in Washington, D.C. —recently launched a historic $3 million scholarship campaign. Through the years, the group has reached out and provided support to students of color at Pitt. With the assistance of Pitt Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg, the AAAC has helped a number of students on campus, nurturing future leaders and change-makers.
The new scholarship campaign will ensure that many more students with high aspirations, from disadvantaged backgrounds, will have the financial support to complete their degrees and pursue their dreams.
Wharton-Boyd (A&S ’72, ’75G, ’79G) says the greater potential of the campaign is not only to raise funds, but also to increase alumni participation. “We realized that we had so many alumni who needed to be reconnected,” she says. AAAC board members knew that some alumni who attended Pitt during the civil rights era needed to see the new Pitt and have an opportunity to reconcile their old feelings about their University experience. Remarkably, many of those alumni are now the AAAC’s strongest supporters.
Luddy Hayden (A&S ’66, EDUC ’68) was an assistant dean in 1969 and served as a key negotiator on that January night, along with Jack L. Daniel (A&S ’63, ’66G, ’68G) and Eugene Davis (EDUC ’69G, ’72G). Today, Daniel is Distinguished Service Professor of Communication at Pitt and the University’s former vice provost for undergraduate students and former dean of students.
Hayden believes the new scholarship campaign shows that Black alumni “are proud to be part of this University and want to help ensure that African Americans have opportunities to attend and have success at Pitt.”
The energy of the AAAC mission is driving change. The group participates in the Apple Seed Community Project with Pittsburgh schools. It has reintroduced to the University an annual baccalaureate service and also has initiated the RISE mentoring program. In 2006, AAAC held its first freshmen send-off event in the D.C. area, sparking expansions to Baltimore, Harrisburg, Cleveland, and Atlanta. In October 2009, the Sankofa Homecoming Weekend marked one of the largest turnouts ever. It also launched the public phase of the $3 million scholarship campaign. The AAAC intends to grow financial resources and also support the student experience through an extensive network of accomplished alumni who can offer mentorship and guidance.
So far, the fund has raised more than $1 million from 707 donors and established three giving priorities: the Bebe Moore Campbell Scholarship Fund, the Jack L. Daniel Endowed Book Award, and the AAAC Endowed Scholarship Fund. One of many beneficiaries is freshman premed student Kyle Anthony, a Chicago native with eight siblings. His AAAC scholarship will make it possible for him to reach his goal of becoming a doctor. He walks through a door of opportunity opened years ago by a group of students who pushed for positive change at Pitt. Many of them went on to distinguished careers and lasting success. That’s something worth sharing.