40 Years Ago, Sit-In Protest Broke Race Barriers at Pitt

By Ramirez, Chris | Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, October 19, 2009 | Go to article overview

40 Years Ago, Sit-In Protest Broke Race Barriers at Pitt


Ramirez, Chris, Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review


University of Pittsburgh students and alumni will gather this week to commemorate the seizure 40 years ago of the university's "computer center," an act many say paved the way for more minorities to enroll.

Many involved in the hours-long "sit-in" on Jan. 15, 1969, recalled being locked in tense-but-civil negotiations with then- Chancellor Wesley W. Posvar. They were frustrated by the scarcity of black students and faculty members at Pitt.

A panel discussion about the incident is expected to highlight this year's Sankofa Homecoming Weekend at Pitt, which runs Thursday through Oct. 25 and is organized by Pitt's African American Alumni Council. Sankofa is a Ghanian concept of learning from the past to move forward.

"These students were freedom fighters. They risked everything for the cause of social justice at Pitt," said Jack L. Daniel, who helped negotiate terms during the demonstration. He is a distinguished service professor of communication at Pitt.

"What they did set in motion ... all that is institutionalized at Pitt regarding the African American aspects of diversity. They must never be forgotten," he said.

Full-time black students at Pitt numbered 266 in 1969, a year after the assassinations of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. and Sen. Robert Kennedy. Months of talks with university officials calling for change seemed to go nowhere, recalled Curtiss Porter, then an undergraduate pursuing an English degree.

Organizers decided that seizing the computer center, a room on the eighth floor of the Cathedral of Learning that housed Pitt's communications and data storage cache, would be the best way to get administrators' attention. Demonstrators wanted to do so without touching off violence that had erupted on other campuses at the time, Porter said.

"Many people presumed other students weren't involved or interested in what we were fighting for," said Porter, chancellor of Penn State Greater Allegheny in McKeesport. …

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