Pitts, James P., 1944-
- Existence: 1944
James “Jim” Purvis Pitts was born in Chicago, Illinois on February 28, 1944. He spent his early life on the west side of Chicago as the youngest of four brothers. Excelling in both academics and sports, he was accepted into the highly competitive University of Chicago Laboratory School at age twelve. He later attended John Marshall High School in Chicago, where he joined a basketball team that won Public and Catholic league titles in 1960 and 1961 and won the Illinois state championship twice. Throughout high school, Pitts was among the highest-ranked basketball players in the state. He graduated high school ranking in the top ten of his class of 230.
In 1961, he enrolled at Northwestern University with a basketball scholarship. At the time, there were few black students at Northwestern, and the majority of them – around 80% – were male athletes. In fact, in Pitts’ freshman year, twenty-five black students out of 6,500 undergraduates were enrolled. Pitts, like many other black students at the time, received support from Evanstonian, Charles “Doc” Glass, a janitor at Evanston City Hall and an unofficial recruiter of black athletes to Northwestern. Glass often invited black Northwestern students to his home for meals, arranged dates, offered haircuts, hosted card games, and offered a social refuge due to his awareness of the challenges black students often faced on campus.
Pitts was an important figure during the Bursar’s Office Takeover as an early historian of black experiences in the 1960s and 1970s. A graduate student at the time, he was instrumental in recording how black students were responding to frustrations regarding discrimination, writing essays – such as “The Politicization of Black Students” and “Growth of Black Consciousness at Northwestern” – on the topic based on his observations and experiences of the time. In addition, Pitts had a role in the creation of the club For Members Only (FMO), which formed a club formed to support black students, especially incoming freshmen. While the origin of FMO is uncertain, ex-president Herman Cage said that the idea began in the summer of 1967 when he, Wayne Watson, Vernon Ford and Jim Pitts were together on campus. He later became the grad advisor for the club.
Pitts pledged to the social fraternity Theta Delta Chi from 1962 to 1966, becoming one of the first African Americans to join a fraternity, along with his freshman roommate, Donald Jackson, and fellow basketball teammates Woody Campbell and Robert Tubbs. Previously, black students experienced discrimination and were excluded from Greek Life. Pitts would later join students aiming to recharter historically black fraternities, Kappa Alpha Psi and Alpha Phi Alpha, the former of which he was personally involved in.
Pitts was a well-decorated athlete at Northwestern. He played on the basketball team for three years and he was basketball captain from 1964 to 1966. Known for his skill at block shots, Pitts set the all-time single season record for Northwestern of 321 rebounds in 1966, when he was a senior, becoming the second in Northwestern’s all-time rebounding list. That same year, Pitts made the All-Academic Big Ten team for the third time and was the Wildcats’ Most Valuable Player for the second year in a row. Though he was drafted by the San Francisco Warriors at the end of his final season, he declined their offer – by then he had already turned to academics as a potential career path after a knee injury had made him sit out on basketball in his sophomore year. In his final year he scored an 11.6 average.
Pitts receiving several Dean’s List awards. In 1966, Pitts graduated with a B.A. in Political Science at Northwestern. Raymond Mac, a sociology professor at NU and a provost, was a significant mentor in Pitts’ life. A popular teacher on campus, Pitts took Mac’s Race, Class and Power course. Afterward, Mac invited Pitts to meet with him to discuss the possibility of going to graduate school, which Pitts had not considered prior. Though Pitts did not intend to pursue sociology at the time, after working in a management job post-graduation he discovered his interest in the subject and met with Mac for graduate school recommendations. One of the schools recommended was Northwestern, which Pitts ultimately attended. There, he received a teaching fellowship and a teaching assistantship and started his graduate career. Pitts continued his studies at Northwestern to earn a M.A. in 1968 and a Ph.D. in 1971, both in Sociology.
Mac also encouraged Pitts to join a Big Ten group of former student athletes to represent each school in the Big Ten to address complaints from athletes on being exploited. Many athletes were concerned that their schools did not help them invest in their education, and by their junior year was not meeting requirements for their majors and therefore unable to complete their program. Seeing the importance of getting involved as a faculty member working with athletes in his classes, in the early 1970s Pitts and other members of the group proposed changes to the NCAA regulations so that each institution had to appoint academic advisors to make sure students were meeting requirements and had access to resources to work out conflicts. Similarly, the Big Ten’s Black Commission, of which Jim Pitts was a member, was also formed in the early 1970s to respond to growing concern over racism in its schools.
From 1969 to 1970, Pitts was appointed Lecturer in Sociology at Northwestern. His first full time job was at the University of California at Los Angeles, where he taught from 1970 to 1972. In 1972, Pitts returned back to Northwestern by the invitation of Raymond Mac and in July was appointed Associate Professor at the School of Arts and Science. He achieved indefinite tenue at Northwestern beginning September 1, 1976. Pitts’ research specializes in discussing social structures and race consciousness, with publications including “A Study of Race Consciousness: Comments on New Directions,” and “Surplus and Scarcity: Hunger and the Origins of the Food Stamp Program.” With Kathryn Ogletree, another Northwestern alumni, Pitts conducted a survey of recent white and black Northwestern graduates and analyzed the results in the report “Northwestern University Recent Alumni: In Black and White.” He also researched the sociology of sport and proposed that the stigma of “choke” – when an athlete, approaching a goal, gets nervous, loses concentration and ultimately misses the goal -- might be unwarranted. He notes that it is not clear whether athletes are more likely to do it in one games versus another, and that more attention is given to mistakes because fans have such high expectations for success.
After earning his doctorate, he married Sharon Leslie Hague, who he had met in his last year as an undergraduate. Hague was from Detroit and had attended National College. African Americans from Northwestern and National College often held joint gatherings and parties since, like Northwestern, the college had a small population of African Americans. Since there were very few black women on campus, Northwestern students often went to National College to meet girls. Jim Pitts and Sharon Leslie Hague have two children, Hassan and Jamil.
In 1977, Pitts wrote a letter to the Daily Northwestern describing an incident at a Burger King where comedian Paul Lynde, who was invited to campus for homecoming, directed several racially-charged insults at him and African-Americans in general. The story was picked up by several other newspapers such as the Chicago Sun-Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Chicago Defender, Jet Magazine and the Chicago Daily News, among others. Eventually a statement was released in response to the publicity. Lynde apologized, though he added that he was emotionally upset at the time of the incident and had been drinking.
Pitts was appointed as Associate Dean of the College of Arts and Science in 1983, which signaled the beginning of his career in academic management. In 1987 to 1990, Pitts served as Dean of Academic Affairs at Ohio Wesleyan University. Afterward he became Vice President of Academic Affairs Manchester College from 1990 to 1993, Vice President of Academic Affairs Albright College from 1993-1996, and the Vice Chancellor of Academic Affairs University of North Carolina at Ashville from 1996 to 2001. After the Chancellor retired, Pitts returned to teaching until his retirement at 2008. Still, he continued to be involved with organizations like ABIPA (of which he is president of the board), which works to improve healthcare outcomes for low-income residents and people of color, and also worked at Asheville Middle School to inspire young black boys to value education for their future.