Black alumni say more work needed on diversity issues

Historic Pitt images from the 1960s


After 40 black students staged a sit-in at the Pitt computer center in 1969, they sent a list of demands to Chancellor Wesley Posvar — one of which was for Pitt to double its black student enrollment each year until it reached 20 percent. 

Now, 50 years later, 5.2 percent of Pitt’s undergraduate students identify as black and 2.9 percent of Pitt’s faculty are black, according to the University Factbook. For some speakers at events on Oct. 25 commemorating the 50th anniversary of the founding of the African American Alumni Council, this means Pitt still has a way to go.

“I made a very serious mistake of only looking at the past 50 years of us at the University of Pittsburgh,” said Jack Daniel, former vice provost for undergraduate studies, dean of students, and professor of communication, said at a Time Capsule Ceremony. 

Instead, he said he focused on the fact that an overwhelming majority of Pitt administrators and Pitt deans since the founding of the University have been and remain white. He acknowledged that even though Pitt has made some progress in the past 50 years, the overall lack of diversity makes him less excited.

The Time Capsule ceremony was one of several events commemorating the 50th anniversary, along with the “Say It Loud!” book launch and panel discussion and the premiere of the documentary “Blue, Gold and Black…Say It Loud: From Uprising to Still Rising.”

The Time Capsule will contain letters, photos, video and other items that document black student and alumni life from 1969 to the present, along with encouraging letters for the future. The burial site is still undecided, but the ceremony will take place on Jan. 15, 2020 — Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. The capsule will be opened in 2069.

“We leave these items to be found by the next generation of Panthers, evidence of the work and pride throughout the past 50 years, and the advancements we have made as a community and the path that we must feel (we) tried in order to get to where we need to be,” said Kathy Humphrey, senior vice chancellor for engagement. “It demonstrates that we were here and what we did mattered.” 

Edenis Augustin, a recent Black Action Society president, read excerpts from the letter the society will add to the capsule. The organization says some progress has been made in racial equity, but Pitt still has a long way to go with its inclusion efforts.

However, Augustin said, thanks to the recent actions of black students, faculty and alumni, Pitt recently hired African Americans to administrative positions, including Valerie Kinloch, dean of the School of Education, and Counseling Center Director Jay Darr. The letter encouraged future black students to continue “carrying the torch.”

“We pray that the problems and issues that we face as black students on this campus and black citizens of Pittsburgh have faded away and become solved by the time this letter is read,” Augustin read. “If that does not seem to be the case or there are new unique challenges and difficulties that are being faced, we pray that these are combated and solved by the same way we aim to solve ours — with action.”

‘Say It Loud’

Following the Time Capsule Ceremony, speakers read excerpts from “Say It Loud!,” a collection of oral histories and reflections from 1968-69, and held a panel discussion on social justice and the black experience.

The book contains reflections from some of the 40 students involved in the computer center protest in 1969 or who benefitted from the protest.

According to the Pitt Archives, the protesters demanded that Pitt recruit more black students; integrate more African-American history into the University’s history courses; increase the amount of African-American faculty and promote the present African-American professors; and create a Black Studies program.

All of those demands were met swiftly, said Curtiss Porter, a founding member of the Black Action Society, and made Pitt a pioneer in Black Studies programs in universities. 

The book culminates with a message from alumni, which Curtiss read, proposing that Chancellor Patrick Gallagher create a Chancellor’s Sankofa Committee to help “advance the state of black affairs” at the University of Pittsburgh. This committee would include black students, local politicians, faculty and staff to give the chancellor feedback to help produce a “measurable outcome” for Pitt’s black community.

“We think looking back 50 years is only important if we go forward,” Porter said.

Following Porter, the “Social Justice: Rising Above Social Injustice” panel discussed the current state of affairs for black at Pitt and in the U.S., and how to combat ongoing injustices to the black community.

The panel included Brian Burley, director of Economic Inclusion with the Allegheny Conference on Community Development; Johnathan White, historian and lecturer in history at Penn State Greater Allegheny; state Rep. Summer Lee (D-Swissvale) and T. Elon Dancy II, director of the Center for Urban Education in the School of Education.

Each speaker discussed complex issues in the black community and how they are attempting to improve economic, education and criminal justice systems.

Burley said issues of diversity and inclusion are unavoidable in conversations about attracting businesses and employers to the Allegheny County region.

“Pittsburgh has to do a much better job overall holding ourselves accountable,” Burley said. “So the work that we need to do from the context of how we increase the level of diversity and inclusion in our region, overall, we need to do a better job with the intentionality behind it because if we don’t do this work on purpose, it’s not going to happen.” 

Lee said she got into politics to address issues of diversity, criminal justice reform and social justice.

“I got into politics because I understood that we can fight power,” Lee said. “But if we’re not taking power, then we’re not doing everything that we need to be doing. … I did not get into the system to fit into the system, but to upend the system.”

Dancy outlined several issues that create difficulties for black children in the U.S. education system, including a majority of teachers in K-12 systems being white women, and curriculums that don’t address black history well enough. 

To combat this, Dancy recommended teaching “from a social justice perspective.” This would include pushing back on harmful negative stereotypes about blacks and understanding the systems in U.S. society that create disparities.

‘Blue, Gold and Black’

The “Blue, Gold and Black … Say It Loud: From Uprising to Still Rising” documentary highlighted the struggles and advancements in the Pitt black community.

The documentary featured interviews with several founding Black Action Society members, Gallagher, Pitt Chief Information Officer Mark Henderson, Dean of Students Kenyon Bonner and University administrators who talked about Pitt’s past, present and future regarding racial diversity. It also honored distinguished alumni and athletes.

In a Q&A session after the movie, executive producer Robert Hill said Posvar stood out among other more hostile University responses to the black students’ protests.

The documentary quoted from Posvar’s notes that he felt he was doing the right thing. His wife, Mildred Miller Posvar, who attended the screening, said she remembered her husband coming home the evening after the protests “pleased with himself.”

The documentary is not yet available to the public, but will be released to a website at a later date.

 Donovan Harrell is a writer for the University Times. Reach him at or 412-383-9905.


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