Gratitude for their years at Pitt and a commitment to making things better were just two of the sentiments expressed Wednesday night by eight members of the Pitt community at “Blue, Gold & Black: Reflections of the Black Experience at Pitt Through the Years.”
The event—Pitt’s K. Leroy Irvis Black History Month Program—featured alumni who attended Pitt in the late 1960s, current and past Pitt athletes, a Pitt graduate student, a member of the staff and Pitt senior leaders. More than 300 audience members joined the virtual event to hear their stories.
In a pre-taped greeting from Harrisburg, where he was testifying before the State House Appropriations Committee, Chancellor Patrick Gallagher told the group that in Harrisburg, one is constantly reminded of Irvis (LAW ’54) and his legislative prowess. Irvis was the first African American speaker of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives and, among other achievements, was widely regarded as a champion of social justice issues.
Gallagher summarized the steps Pitt has recently taken to work for racial justice, ranging from more efforts to recruit Black faculty to conversations between members of Pitt Police and Pitt students of color.
As the event turned to the panelists, pharmacy graduate student Rena Reid described an overall welcoming environment at Pitt.
“No matter where I turn, I know that I can always find another Black student who is there to help me or guide me, whether that’s a nurse, a medical student or another pharmacy student,” she said. But she also noted a lack of Black faculty in pharmacy. “I almost had a tear I was so excited and so happy,” she said, when she learned that a new Black professor was joining the school. “I just hope that Pitt retains the faculty and keeps them here for a long time.”
“I was totally a non-traditional student,” said University trustee and founder and CEO of COI Energy SaLisa Berrien (ENGR ’91), who had a three-year-old child when she enrolled in the Swanson School of Engineering at age 18. “There was a community that was ready to receive me—the Pitt Engineering IMPACT Program. You could speak to someone about things you were going through.” IMPACT, founded by her mentor, associate professor Karl H. Lewis, was later named the Pitt EXCEL Program. In 2004, Berrien established the Karl H. Lewis Engineering Impact Alumni Fund for Pitt engineering students of underrepresented groups.
Regarding our country’s racial climate, John Wilds (A&S ’68, ENGR ’78) recalled being a Pitt student in the 1950s when the lynching of Emmett Till and the defiance of Rosa Parks were lightning rod moments in our country’s history.
“The causes we were marching for were as true in the past as they are today,” said Wilds, adding that he is encouraged by the number of white people who join in today’s Black Lives Matter marches. In his day, he said the only white participants would be members of the clergy.
Valerie Njie (EDUC ’71), board president of the Pitt Alumni Association, also praised “people of all ages, faiths and colors who are following what young people are doing today.”
Pitt student athlete John Morgan and nine-year NFL veteran Lousaka Polite (A&S ’03) both talked about athletes stepping up, being heard and helping to bring about meaningful change.
When the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor stirred passions in 2020, Morgan said his football coach opened up a discussion about it with him and his teammates.
“At that time, as a Black man, I was questioning if I belonged in America, so him asking how we felt is something I will never forget,” Morgan said.
Looking forward, all speakers cited progress Pitt is making but said our work is not done. Several mentioned Pitt’s diversity dashboards, which ensure transparency as Pitt changes internal practices, structures and attitudes in pursuit of a more just institution.
“The data is out there for everyone to see,” said Steven Jones, co-chair of Equipoise and coordinator at the Office of Academic Ceremonies and University Events. “Everyone has a chance to … go over it with a fine-toothed comb and see where there are areas for improvement.”
Senior Vice Chancellor for Engagement Kathy Humphrey added that it’s more than just increasing diversity, which many people can do. It’s more about transitioning and transforming a culture.
“We are moving the agenda in the right direction and we’ve got to stay with it,” she said. “We all owe that to so many people who are coming behind us.”
“This is all a dynamic work in progress and work that cannot be allowed to rest,” said Pitt Provost and Senior Vice Chancellor Ann E. Cudd at the program’s conclusion.
Participants also heard about a new digital space being created by the University Library System that will feature materials contributed by the Pitt community as well as the Archives & Special Collections, to highlight some of the most prominent moments in the Black experience at Pitt.
The event was sponsored by the Office for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, the University Library System, the Office of University Communications and Marketing, Pitt Athletics, the Office of the Provost, the African American Alumni Council and the Pitt Alumni Association.