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BAS, AAAC commemorate 1969 computer center takeover with virtual sit-in

In order to become “world class,” Thomas Brooks said Pitt must continue to show its commitment toward diversity and inclusion through intentionality and action.

“We say that we want to create a more racially equitable University, but to be world class calls for intentionality and much more investment in action, just like the folks were saying from 1969,” Brooks, the president of Pitt’s African American Alumni Council, said. “We need action, and we need time-bound accountability.”

Brooks spoke at Saturday’s virtual sit-in to commemorate the 53rd anniversary of BAS’s historic computer center takeover. Black students staged a 1969 sit-in at the Cathedral of Learning’s eighth-floor computer center to demand improvements for Black students and faculty on campus.

Hosted by the Black Action Society and AAAC, about 160 students, alumni and community members attended the commemoration. Many of the BAS members who played key roles in the takeover also attended, including Tony Fountain, Ludwick Hayden, Jack Daniel and Valerie Njie.

Linda Wharton Boyd, former AAAC president and a Pitt alumna who was admitted as a result of changes enacted after the demands, started the event by leading attendees in prayer to “improve the life and legacy” of the Black community at Pitt. Following the prayer, Fountain presented a brief history of the events and actions leading up to the sit-in.

During the takeover on Jan. 15, 1969, more than 40 Black students held a six-hour sit-in at the Cathedral computer center demanding that the University improve the life and education of Black students on campus. Some of their demands included the implementation of a Black Studies program, a Black collection of books in the Hillman Library, financial aid for Black students, more Black faculty and staff and the recognition of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday as a University holiday.

Fountain said a group of Black students, including himself, founded BAS on May 19, 1968, which is Malcolm X’s birthday, following the assassination of MLK earlier that year. He said the group was created to bring Black students and community members together. In an effort to improve Black representation and education at Pitt, the BAS drafted a list of 17 demands and presented them to Chancellor Wesley Posvar in 1968.

“Following a rather energized discussion, we decided to name the organization Black Action Society, a name that would highlight action and a commitment to the overall Black community on and off campus,” Fountain said.

Although the University presented a few initial concessions to Black students, including a small operating and programs budget, a corner office space, a program named Project A, which would enroll 50 Black first-years, and hiring a few Black faculty, many of the key BAS demands were not met.

Fountain said many Black students grew frustrated with the University’s failure to meet their demands, which is why the group decided to stage a student boycott of classes on MLK’s birthday. Following the boycott, a few BAS members met to strategize more direct action toward the University, which ultimately led to the computer center takeover.

Fountain said although the six-hour takeover was “tense,” it was also a “unique and proud moment” that led to many improvements for Black students at Pitt.

“Resolved at the computer center takeover, a new era began in the relationship between Pitt and the Black community,” Fountain said. “There were more Black students, Black faculty and staff. Black-oriented studies and programs and more positive engagement and support of the Black community. And more Black athletes.”

Hayden, a BAS member during the takeover, said while students occupied the computer center, BAS chose Daniel, Eugene Davis and himself to represent the Black community and negotiate with Chancellor Posvar.

“Those negotiations, though tense at moments, were as successful as they were because of the action that the students had taken,” Hayden said. “That made negotiation for us a much simpler task than it wouldn’t have been otherwise.”

Brooks added that current students, alumni and community members can learn more about the takeover from Pitt’s 2019 publication “Say it Loud”, a collection of essays from the students involved in the takeover and those who benefited from the changes that it brought.

[Read: ‘Embarrassing’: Black student leaders criticize low Black student enrollment]

The event also focused on highlighting the current experience of Black students on campus. Anaya Joynes, the president of Pitt’s National Society of Black Engineers chapter, highlighted the key points of the Black Senate’s summer 2020 demands, released during a resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement. Joynes also noted the similarities between the 1969 takeover’s demands and those released two summers ago.

[Read: Black Action Society works to hold Pitt accountable, advocate for Black students on campus]

Joynes said the Black experience survey from 2020, which helped the Black Senate draft their demands, emphasized that many Black students face microaggressions on campus and feel as though Black issues are often overlooked by the University.

“Sometimes it does feel like Pitt does not take Black students’ voices seriously. And they only care when it’s popular in the media” Joynes said. “And then when that kind of moves out of the news rotation, you don’t really hear about Pitt supporting us anymore.”

[Read: The Black Action Society: Demanding Change, Then and Now]

Destiny Mann, the current BAS president, said that although there was a lot of momentum following the initial demands last year, it seems to have faltered since then. She added that students are at the forefront of holding the University accountable, which has been increasingly hard as many student leaders also try to focus on revitalizing their organizations during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“While students are very much dedicated to the cause, we do have to burden the responsibilities that paid employees of the University should be doing,” Mann said. “The University has not taken the necessary steps to keep us updated about programs and initiatives that are supposed to improve our experience here. And additionally, as a result of students being less involved in the conversation, many initiatives have yet to occur or have changed significantly.”

Mann said she encourages students to continue voicing their opinions and hopes that the University takes more action in order to improve the education and lives of Black students at Pitt.

“We should be involved in the conversation, but we shouldn’t fear that if we take our foot off the gas that the University will revert back to its original ways,” Mann said. “It is the responsibility of the University to make sure all of its students receive the best experience while attending this school. And as we saw in the Black experience responses, that is certainly not the case.”

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