University of Pittsburgh

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Happy 40th!

At a large table in the William Pitt Union, several generations of Black Action Society (BAS) members share stories about their Pitt experiences. They recall what it felt like to be a Black collegian in the ’60s, ’70s, and more recently. The same question hangs in the air: Was Pitt different for you than it was for me?

The BAS members are part of a panel discussion titled “Forty Years of Black Action at the University of Pittsburgh.” It’s one of several events that BAS is hosting this year to celebrate its 40th anniversary. BAS was founded to organize positive change for Black students in the social turmoil that erupted in the aftermath of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in 1968.

At the table, Richard Utley (A&S ’72) recollects the Afro hairstyles and Nigerian dashiki shirts he wore when he attended Pitt 35 years ago and notes that the student audience has a different sense of fashion these days. Of course, a lot more has changed than hairstyles. He says there was little interaction between Black and White students then, but now it’s not unusual for Black students to pledge with a variety of fraternities, to join intramural sports teams, and to attend parties with a wide mix of people. He’s pleased by this progress, but he urges everyone in the room, especially the current students, to continue supporting BAS.

Utley, who is now the deputy auditor general for administration in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, says that during his era as a Pitt student, he and other BAS members regularly campaigned to increase the numbers of Black faculty and students and to develop curricula for the academic study of Black culture. While progress has been made, BAS remains focused on its 40-year mission, which includes creating a positive environment for Black students at the University, establishing a sense of widespread community, and advocating for the needs and interests of Black students.

In her leadership role during the 40th anniversary celebration, BAS president Sheila E. Isong (A&S ’08), who graduated this spring as a political science and philosophy major, organized the campus gathering of past and present BAS members because she believes it’s important to revisit the past as a way to gauge future steps. “I would like to analyze how much progress has been made, making special note of the work that we still need to do to improve,” she says.

—J. D. Thrasher