The African American Experience at Pitt: 1969-2009

Issue Date: 
October 19, 2009

At its Oct. 22-25 Sankofa Homecoming Weekend festivities, the University of Pittsburgh African American Alumni Council (AAAC) will celebrate the strides in diversity initiatives Pitt has made in the four decades since a group of Black students occupied the campus’ computer center in 1969 and reached agreement with the University to accede to a list of student demands. This immediately resulted, among other things, in the establishment of a Black studies department, the energized recruitment of Black students, faculty, and administrators, and the observance of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday as a University holiday.

Pitt Distinguished Service Professor of Communication Jack L. Daniel, who, as a newly minted Pitt PhD graduate, was a leader during the occupation, here gives his story of the events of 40 years ago and their aftermath; he was vice provost for academic affairs at Pitt from 1992 to 2002 and served after that as vice provost for undergraduate studies and dean of students at Pitt. He will take part in this week’s AAAC celebration.

—John Harvith

Jack L. DanielJack L. Daniel

Pitt’s African American Alumni Council (AAAC) has many reasons to celebrate 40 years of progress at Pitt during Sankofa Homecoming Weekend Oct. 22-25. Looking back, January through July 1969 seems to have been the fastest-paced, most intense, nerve-racking period of my life. It was a time when reason often gave way to threats and acts of violence, a time when revolutionary “brothers and sisters” first threatened those considered to be the White racist opposition and, sooner than later, focused on “dealing with Negroes” they perceived to be “counter revolutionaries,” “Uncle Toms,” and old-fashioned Negroes.

Nonetheless, proceeding in a civil fashion throughout 1968, Black Action Society (BAS) members had met with the chancellor, provost, and various deans and directors regarding their desire for an increased presence of African American students, staff, faculty, administrators, and social and academic programs. Frustrated by what some felt to be the snail-like pace of University representatives, BAS members increasingly determined that direct actions were needed.

The Jan. 15, 1969, BAS takeover of the University’s computer center was probably the first time in Pitt’s history that a group of undergraduates took over a facility, made a set of demands, and obtained outcomes that contributed to the hiring of faculty and administrators, the recruitment and enrollment of students, and the development of new academic programs. On the night of the “computer center takeover,” I served as one of the negotiators with the then-chancellor, and I remain forever appreciative of the fact that he chose to negotiate rather than have police intervene—something that might well have led to the loss of life and the ruination of careers. These students were the “freedom fighters” who risked everything for the cause of social justice at Pitt, and for their selfless acts that led directly to all that is institutionalized at Pitt regarding the African American aspects of diversity, they must never be forgotten.

On Feb. 18, 1969, I received a letter from Arts and Sciences Dean Dave Halliday appointing me as the interim director of Black Studies. Lloyd Bell became an assistant vice chancellor in charge of a new office devoted to community service. A search eventually led to the appointment of Donald M. Henderson as vice provost. In less than a year, there were more than 15 faculty members in Black Studies. For the 1969 Fall Term, there was a huge increase in African American enrollments. The campus was frequented by African American guest speakers.

Throughout the 1970s, the University rapidly expanded its disadvantaged student programs, which enrolled the vast majority of our African American students. Notwithstanding their academic challenges and often a less-than-hospitable campus climate, graduates from these programs became physicians, engineers, lawyers, authors, teachers, social workers, entrepreneurs, nurses, dentists, pharmacists, corporate leaders, senior academic administrators, and, in short, all that comes from college success. Many gained national prominence, and we should never forget that, as was the case with me, the standardized predictors of college success indicated that we should not have been admitted! These students demonstrated what could come of their “true grit” bolstered by very high-quality University support services.

Notwithstanding the problems related to the shortage of African American students in the high school pipeline, visionary Pitt leaders steadily enhanced our ability to compete for the very best qualified students, at times enrolling African American students who had competitive offers from Ivy League, Big Ten, and other flagship institutions.  In 1969, some administrators cried “crocodile tears” and said, “We’d like to admit them, but we can’t find them.” As of 2009, Pitt has had at least two decades of experience with finding, enrolling, and graduating many of the most-talented African Americans in the country. For this success, Pitt was externally lauded by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education in its most recent accreditation report on the University.

My emotions associated with the election of Barack Obama remind me of my reactions to so many of my Pitt African American alumni watershed moments, e.g., when student Donna Roberts won a Rhodes Scholarship; when Daniel Armanios also won a Rhodes, along with Truman and Goldwater scholarships, making him perhaps the most academically recognized student in Pitt history; when Rebecca Hubbard won a Marshall Scholarship; when Wangari Muta Maathal won the Nobel Peace Prize; when Bebe Moore Campbell became a nationally recognized author and later a Pitt Trustee; when Donald M. Henderson became Pitt’s Provost; when William Strickland (another disadvantaged student) not only won the MacArthur “genius award,” but also became a Pitt Trustee; when Francine McNairy became president of the University of Millersville; when Adam Iddriss won a Truman Scholarship; when freshman Courage Otaigbe enrolled at age 17 and graduated with her MS at age 19; when Albert Wynn became a U.S. Congressman; and when Linda Wharton-Boyd forged the AAAC into a national model for the reconciliation and reconnection of Pitt’s African American alumni.

Most importantly, we at Pitt have distanced ourselves from the 1969 days of daily confrontations with administrators. Gone is the need for students to occupy buildings and make violent threats. In 2009, we have trustees, Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg, and Provost James V. Maher, for whom diversity is a very high priority; regional campus presidents William Shields and Livingston Alexander enrolling record numbers of African American students; Admissions and Financial Aid Director Betsy A. Porter, a national leader in enrolling a diverse student body; Gail Austin administering a very high-quality and innovative academic resource center for all students; Institutional Advancement’s Albert J. Novak and Cynthia Roth partnering with AAAC Scholarship Chair Doug Browning to raise major scholarship gifts; Robert Hill heading a nationally recognized Office of Public Affairs; John Cooper leading the enrollment of underrepresented students in graduate programs; and a critical mass of faculty pursuing diversity among their ranks, in their classrooms, and in their research.

It has been honey for my soul to witness the transformation of Pitt into a very-high- quality institution open to all who can benefit from and contribute to its progress.