Pounding on the doors of opportunity
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Since February is Black History Month and Americans will commemorate the 200th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's birth tomorrow, it seems an appropriate time to highlight two projects that mark the black experience. The exhibition "Free at Last? Slavery in Pittsburgh in the 18th and 19th Centuries" will be on view at the Sen. John Heinz History Center through April 5. This University of Pittsburgh project presents little-known and previously unknown truths about how slavery played out in Western Pennsylvania, the commonwealth and throughout America.
Among the intriguing accounts is the report of a wealthy black boy from Pittsburgh's Hill District who was a freshman at Pitt's predecessor, the Western University of Pennsylvania, in 1829. The young man had been tutored by Pitt's first chancellor, abolitionist Rev. Robert Bruce. When the boy, whose name is unknown, signed up for a course in moral philosophy, he was assigned a seat in the hall instead of the classroom with the white boys. Apparently the first lesson was on irony.
This is the first of many stories told in "Blue Gold & Black: From Doorway to Distinction," a documentary that premiered last week as part of the 2009 K. Leroy Irvis Black History Month Program at Pitt. It recounts the 180-year history of African Americans at the university, which largely has been a struggle in quest of education and other opportunities.
Names that are now prominent in the region's legend and lore are presented in stills, historical footage and on-camera interviews. In addition to Irvis (the first black speaker of a state House of Representatives since Reconstruction), these include William Hunter Dammond, Pitt's first black graduate and an inventor-engineer; America's first black professional librarian, Virginia Proctor Florence and her husband, Pitt's 1918 debate captain Charles Florence; Ella Stewart, America's first woman pharmacist; Jimmy Joe Robinson, Pitt's first black varsity football player; Henry "Model T" Ford, Pitt's first black quarterback, and Pitt's first black provost, Donald Henderson.
The movie candidly acknowledges the university's difficulties in dealing with race and providing African Americans access. One segment reports on the great protest of 1969, when students of the Black Action Society "liberated" the university's computing nerve center to call attention to their concerns regarding black student admissions, programs and treatment, as well as the lack of black faculty.
The hopeful note on which the presentation culminates chronicles astonishing accomplishments, as evidenced by Pitt's African Americans winning Nobel prizes; Rhodes scholarships; Olympic gold medals; Truman, Goldwater and MacArthur fellowships; and other prestigious honors. In the last 10 years or so, blacks have taken their places among the most acclaimed members of the university community and beyond.
On-camera interviews reveal the magnitude of it all, but the stories and personal anecdotes are free of bitterness or calls for reparations to help heal the mistakes of the past. They also are free of self-congratulation for outstanding achievements.
The university deems it fitting and proper to reckon forthrightly with Pitt's racial problems while reporting the school's progress. Through this narrative we see that over nearly two centuries, African Americans have pounded on the doors of opportunity at the University of Pittsburgh, and when those doors opened, they did not take time to gather their luggage. They marched through, luggage in hand.
First Published February 11, 2009 12:00 am