In Googling the January 1969 Black student takeover of Pitt’s Computer Center, I came upon a document that showed the actual sign-in sheet of the students who had participated in the seminal event. I pored over the list as the faces of those classmates who participated came caroming through my head in vivid memories of each signatory. And then I was abruptly and ruefully reminded that I would not find my name among the signatures on the document.
Since I was a commuter student at Pitt in 1967 and had part-time jobs to help pay for my education, even though I was on an academic scholarship, I missed a great deal of the campus cultural and social life. In addition, there were so few Black students enrolled, I preferred the comfort and safety of my Black Hill District, a community located adjacent to Oakland. It was not as though I had never had contact with or had an adversarial relationship with whites. My Schenley High School pulled in students from Pittsburgh’s rich ethnic conclaves. Students from Polish Hill and the Italian and Greek enclaves had all been my classmates, and we had gotten along relatively well.
But there was a certain naivete that characterized my teenage walk, despite my life experiences. I suffered from a kind of racial emotional schizophrenia. Every summer up until I was 15 I had spent in the red dirt hills of rural Alabama and Georgia and the cities of Atlanta and Birmingham where my parents had been reared.
I wasn’t myopic about discrimination and oppression. I’d experienced having my Southern cousins push me into the street in order to allow whites walking abreast to traverse unhampered on the sidewalk. I’d drank from “Colored Only” water fountains, sat in the segregated colored balconies of Birmingham movie theaters and been accosted by stereotypically racist Southern sheriffs. But it was the late ’60s, and I believed that America was on the cusp of a racial and social upheaval. Hope characterized my raison d’etre. I was a Northerner, a Pittsburgher, and I had not, somehow, projected, sought to compare or intuited the palpable racism of my Deep South experiences with the covert, unique “Steel Town” brand and its bedrock foundation of institutional discrimination.
I diligently followed the daily details of the burgeoning civil rights movement and hung on to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s every word. But I was a talented, African American university student who loved the King’s English and could articulate and write it, I was told, exceptionally well. My personality also enabled me to be unintimidated in white settings and to interact comfortably.
My parents rarely talked about being raised in Klan country or the constant degradations of their Black life experiences. But besides my integrated high school experience, my world was still decidedly Black. My community was Black. My church was Black. My friends and social interactions were Black, but Pitt, circa 1967, was so very white in all aspects.
By my sophomore year in 1968 into a maelstrom of social and political upheaval stepped some Black men and women who had far more knowledge of the history and overall status of Blacks in America than me, and they were generous in sharing their discernment. I became one of the original members of the Black Action Society. People like Curtiss Porter, Jack Daniel, Bebe Moore Campbell, Luddy Hayden, Tony Fountain and Joe McCormick contributed as much to my becoming the involved person I am today as any of my family members, friends, pastors and formal educators. Through their organizational skills, planning and campaigning strategies with the Pitt administration on African American student equity, I, at once, found myself evolving into a political, cultural and racially self-aware being.
The knowledge they inculcated through the Black Action Society, nationally recognized civil rights guest speakers, campus teach-ins and Black empowerment reading lists transformed me. It as well made me angry and ashamed at what I had not been made aware of about the plight, throughout history, of Blacks in America and throughout the diaspora.
I was an English major and was serving at the time as the features editor at The Pitt News. I was the only Black student working on the paper and was on a track to become its news editor during my junior year. The Black student population seemed very proud of my representation and the articles, mostly about Black student activities, that I was able to write.
My journalist role notwithstanding, on that January day in 1969, I breathlessly rushed to the Computer Center after hearing belatedly of the BAS takeover. I stood outside the demonstration, desperately and guiltily wanting to be inside the barricades with my fellow students. Dennis Schatzman, a friend and takeover leader who was standing near the barricaded entrance to the Computer Center, noticed me standing on the outskirts. Sensing my pique, he shouted words to me that would forever direct my life path. Dennis intoned words to the effect that they needed me “inside” the University’s established structures to ensure that the truth would be told. I will never forget him hollering, “Make sure the story is told right.” And I did!
Later, on becoming the first and, to this date, I believe the only Black editor-in-chief of The Pitt News, I was able to monitor, editorialize on and ensure that the stories about all things related to the University and especially its Black student population were as Dennis advised, “told right.” I found purpose, resolve and my destiny on that day in January 1969, though I still lament, nearly 50 years later, that my name is not on the scroll of those who laid their physical selves and futures on the line.
Reverend Don Marbury is a Pitt alumnus and the senior pastor of Ebenezer AME Church in Hagerstown, Maryland. He is the former vice president of programming at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and also served as the editor-in-chief of The Pitt News from 1970 to 1971.