Fifty years ago, black students at the University of Washington staged a sit-in to push the university to better serve its minority of students — a bold move that led to major changes at the school.

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Fifty years ago, when Emile Pitre joined dozens of other African-American students in a sit-in at University of Washington administrative offices, the 23-year-old graduate student didn’t know if he’d be arrested, kicked out of school or lose his fellowship.

The sit-in was the first important act of the UW’s newly formed Black Student Union. And the 150-plus students knew they were taking a chance with a bold action that could go terribly wrong.

Less than a month earlier, New York police broke up a student sit-in and occupation at Columbia University, arresting more than 700 people and injuring more than 140.

50 years of change at the UW

Enrollment in fall 1968:

• 31,913 students

• 0.69 percent African American

• 0.16 percent American Indian

• 2.99 percent Asian

• 0.19 percent Hispanic

• 95.97 percent white

No other categories were indicated

(U.S. Census for Washington in 1970: 2.1 percent black, 0.98 percent American Indian, 1.29 percent Asian, 2.07 percent Hispanic, 93.56 white)

Enrollment in spring 2018:

• 43,035 students

• 3.9 percent African American

• 1.3 percent American Indian

• 24.7 percent Asian American

• 44 percent white

• 0.9 percent Hawaiian/Pacific Islander

• 7.4 percent Hispanic/Latino

• 15.6 percent international

• 2.3 percent not indicated

University of Washington

At the UW, the Black Student Union wanted President Charles Odegaard to agree to recruit more black students and professors, provide more tutoring and counseling and expand the black-studies programs.

For nearly four tense hours, the students held control of the suite of presidential offices, while about 75 helmeted police officers stood outside. UW Police Chief Ed Kanz shouted through a closed door that if the students didn’t leave the building, they would be removed by force.

And then Odegaard relented, agreeing to work for the changes the students wanted.

The sit-in was a turning point for the UW, said Pitre, who at 73 has made promoting minority affairs and diversity at the UW his life’s work.

After the sit-in, the university formed a new office to work on recruiting, tutoring and academic help for minority students, giving its first leader the title of vice president. It raised $50,000 to expand the black-studies program.

Before the sit-in, fewer than 1 percent of the UW’s 32,000 students were black, and there were only a few black professors. In just three years, black enrollment on campus grew from 220 students in autumn 1968 to 895 students in autumn 1970. More professors of all ethnicities were recruited, and the black-studies program took off.

“It’s amazing how far we’ve come,” said Joanne Harrell, one of two African-American members of the UW’s regents governing board. Today, underrepresented minorities — black, Hispanic/Latino, Hawaiian/Pacific Islander and American Indian — make up 13.5 percent of students at UW Seattle.

Pitre was not a sit-in leader. But he has spent most of his career at the UW, putting aside a potentially lucrative career as a chemist to help more students of color earn a college degree. He directed the Office of Minority Affairs & Diversity’s instructional center, and today he is associate vice president for assessment in that office.

Unofficially, he is the historian of its minority-student movement.

“Emile is the keeper of the flame,” said Carl Miller, one of the student leaders of the sit-in. “Over his long career at UW, he never let the university’s commitment to minority students wane.”

“Window of opportunity”

The sit-in happened on May 20, 1968, during one of the most turbulent years in American history. Just six weeks earlier, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. But the tragedy also opened the door for change.

“Everywhere, almost spontaneously, programs were being created and civil rights legislation was being passed,” Miller recalled in an email. “We knew from events following the JFK assassination five years earlier that the window of opportunity wouldn’t last long.”

The UW’s Black Student Union, which had formed in January 1968, briefly considered having a sit-in during a visit by Gov. Dan Evans and holding him hostage.

“If we’d done that, we’d probably still be in jail,” Pitre said with a chuckle.

Instead, the group, headed by BSU President E.J. Brisker, Miller and Larry Gossett — now a Metropolitan King County Council member — decided to stage a sit-in during a meeting of the executive committee of the Faculty Senate, held on the third floor of the Administration Building, now known as Gerberding Hall.

