Luddy Hayden remembers meeting only one African-American instructor while he was an undergraduate student at the University of Pittsburgh.
When Hayden was a freshman in 1962, Pitt was a private school with 15,000 students, but only 45 African-American students were on campus.
“We were few and far between in terms of students, faculty and staff at the university,” the 1966 graduate recalled.
He earned his master’s degree in 1968 — the same year a group of students formed the Black Action Society.
Those students met with then-Chancellor Wesley Posvar in May 1968 with a list of demands to improve academic achievement and life for black students on campus. By January of 1969, the students prepared to protest the lack of progress Posvar had made.
A group of students entered the Cathedral of Learning at around 8:30 p.m. on January 15, 1969, according to an article published the next day in the Pittsburgh Press.
The students took the elevator to the computer center on the eighth floor and barricaded themselves inside for six hours.
Hayden, who at the time was the assistant dean of students at the university, was on the team appointed by the students to negotiate with the chancellor that night.
Posvar agreed to seven points that night, including no punitive action against demonstrators, recruiting more black students and faculty members, making African-American history materials available in the Hillman Library, creating an Africana Studies program and declaring Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday a university holiday.
Linda Wharton Boyd received three degrees from Pitt in the 70s. She’s now organizing events this year for the African American Alumni Council. She says those specific demands improved black life on campus and ensured that students like her received a quality education.
“It just shed light on the fact that a person’s condition doesn’t necessarily dictate their destiny,” she said. “They did a great sacrifice, so those sacrifices and commitments were made for the future and educational success for a lot of minority students.”
The theme of the weekend centers on the African concept of "sankofa," which emphasizes learning from lessons in the past to guide the future.
Boyd said she wants current students to recognize the importance of the protest in 1969.
“They come from a rich culture and rich heritage of people who care about them. And as they press forward, they too should give it forward and give it back so that others can come behind them and experience the same sort of success,” she said.
Hayden is now retired and lives in Greensboro, N.C. He said he wants current students to be proud of the legacy of African-American alumni.
“It’s important for them to understand that change isn’t always easy, it’s not free, requires bravery and sacrifice and those were the kinds of things laid on the table and in part those were the kinds of things that made it possible for them to be at the university of Pittsburgh today,” he said.
After the sit-in, Karl Lewis, the only tenure-track professor in Pitt’s School of Engineering created the IMPACT Program, now EXCEL. The program offers academic counseling and peer mentoring for underrepresented engineering students. The sit-in also lead to the establishment of the Department of Africana Studies. The university also created programs including the University-Community Education Program to recruit more African-American students, faculty and administrators.
WESA receives funding from the University of Pittsburgh.