Oscar Ritchie, the first African American professor at Kent State, is “a living embodiment of what Black History is,” said Joshua Bellamy, current president of the Epsilon Delta chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha.
Prior to his birth on Feb. 16, 1909, Ritchie’s family moved from the Caribbean to Hallandale, Florida, where Ritchie lived throughout his childhood.
As a young adult, Ritchie faced some hardships that set back his educational path, Associate Professor and Chair in the Department of Pan-African studies, Dr. Amoaba Gooden said.
“His father died when [Ritchie] was still in high school,” she said, “and so to help with family expenses, he dropped out of high school.”
Regardless of this setback, Ritchie was able to return to school to receive his high school diploma and later enrolled at Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University for his bachelor's degree, Gooden said.
It was not until 1942 that Ritchie enrolled at Kent State University at the age of 33. Ritchie initially pursued a master’s degree in pre-law while working full-time, which as said in Ritchie’s obituary published by the Akron Beacon Journal in 1967, “left only five hours a day for sleep and study.”
Prior to receiving his degree, Ritchie changed his major to sociology with concentrations in alcoholism and criminology. It was during the next few years that Ritchie would be able to distinguish himself as both a scholar and professor.
Ritchie was hired as a graduate assistant in the department of sociology in 1946, which was soon noticed by then-chair Dr. James Laing.
“While at Kent State, he was able to get a fellowship to Yale University in one summer and actually earned credit at Yale so he's able to finish his masters at Kent State,” Gooden said. “[He] actually became a faculty member at Kent State while he was a graduate student, which was unusual because he had not finished his Ph.D. yet.”
When Ritchie was hired as a full-time faculty member in the fall of 1947, he became the first African American man to serve on the faculty of a primarily white institution in the state of Ohio.
After receiving his master’s degree, Ritchie enrolled in the University of New York to earn his PhD then returned to Kent State to continue his work as a professor.
During his time as a faculty member, Ritchie was able to develop organizations that reflected his humanistic nature, Gooden said.
“He had a profound sense of human rights,” she said. “He really engaged with Kent State and really pushed Kent State, along with some other white faculty, to be a democratic university that … created a sense of belonging for all people at Kent State.”
In 1963, the university refused to allow a chapter of the NAACP to form on campus due to the common belief at the time that the organization was a radical movement, Gooden said.
This inspired Ritchie to organize a protest with several of his white colleagues and “threatened to leave the institution if the NAACP was not allowed to form as an organization,” Gooden said.
Additionally, Ritchie was able to find an outlet for his knowledge of criminology and addiction when he co-founded the Portage County Family Planning Counseling and Mental Health Center in Ravenna.
The Epsilon Delta chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha was started in 1958, with Oscar Ritchie being the advisor, as well as helping the fraternity come together. He served as the advisor from 1958 to 1962. In addition to Alpha Phi Alpha, he was also the advisor of Kappa Alpha Psi from 1955 to 1956.
“Oscar Ritchie is my frat brother,” Bellamy said.
In 1985, the Epsilon Delta chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha and the department of Pan-African studies partnered in creating the Freshman Textbook Scholarship, now known as the Oscar Ritchie Scholarship.
“Our chapter actually helped the establishment of keeping what's keeping funded financially, keeping most of our students of color here on campus,” said Bellamy.
Most students of color automatically get the scholarship once they come to Kent, helping students with some of their finance.
Bellamy explained how finances is the No. 1 struggle of keeping most students of color here at college.
“That's really like the barrier of ‘are you staying here or are you going home’ is the finance piece,” Bellamy said.
Ritchie died in 1967 at the age of 58, the same year he was interim chair of the sociology department.
“Oscar Ritchie is black history,” Bellamy said.
The big names that are associated with Black History Month – Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Malcolm X – are all essential to the history, but for Kent, Ohio, Oscar Ritchie is breaking important barriers as well.
Bellamy talked about the idea of Sankofa, which means to go back and fetch it. He talked about the importance of going back and fetching your history and making sure to tell younger generations.
“You want to mentor and make sure that all the history that we have in the stories of our people is living on and I'm a living testimony of that,” Bellamy said.
Ritchie became an inspiration for Bellamy, making sure that he helps give back to everyone. “Groundbreaking doesn’t just stop in 1957; it starts in 2020 in well,” Bellamy said.
To pay homage to Ritchie, the university renamed the old student union building in his honor in 1977. Kent State alumnus and retired faculty member of the department of Pan-African studies, Dr. E. Timothy Moore, recalled his experience at the ceremony.
“The turnout was very impressive because we had people from all over the campus who knew him and were present at that particular ceremony,” he said. “It did involve a lot of students and faculty members that were his colleagues and friends.
In addition to students and friends, several of Ritchie’s relatives were in attendance, Moore said.
“His wife was there – her name is Edith Ritchie, and she was the faculty advisor for the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority,” he said. “I noticed he had a brother by the name of George Ritchie that I believe lived in the Columbus area. Both of them were there at the ceremony.
Timothy – this man, he was a friend and like I said a mentor. And he was just an exemplary faculty member. did all he was required to do but he also kept his humanity and befriended people, gave them guidance on what to do and how to do it. So they could become academicians themselves or pursue whatever career they were doing in sociology or whatever their other fields of endeavor were, I think that he was a very inspirational man from all that I've been told. And I think he was just a good example that everyone should try to emulate, if we were to know more about what he actually did in terms of real specifics from different people.”
Ritchie’s legacy is much more than a building and continues to inspire members of the department of Pan-African studies, Gooden said.
“I think about him as a precursor to Black United Students, and then black faculty, I think the legacy he left is what we are actually enacting on,” she said. “So, we have an open door policy, we've got like a scholarship for students in need [and] we serve as advisors to multiple student organizations.”
Moore said he believes the university has an obligation to continue Ritchie’s legacy and promote his story.
“His name should never be neglected and should always be among those outstanding members of [the] Kent State family,” Moore said, “because he indeed was outstanding in every way."
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