The students entered the room around 5 p.m., and held it for nearly four hours while it was sealed off from the outside by police.

“Did I feel afraid? Yes, I was afraid,” said Verlaine Keith-Miller, one of a handful of women who participated. “Not afraid of being arrested, I was more afraid of being hurt.”

She had looked out the window and seen police vans.

From the third floor, students threw ropes down to supporters on the ground, who used them to deliver food; one student even rappelled up the side of the building.

The protesters were joined by white, Hispanic and Native American students, whose participation helped strengthen the black students’ position and helped make the sit-in successful, said Pitre, who believes it was the only black student union at the time that also had Hispanic and Native American members.

Negotiations went back and forth. The plan was “sit in till they give in, or take us to jail,” Miller said.

Eventually, Odegaard signed a statement agreeing to work for progress toward BSU’s goals, although he called it a “restatement” of what he had already promised, according to newspaper accounts.

Pitre called signing the statement a smart move on Odegaard’s part that “changed the outcome dramatically.” Pitre and Keith-Miller both think Odegaard wanted the same changes black students wanted — he just needed a little push to get there.

Three days after the sit-in, the Faculty Senate unanimously approved a pledge to expand the black-studies program and recruit more minority students, according to newspaper accounts.

The university also established an office that today is the Office of Minority Affairs & Diversity, and picked its first leader, Samuel E. Kelly, for whom the university’s Ethnic Cultural Center is named.

From the beginning, Kelly was made a vice president of the university and a member of the president’s cabinet — a decision that spoke volumes about the administration’s commitment to do better, says Rickey Hall, who holds the position today.

Hall, who has held similar roles at universities in Tennessee and Minnesota, said the UW is known nationally for its support of low-income, first-generation and minority students, and his job there is “one of the best jobs like this in the country” because of the impact it has on student success.

Case in point: While underrepresented minority students do graduate at a lower rate than white and Asian students at the UW, the gap is less than 10 percentage points. Overall, 78 percent of black undergraduates get a Bachelor of Arts degree at the UW Seattle campus in six years. Nationwide, the six-year graduation rate for all students at four-year schools is 59 percent.

In the last 50 years, minority students have earned more than 65,000 degrees at the UW, and thousands have become doctors, lawyers, judges, scientists and engineers, said Miller, who went on to law school and worked for the state of California, where he now lives.

“Difficult change”

Keith-Miller said she’s proud of the role she played that day. A subtext of the sit-in was to open the doors of opportunity to all students of color, and the sit-in helped make that happen.

“It wasn’t just self-serving — everybody then had a higher purpose,” said Keith-Miller, who went on to get a law degree at the UW and worked as an industrial appeals judge. “I feel very proud of our generation.”

Hall says he has a profound respect for the students who were involved in the sit-in. “They were willing to put it on the line because they thought so strongly that change needed to happen, and they needed to be the ones to lead that change.”

And he calls Pitre a “living legend” — the son of a Louisiana sharecropper who was the first in his family to go to college, and who has tutored countless students in chemistry and the sciences.

Pitre is an amateur photographer who has been documenting events at the UW for decades, often wearing his favorite hat, a beret-style Kangol (“I wear it backward, Samuel L. Jackson style.”) He’s been working with the university’s library to record oral histories of the sit-in, and writing a history of the events. And everyone on campus seems to know him.

Pitre likes to share a favorite quote from Kelly, the first leader of minority affairs. In 1975, Kelly wrote:

“I deeply hope that someone is moved to write a history in 2000. He or she will look back at the 1970s as an enlightened time when a great university, confronted with deep and serious problems of social justice, demonstrated this by opting for a period of painful and difficult change, rather than for a vain defense of business as usual.”

This story has been changed to indicate that Carl Miller, one of the leaders of the University of Washington’s Black Student Union at the time of the 1968 sit-in, went on to law school after graduating, but does not have a law degree.