A Short History of the Africana Studies Department at Pitt

Natalie Nelson | Business Manager

The Africana Studies Department at the University of Pittsburgh owns a dramatic inception portraying its growth into the program it is now. Professors at the University describe Africana Studies as “a contemporary discipline and intellectual enterprise that seeks to expand the scientific and systematic study of knowledge from an Afrocentric worldview.” In February 2020, the African American Alumni Council buried a time capsule composed of books, essays, and files. These artifacts span from 1968, where the first 50 Black students enrolled at Pitt, to 2020 and will be opened in fifty years. The Council would not have been able to perform such a ceremony and provide a legacy had it not been for the overnight standoff between the Black community members, students, and then-chancellor Wesley Posvar. 

Wesley Posvar became the chancellor of the University of Pittsburgh in 1967 and is credited with separating the University from its private status and building up the departments that struggled the most — that includes hiring the doctor that set the framework for the University’s medical center to become the powerhouse that it is today. Despite Posvar’s supposed attention to detail and desire to see all students thriving, a list of grievances from a certain neglected demographic at the University that called themselves Black Action Society (BAS) was presented to the administration.

This newly formed group consisted of Black students and community members, and while they were not yet recognized as an official organization by the University, they remained strategic, disruptive, and tenacious. BAS and members of the Student Government Board demanded in May of 1968 that Pitt administration double Black enrollment every year until it reached twenty percent and that a Black Studies Department be established. Posvar ignored these pleas until Martin Luther King Jr.’s first posthumous birthday when Black students finally had enough of being ignored. In their first demonstration, Black students organized to have groups of 12 go into classrooms throughout the day and state that BAS supported the cancellation of classes on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Posvar threatened to punish students who skipped classes that day as a way to punish those that demonstrated, but that did not stop the students. At noon the same day, around 65 people occupied the eighth-floor computer center of the Cathedral of Learning and did not move until three o’clock in the morning after spending the day negotiating with Posvar.

After the negotiations concluded, Posvar conceded, providing Black students a financial aid office; a recruiting team approved by BAS to hire more Black faculty and bring more Black students; a section of the Hillman Library’s first floor dedicated to Black Studies; an excused absence from classes on MLK Day for Black students. In addition to the inception of an Africana Studies department, the students also were rewarded with the chancellor’s admittance that the University was slow and unsatisfying in terms of racial grievances and inequalities.

These were considered successes to the students in 1969, and they were; however, as we look at the University over 50 years later in 2020, it is evident that Pitt still has some progress to make. 970 out of 19330 undergraduate students are Black, putting Black enrollment at 5.1% as of November 2019, which does not meet the threshold that BAS originally outlined so many years ago.

In spite of these dismal numbers, BAS has not yet suspended its mission to make the University a better place for Black Pitt, both in operation and environment. In June of this year, Pitt’s Black Senate once again submitted a list of demands to the administration calling for numerous actions regarding the following topics: amplifying the Black student voice, curriculum, current faculty, current students, police, and a better response to justice. This included a controversial new anti-racism course that became mandatory this semester for all incoming freshmen. The action came just after the entire world protested more wrongful deaths of Black people at the hands of police. 

These demands shed light on the fact that while the target of the movement has changed, little has changed for Black Pitt to save for the population. After asserting their right to be at Pitt, Black students are now demanding to be cared for and protected and for their experience at the University to be meaningful.

The Africana Department at the University of Pittsburgh offers students the chance to explore theory, methodology, ideational frameworks, and conceptual models. Although Pitt still has a long way to go before fulfilling all of BAS’s original goals, they have made it their mission to make sure that the current students are allowed to explore different aspects of Blackness and how it impacts the worldview of everyone around them.