Activism and pragmatism: The legacy of Pitt’s Black student leaders of the 1960s

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by Laurence A. Glasco
For New Pittsburgh Courier

The Pitt African American Alumni Council’s Oct. 22-25 “Sankofa” Homecoming Weekend paid tribute to the activism of pioneer student activists as well as the recent academic achievements of Black Pitt students. These included Rhodes Scholars Donna Roberts and Daniel Armanios, Marshall Scholar Rebecca Hubbard, Truman Scholars Armanios and Adam Iddriss and Goldwater Scholars Armanios and Benjamin Gordon, among others.

That festive celebration marked the 40th anniversary of Year Zero in the presence of Blacks at the University of Pittsburgh. The changed landscape for Blacks at Pitt is remarkable. Before 1969, Black students at Pitt, as at other Northern universities, were almost invisible members of the university community—few in number, excluded from many areas of campus life, studying without benefit of Black faculty mentors, and with their history and culture largely absent from the curriculum.

It is important to put these changes in historical perspective. Beginning in the 1960s, K. Leroy Irvis, Pittsburgh’s powerful Black state legislator, had made Pitt more affordable for all students by sponsoring the legislation that made the university state-related, and then made it more accessible to Black students through the Higher Education Equal Opportunity Program, which provided support services to disadvantaged undergraduates, and the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Act, which provided scholarships to economically disadvantaged students. And in April 1968, Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, and the ensuing race riots, sensitized America and the university to the racial crisis. Sensitivity is one thing, fundamental change is another. Fundamental change required a combination of militancy and pragmatism exhibited by Black student leaders to open the doors for future generations of Black students and Black achievement.

In the months following King’s assassination, Pitt’s Black students had pressed the university for change. By 1969, their patience had run out. On the 1969 anniversary of King’s birthday (Jan. 15), Pitt’s Black Action Society, led by Joe McCormick, demanded that then-Chancellor Wesley W. Posvar close the university. When Posvar said he could not act without trustee approval, the students took the elevator to the eighth floor of the Cathedral of Learning and barricaded themselves inside the university’s $8 million computer center. Intense negotiations led by Jack Daniel, then-assistant professor of communication, lasted until 3 a.m., when Posvar accepted the students’ demands to establish a Black studies “institute;” aggressively recruit Black students, faculty and administrators; create a special Afro-American collection in Hillman Library; and declare King’s birthday a university holiday.

The students’ combination of militancy and reasonableness spawned a Black studies department, with Daniel, a recent Pitt Ph.D., as its first director and Curtiss Porter, a recent Pitt graduate, as associate director. Working hard over the summer of 1969, they made tremendous progress. By fall 1969, Pitt’s existing programs to recruit and nurture new Black students were merged into the University-Community Education Program, headed by Edward Barnes, and new Black studies faculty were in place.

The university soon appointed three now-legendary Black deans—Larry Howard in Public and International Affairs, David Epperson in Social Work, and James Kelly in Education. Pitt went farther than most universities in bringing Black students to campus. A 1982 study, Minorities in American Higher Education, identified Pitt as the “institution with the largest degree of over-representation of Blacks” among the nation’s flagship universities.

Not all was harmony. Black Studies, in particular, had its trying moments. In 1973, Daniel resigned as department chair, and then-Arts and Sciences Dean J.L. Rosenberg rejected Curtiss Porter as his replacement. Controversy raged until Rosenberg acceded in 1975, but acrimony continued until Porter resigned in 1977, citing irreconcilable grievances.

The Pitt Black leaders of 1969 went on to pursue distinguished careers. Curtiss Porter, for instance, is now chancellor of Penn State Greater Allegheny. Daniel, now Distinguished Service Professor of Communication, stayed at Pitt, becoming vice provost for academic affairs and, later, vice provost for undergraduate studies and dean of students, all the while pushing relentlessly for the recruitment and nurturing of outstanding Black students, efforts which have borne fruit.

Of course, even in those early years after 1969, achievements by students like Linda Wharton-Boyd, president of the Pitt African American Alumni Council; the late best-selling novelist Bebe Moore Campbell; and Bill Strickland, Pitt trustee and MacArthur “genius” awardee, testify to the extraordinarily high talent of many Pitt Black students.

The pragmatism of Pitt’s student activists 40 years ago made possible the accomplishments of today’s Black super achievers—in the classroom, in student life, in campus athletics and in alumni life.

(Laurence A. Glasco is associate professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh.)

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