1969 black student takeover of computer center commemorated

On Jan. 15, 1969, more than 40 black students staged a sit-in at the eighth-floor computer center in the Cathedral of Learning, to insist on improvements to black life on campus.

The protest would become a catalyst for change on the Oakland campus that led to the creation of the current Africana Studies program.

The 50th anniversary of the historic event will be commemorated starting at 4 p.m. Jan. 15 in the William Pitt Union’s Kurtzman Room.

The event — “Say It Loud: The Black Action Society, the Computer Center Takeover, and Transformation at the University of Pittsburgh” — also will include:

  • First-person accounts of the 1969 event, from original BAS students and leaders. This is a prelude to the publication of “Say It Loud,” a collection of oral histories and reflections from 1968-69, with a book-launch celebration slated for Sankofa Homecoming 2019 in the fall.
  • A vigil walk, led by current BAS members, with a commemoration event at the Cathedral of Learning.
  • A reception in Alumni Hall, with refreshments and the screening of “From Doorway to Distinction, a History of the African American Legacy at Pitt.”

According to the Pitt Archives, the protests on Jan. 15, 1969, began with groups of African-American students entering classrooms throughout the day to read a statement that the Black Action Society supported the cancellation of classes in honor of King’s birthday — less than a year after the civil rights leader was assassinated on April 4, 1968, in Memphis.

The students then gathered in Chancellor Wesley Posvar’s office to demand the cancellation of classes. Posvar told the group that any student that chose not to attend class would be excused, according to the Archives.

But the students had more demands, including:

  • A recruiting team to specifically attract black students
  • The true role of the black man in history be incorporated into the history courses now being taught at the university
  • The number of black faculty be increased and the present members elevated in stature, and that prospective black professors be interviewed by the Black Action Society prior to hiring
  • A Black Studies program, which would be staffed and directed by black scholars, be instituted immediately at the University.

After occupying the computer center for several hours, the students received a signed agreement from Posvar that agreed to not punish the lock-in participants and to provide quicker action on the demands of African-American students, according to the Archives.

The agreement also provided for the creation of an office that would provide financial aid and scholarships to black students, a recruiting team approved by the Black Action Society that would bring more black students and faculty to Pitt and a section of Hillman Library dedicated to African American studies. Excused absence from class for black students on Malcolm X’s birthday and the establishment of King’s birthday as a university holiday also were addressed in the agreement, but required approval from the Faculty Senate.