Black History Month: Celebrating the African American Experience

Issue Date: 
March 17, 2014

These are the remarks of Pitt Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg that were delivered during the University’s 2014 K. Leroy Irvis Black History Month Celebration of the Arts. The event was held Feb. 24 in Alumni Hall.

The roots of Black History Month can be traced to the historian, author, and educator—the late Carter G. Woodson. Recognized as the “Father of Black History,” Dr. Woodson was driven by a belief that 

“[i]f a race has no history, if it has no tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world...”.

Dr. Woodson was the second African American, after W.E.B. DuBois, to earn a doctorate from Harvard. Three years later, in 1915, this Ph.D-son of former slaves founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History—now known as the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, or ASALH – to research, promote, preserve, and disseminate the history of the countless Black men and women who have advanced human civilization. 

ASALH generated research that Dr. Woodson first published in 1916 in the Journal of Negro History, which endures today as the Journal of African American History. And Dr. Woodson founded Negro History Week in 1926, which was extended a half-century later, in 1976, to what is today known as Black History Month. 

The extraordinary Pitt alumnus for whom our Black History Month series of programs has been named is that “Lion of Pennsylvania,” the late K. Leroy Irvis. A 1954 graduate of our School of Law and a former Pitt Trustee, Mr. Irvis became Pennsylvania’s first African American Speaker of the House and this nation’s first Black speaker of any house of representatives since Reconstruction. 

Among the more than 1,600 pieces of legislation sponsored by Speaker Irvis during his 30-plus years in public life were three bills of particular importance to those of us who believe in the power of higher education: the bill creating the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency, the bill creating the Commonwealth’s community college system, and the bill, enacted in 1966, that made Pitt a state-related university. 

Modern-day memorials to Speaker Irvis’ life of accomplishment and impact include the South Office Building in Pennsylvania’s Capitol Complex, which was renamed the Speaker K. Leroy Irvis Office Building; the K. Leroy Irvis Archives and Reading Room and the K. Leroy Irvis Fellowships, which are at Pitt; and the K. Leroy Irvis Science Center on the North Side campus of the Community College of Allegheny County. They also include this program.

Speaker Irvis was a man of many talents. He was a painter, an orator, and a writer. He designed, built and flew his own detailed model aircraft. He was a poet whose collection of poems, This Land of Fire, was published by Temple University. He was a sculptor whose works were displayed and admired in exhibits across the country. He was a man who understood the need to create art and to share his creations—whether it was through poetry or sculpture—with others. I have no doubt that he would appreciate and applaud our plans for this evening.

Tonight’s University of Pittsburgh Black History Month program is part of a series of Pitt programs that have recognized the African American experience. And consistent with our broader academic mission—discovering, illuminating, and preserving Black history ensures that the impact of our efforts extends far beyond this single, special month. 

Our ability to launch and sustain this series has involved the contributions of many people from inside Pitt, as well as an all-star list of partners and supporters who have joined with us in the past. Together, we have premiered documentaries that have looked at the inspiring career of Speaker Irvis; the bravery and patriotism of the Tuskegee Airmen from Western Pennsylvania; the trail-blazing work of the Hill District’s Freedom House Ambulance Service; and the celebrated life and work of Pitt alumnus and sculptor Thaddeus Mosley. 

We have hosted exhibits that have provided in-depth looks at subjects ranging from slavery in Western Pennsylvania, to the pioneering accomplishments of African-American students in our own University, to the history of Three Rivers Youth, and to the far-reaching impact of The Pittsburgh Courier. 

Tonight, our entire evening will be devoted to a celebration of the arts at Pitt. It is going to be a sensational evening!

Central to that celebration will be our recognition of the extraordinary impact of three emeritus members of our faculty—Vernell Lillie, Toi Derricotte, and Nathan Davis. Their extraordinary contributions have added richness to life within our University, as well as to their art. I might add that I have known, respected, and liked all three of these Pitt history-makers for many years and always felt privileged to share a campus home with them.

I first met Vernell Lillie about 25 years ago when we served together on a committee examining the status and recognition of teaching at Pitt. One telling example of the impact of Vernell’s own teaching came through a letter that was received in my office earlier this month. Its author was Mamothena Carol Mothupi, a young woman who traveled from South Africa to be a student at Pitt as a Nelson Mandela Scholar. Shortly after she arrived on campus, she came to my office to meet me. Carol, as she was then known, could not have been more shy. During her time here, she began to open up, but I still was amazed when I went to see her, during her senior year, starring in a Kuntu Theater musical about the life of President Mandela.

Mamothena has returned to Africa and now lives in Tanzania. She recently earned her master’s degree in public health and is preparing to continue her studies to earn a PhD in epidemiology. When she learned of tonight’s event, she sent this heartfelt tribute:

“I once asked Dr. Lillie what I could do to thank her for bringing me out of my shell, and she told me “Just do the same for someone else.” And so this year, my friend and I are going to register a theater development non-governmental organization to foster the already-existing love of drama and performance in…Tanzania…that is mired by lack of opportunities for advancement and professionalism. It is a small step which has been a long time coming…, but I am glad to be taking it and I have Dr. Lillie’s voice and influence in my life to thank for it…I believe Dr. Lillie’s impact in my life, and, indeed, the impact of the wonderful mentors and friends I met at Pitt, is still to manifest itself in the years to come. I have only just started to become the person I dreamed I could be, but my inspiration comes from the kindness and open hands of Dr. Lillie and others like her who gave me the platform on which I stand today.”

Although Mamothena wrote these about Dr. Lillie, her words also capture thoughts regularly expressed about Nathan Davis and Toi Derricotte, who also have been wonderful teachers and inspiring role models. In fact, Gerri Allen and Terrance Hayes—our distinguished new faculty colleagues and featured performers tonight—were students of Nathan and Toi, respectively. 

Abraham Maslow, the American psychiatrist who created Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, once wrote, “A musician must make music, an artist must paint, a poet must write, if he is to be ultimately at peace with himself.” With that thought in mind, I am going to turn the podium back over to my friend and colleague, Clyde Jones, so that the show can go on! 

But before doing so, let me thank you, again, for joining us here tonight. Your presence adds to what is going to be a very special evening.