Black Action Society celebrates 50 years


University Archives, University Library System

The front page of The Pitt News on Jan. 16, 1969, details an agreement between Black Action Society and the University for improved treatment of students of color. The photo (top) shows police preventing black students from entering the Cathedral.

By Madeline Gavatorta , Staff Writer

Fifty years ago, several black Pitt students — all members of the Black Action Society — locked themselves in the University Computer Center for seven hours until former Chancellor Wesley Posvar agreed to their demands, including increasing efforts to recruit black students and to provide them with more financial aid.

“I am dissatisfied with the progress myself,” Posvar said in an article about the incident. “We have made commitments on various occasions. We are going to continue our efforts for them.”

The African American Alumni Council Sankofa Homecoming 2018 celebrated those efforts and the formation of the Black Action Society Saturday night with the theme, “Blue, Gold and Black: Fifty Years of Pride, Progress and Partnership.”

Sankofa — a word derived from West African languages meaning “going back to where one started” — was a central theme of the night. AAAC President Nicole Walker Parks spoke further on the word’s meaning.

“We must go back and gather the best of our past so that we can achieve our full potential as we move forward,” Parks said. “We must look in the rearview mirror of our past to fetch the front view of our future.”

Students, alumni and faculty alike honored 50 years of progress with keynote speaker Chancellor Patrick Gallagher.

The Black Action Society at Pitt was newly founded when those students protested in the University Computer Center in 1968. Among the groups’ demands were recognition for holidays such as Martin Luther King Jr. Day and the death of Malcolm X and an established institution for black students.

At the event reflecting on the five decades since that protest, Gallagher commented on the current state of race relations during his keynote address.

“In 2008, with the Obama administration, when Washington was celebrating the election of our first black president and we were holding discussions about whether we were entering a post-racial period,” Gallagher said. “It seems naive now.”

Gallagher discussed the progress Pitt has made thus far, mentioning this year’s incoming class is the most diverse and academically accomplished class Pitt has ever admitted. He also noted the increasing diversity of the engineering and nursing departments.

“We are trying hard and we are doing a lot of things,” Gallagher said. “We’ve made every search for every senior position in the University a full and open national competition and made the formation of a diverse and extraordinarily qualified school a top priority.”

The banquet honored Dean of the Swanson School of Engineering James Martin ll and Dean of Education Valerie Kinloch, the first black deans of their respective schools. The AAAC also raised $27,053.52 for the AAAC Endowed Scholarship Fund from alumni donors.

The event came together with the direction of former ACCC President Linda Wharton Boyd chaired the banquet and discussed the money awarded to black students such as funding for study abroad and book awards. She said black students help improve the world.

“When you know better, you do better,” Boyd said.

Dawson Winston, a first-year mechanical engineering major and AAAC scholarship recipient, said he’s grateful for the scholarship and wants to help other who have helped him. Winston also expressed interest in Pitt’s black history.

“It tells me where I came from and actually I’ll always be thankful and blessed,” Winston said. “I think also it’s a good, constant reminder [that] people fought to come here, sacrificed a lot, so if I feel like giving up or switching majors it’s also like they had it way harder than I ever will have it so it’s a good reminder.”

Morgan Ottley, a sophomore neuroscience major, came to the banquet as a guest of Tony and Lark Fountain. The Fountains are donors to the AAAC scholarship that Ottley won and invited her to the dinner with them. She’s also an intern for BAS. Like Winston, she spoke about giving back to institutions and people who have given to her.

“I personally chose to attend because I wanted to meet [the Fountains],” Ottley said. “These are the people who are making it possible for me to continue my education here at Pitt.”

Boyd talked about the appreciation Ottley and Winston felt for their scholarship and how that value is at the center of what AAAC does and is about.

“It’s a core value,” Boyd said. “We always give back and pay it forward … because there are so many people who have died, who prayed and who have cried for us to get an education so we have to bring others along. My education is only as good as I can help somebody else and pull them up and once we keep pulling each other up, we will always remain up.”

Ottley dedicates her free time to activism for issues that affect the black community and interning with BAS, and she said this issue is one of the closest that she advocates for.

“I feel as though it’s important because it’s in me, it’s my being. These are my people,” Ottley said. “These are the people I come from. These are my heros, these are the people who are other people’s heroes. These are the leaders who have created the places and the spaces for me to thrive.”

Ottley also discussed the legacy of BAS and AAAC as people who paved the way for her to be successful, but they are mortal just like everyone.

“They aren’t going to be here forever, so there’s going to need to be a group that needs to step up and take their place,” Ottley said. “And I feel as though if I don’t feel that is important then there is not going to be a group to take their place. That’s going to be the end and then know the history of what we’ve done here at Pitt. That’s why it’s important to me.”