Pitt and community celebrate 40 years of Africana Studies

By Megan Kelly

Last night, about 30 “students” took over the University’s main computer center and… Last night, about 30 “students” took over the University’s main computer center and demanded equal civil rights from the chancellor.

These “students” were actually a group of actors from the Kuntu Repertory Theatre. They re-enacted an event that took place on Jan. 15, 1969, that led to the founding of the Africana Studies Department.

The real event, which took place about 40 years ago, involved black students barricading themselves in the University’s computer center for just more than seven hours. At the time, there were 48 black students on campus. The students demanded more scholarships and financial aid for black students, as well as the establishment of a department where students could learn more about their heritage.

Chancellor Wesley Posvar negotiated with the students, which led to the creation of Pitt’s Africana Studies Department.

Last night, the department held a celebration in the William Pitt Union’s Lower Lounge to celebrate the 40th anniversary of its unique and noteworthy beginning.

The celebration featured the re-enactment of the computer center takeover. Vernell Lillie, a professor emeritus for the department, organized the re-enactment. The Hillman Library currently displays pictures and articles from the original takeover.

Professor Oronde Sharif and his dance troupe performed a traditional African dance, and two faculty members gave tribute to recently deceased South African poet and former department chair, Dennis Brutus.

Brutus is best known for his time in prison alongside Nelson Mandela in the ’60s — he emerged from the experience with a collection of poems he smuggled from prison on pieces of toilet paper. He also worked in South Africa to boycott sports that did not allow minorities to participate, and he later became the chair of Pitt’s Africana Studies Department.

Not to be confused with the African studies department, which focuses specifically on the continent of Africa, Africana studies is the research of African-American, African and Caribbean cultures. The Africana Studies Department stresses the idea that Africa is a major player in the global market. It also deals with areas such as history, international affairs and social work, and all of these would be viable career choices for someone qualified in the department. The department also offers drum and dance classes based on the culture. There are about 1,000 people enrolled in Africana Studies classes this year.

The rest of the department’s history is also marked by success. Professor Joseph Adjaye has won numerous grants to run study abroad programs in Ghana for Pittsburgh public school teachers. Associate professor Jerome Taylor runs the Center for Family Excellence, which helps black famillies in the Hill District, and Professor Brenda Berrian has won Rockefeller Fund Grants for her research.

“When I first came here, it was a much larger department. There were over 12 faculty members, and [there was] a heavy thrust in the social sciences,” Berrian said. Berrian pushed for more of an emphasis on humanities, but because the department has shrunk by 50 percent over the years, she and her colleagues are now trying to balance the humanities component.

Many of the audience members at last night’s celebration were associated with the computer center takeover in 1969, and a few of them shed tears at the end of the re-enactment. One of the attendees who was indirectly involved in the protest was Gwen Watkins. Watkins, who initially worked for the University as a secretary and now works as a coordinator in the Community Relations Office, said she doesn’t think she would have been hired, were it not for the protest.

“I’m thankful for the courage of the students to stand up for their rights and equality. Without them, none of us would be here,” she said.

Also in attendance at the event was Gail Austin, who was involved in the planning of the computer center takeover when she was a student. She left for a job interview during the actual protest, but she was one of the people responsible for coming up with the clear and reasonable demands the students presented to Posvar that day. Austin believes the University can still work on meeting the demands students made about 40 years ago.

“The University still needs to increase the numbers of black students and black professors,” she said.