On Martin Luther King Jr.’s first birthday after his assassination, the students who would later form Pitt’s Black Action Society locked themselves in a computer lab.
On Jan. 15, 1969, the group of about 30 black students used a chair to lock themselves up in protest and demand more opportunities for black students on campus and the establishment of an Africana studies department.
Now, after King’s 47th birthday following his death, Pitt organized its first black history tour of campus. On Thursday, students saw the former lab and other landmarks of Pitt’s black history.
The tour details prominent African American alumni and important locations on campus that contributed to the advancement of black students on Pitt’s campus. The tour continues today.
On Thursday, two Pathfinders, seniors Naomi Stoll and Jasee Freeman, began the tour at the Cathedral, then traced through the Union, Towers Lobby, Posvar Hall and Hillman Library. The 16 tour stops included the Center for Race and Social Problems on the 20th floor of the Cathedral, as well as the Ballroom of the Union, where Martin Luther King Jr. addressed the Pitt community in November 1966.
Coordinators Crystal McCormick Ware and Linda Williams-Moore designed the Hallowed Ground Walking Tour to fit with this year’s Black History Month theme of “Hallowed Grounds: Sites of African-American Memories.”
Among the stops on the tour, Pitt Pathfinders and members of BAS took a handful of students to the former eighth-floor computer lab in the Cathedral of Learning where Pitt’s BAS took a stand, alumni K. Leroy Irvis’ Reading Room and John Woodruff’s Showcase in Hillman Library.
Irvis, who graduated from Pitt’s Law School in 1954, was the first African-American to serve as a state House speaker. Woodruff was a former Pitt track star and Olympic gold medalist.
Crystal McCormack Ware, one of the coordinators, said 10 people attended the Feb. 5, tour. About the same number attended the Feb. 11, tour.
“I’m really impressed with how the senior administrators and faculty were interested in this,” Ware said. “[It] shows their commitment to diversity, I think.”
The tour’s second stop was on the eighth floor of the Cathedral, which now hosts the provost’s office.
The students were part of Pitt’s BAS, but at the time Pitt did not formally recognize the BAS as an organization. Nearly a year before the sit-in, in May 1968, BAS members brought their concerns to then-Chancellor Wesley Posvar. At this time, the BAS demanded that Pitt recruit more black students and faculty members, recognize the African-American experience in courses and establish a black studies department.
Though the administration initially gave the BAS a positive response, The Pitt News reported a year later that the students still felt their concerns had been glossed over.
During the day of Jan. 15 1969, BAS members walked into classrooms across campus and read a statement saying, “The Black Action Society requests that classes be cancelled in commemoration of this day [Dr. King’s birthday].”
As many as 65 BAS members then went to Posvar’s office and waited for two and a half hours for him to return and speak with them. After meeting with them, Posvar told the students anyone who requested the day off could be officially excused from classes.
According to a Pitt News article from Jan. 16, 1969, Posvar repeated many times that the “‘students were respectful and orderly.’” He said he understood their frustration on not being heard and was “dissatisfied with the progress myself.”
“It’s about time this happened. Now the chancellor will be aware of student demands,” one black student, whose name was not reported, said at the time.
Then, between 8 and 9 p.m. on Jan. 15, 1969, the students entered the computer lab. According to a Jan. 16, 1969, Pitt News article, a young black man stood guard in front of the glass doors and wore a black beret and a leather jacket, the uniform of the Black Panthers.
“To hear about the innovation, I think that that’s something that you don’t really about that often,” Stoll said. “Students did lock themselves in a computer lab, which at the time was huge because there was only one computer lab.”
Pitt called in city and Pitt police to contain the largely peaceful scene and to bar curious onlookers from entering the Cathedral.
“Rather than have the police who were here break down the door or unlock the door, [Posvar] decided to work with the students,” Stoll said.
Within a matter of hours, Chancellor Posvar agreed to the students’ demands, so far as he had the power to do so, and the students left the computer lab 3 a.m. Jan. 16, 1969.
According to Pitt News articles from Jan. 16 and 20, 1969, not all of the students agreed with the sit-in.
One student wrote into The Pitt News demanding the administration take “corrective measures” against the students involved in the sit-in. On the wall around the corner from the BAS’ office, unknown individuals spray-painted “BAS Get Out or Death.”
Following the sit-in, the administration established an institution to provide financial aid and scholarship to black students, create a section in the library for black students and recognize Martin Luther King Jr.’.s birthday and the anniversary of the death of Malcolm X as holidays.
Jessica Beaver, a senior Urban Studies and English Literature major and also a Pathfinder, attended Thursday’s tour. Beaver said the tour gave her a chance to educate herself about black history on campus.
“Tours like this are a great first step to recognizing that there is very little in your day to day life that goes on that doesn’t have to do with race,” Beaver said. “I can walk through the Cathedral and see all of these elements of black history.”
Beaver said her one disappointment was that not enough students attended Thursday’s tour. On the Feb. 5 tour, about 10 administrators from various departments walking alongside the Pathfinders.
“I just feel like students really have a tendency not to take advantage of all the things going on around campus and all the opportunities they have to educate themselves,” Beaver said. “It says something that there were way more administrators there for the first tour than there were Pitt students.”
Today, the momentum the students started at the sit-in led to Pitt’s Africana studies program, which still exists, continues.
“The University is such a huge University and has so much going on that it’s easy for certain things to get lost,” Freeman said. “These are things that I’m just hearing of even though it’s a very big deal.”
Though it may seem like ancient history to today’s Pitt students, Stoll said it’s important to understand the University’s past.
“Clearly, there’s still a lot of progress that needs to be made all around the world and I think it’s important to respect what the University has done,” Stoll said. “But also remember it and cherish it as we move forward.”
Editor’s Note: Due to an editing error, a previous version of this story stated that the first tour took place Feb. 4. It took place Feb. 5. The story has been updated to reflect this change.