By DONOVAN HARRELL
To intergenerational Black members of the Pitt community, the colors blue, gold and black symbolize the resilience and strength that helped them overcome various hardships over the years.
The University’s signature Black History Month event, “Blue, Gold & Black: Reflections of the Black Pitt Experience Through the Years” on Feb. 24 featured opening remarks from Chancellor Patrick Gallagher and Provost Ann Cudd and a virtual panel discussion with several Black Pitt students and alumni.
The event also featured a sneak peek at a digital archive project from the University Library System’s Archives & Special Collections that aims to document and curate the historical experiences of Black people at the University. The collection will contain digitized photos and other materials provided by Pitt alumni, faculty, staff and students.
The Black History Month program, co-sponsored by the Office for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, the University Library System, University Communications, Pitt Athletics, African-American Alumni Council and the Pitt Alumni Association, is named after 1954 Pitt graduate K. Leroy Irvis, who served the Pennsylvania House of Representatives as the first Black speaker of the house in any state legislature in the United States.
During the event, members of the Pitt community recalled their experiences as Black students attending the University during several historical periods of civil unrest and violent racial climates.
Morgan Ottley, president of the Black Action of Society student organization at Pitt, and Ron Idoko, diversity and multi-cultural program manager for the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, moderated the discussion.
Ottley asked each member of the panel what the colors blue, gold and black mean to them. SaLisa Berrien, a member of Pitt’s Board of Trustees and founder and CEO of COI Energy, began the discussion saying the Swanson School of Engineering provided her with a community of like-minded Black students.
This was especially beneficial for her since she entered the University as a first-generation college student with a child, she said. By the time she graduated from the University in 1991, Pitt had prepared her for life outside of college.
“Pitt prepared me for what we call ‘the real world’ because what we saw at Pitt, it was amplified in the real world, and (at) the University of Pittsburgh, blue, gold and black really taught us how to show up and finish strong. That’s what blue, gold and black means to me.”
The other panelists shared similar sentiments, adding that the broader Black Pitt community is like a village with a strong sense of community.
The conversation then shifted to a discussion on the way the racial climate has evolved, and in some ways, stayed the same over the decades.
John Wilds, a three-time Pitt graduate and former assistant vice chancellor for community relations, attended Pitt through several events during the civil rights movement, including the pivotal 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision, the lynching of Emmett Till in 1955 and the Montgomery Bus Boycott from 1955-56.
Others recounted the impact of more recent events such as the civil unrest over the summer of 2020 and the riots at the U.S. Capitol earlier this year.
Wilds said many of the causes that people marched for during the civil rights movement are still being marched for today. However, there are many more white participants in social justice movements today when compared to the past.
Kathy Humphrey, senior vice chancellor for Engagement, agreed that many of issues of the past are still being marched for, however, it’s important for people today to think about what legislation — akin to the 1964 Civil Rights Act — they want to leave behind.
“Like they had an obligation, we have an obligation to make sure that we leave this place different than when we came,” Humphrey said.
That way, the next generation will “at least feel some forward movement,” she said.
Since the summer 2020 civil unrest, the University has taken several steps towards improving diversity, equity and inclusion on campus, Humphrey said, from hiring more Black people in University leadership positions to being more transparent about Pitt’s racial demographics.
But to make lasting institutional changes, the Pitt community has to keep the momentum going, she said.
“We’ve got to keep moving the agenda in the right direction,” Humphrey said. “We have to keep doing what we know will make a difference because that is the only way we’re really going to see the change we want to see.”
To view the rest of the discussion, visit the Office of Diversity and Inclusion YouTube channel.
Donovan Harrell is a writer for the University Times. Reach him at email@example.com or 412-383-9905.
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