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Pitt Students Catalyzed Change On MLK’s Birthday 50 Years Ago

Sarah Schneider
90.5 WESA
Jacquea Mae Olday leads a group of University of Pittsburgh Alumni singing "Life Every Voice and Sing".

Nearly a year after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, students at the University of Pittsburgh marked his birthday by demanding diversity. Five decades later, university leaders acknowledge it is a persistent challenge.

The students took over and occupied a computer room vital to university operations on Jan. 15, 1969 as other students and black faculty negotiated with then-Chancellor Wesley Posvar for hours until he agreed to create a black studies program, recruit more black students and increase the number and stature of black faculty. The sit-in resulted in the creation of the Africana Studies program and a system to bring more black students to campus.

At the time, only one half of one percent of undergraduate students on campus were black. Fifty years later, that number is 5 percent.

Alumni Lorna Hubbard said the movement spurred by the student-led Black Action Society was impactful, but she worries that not enough has changed.

“There has to be a remnant of social activists that are willing to take the baton and say ‘you know what, we can sense some revving up to returning back to some old practices that weren’t acceptable 50 years ago and that are not acceptable now’,” she told a group gathered to commemorate the anniversary of the computer-room takeover.

Her personal experience on campus was generally good; despite the discomfort she felt being one of only a few black students on campus. The Schenley High School graduate said her acceptance to Pitt was provisional. Audience members gasped as she read the letter aloud.

“Despite our reservations, your record does offer sufficient hope for your success to justify our calculated risk. Your admission presupposes that you will approach your task here with seriousness and maturity,” she read.

She went on to receive three degrees from the university.

Chancellor Pat Gallagher told the same crowd that it is worth reflecting now about the action of the students who raised their voice for change. He noted that the university’s minority population has grown by 30 percent in the last five years and that African-American leaders now run the schools of Education and Engineering and the sports program.  

“Not to say that we’re done. We’re far from done. But, those events catalyzed change that is still unfolding with us today,” he said.

Most public colleges and universities are far from being done. The University of Southern California Race and Equity Center recently released a study giving all 50 states a letter grade based on the status of black undergraduate students at every four-year, non-specialized public postsecondary institution.

Pennsylvania scored 1.89 on a 4-point scale. The University of Pittsburgh - Pittsburgh campus received a D for student representation equity, and an A for the black student to black faculty ratio at 9 to 1.

Joyce Ford Kareem, a 1971 graduate, said she is proud of the changes made at the university noting there are more African-American staff in strategic positions, inclusion in course content and growth of the African American Alumni Council.

“Yet, we still have miles to go,” she said.

She and others, including Hubbard, who were integral to the 1969 action said they had a sense of urgency at the time.

“My reflections are bittersweet,” Hubbard said. “On one hand I feel privileged to have been a part of such an impactful movement. Yet, on another hand I can’t help but wonder what the future holds for our young people.”

The group of alumni is publishing a collection of oral histories and reflections from the 1968-69 activism next fall before homecoming titled “Say It Loud.” 

WESA receives funding from the University of Pittsburgh.

Sarah Schneider is WESA's education reporter. From early learning to higher education, Sarah is interested in students and educators working to create more equitable systems. Sarah previously worked with news outlets in Pennsylvania, Illinois and Idaho. She is a graduate of Southern Illinois University Carbondale where she worked for the school newspaper, the Daily Egyptian.
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