Oscar Ritchie’s Legacy Continues to Inspire

Influential, pioneering educator was a key figure in shaping the Black History of Kent State

“Oscar Ritchie is a living embodiment of what Black History is.” Excerpt from a 2020 interview with Joshua Bellamy, ’21, then president of Kent State’s Alpha Phi Alpha chapter.

Oscar Ritchie headshot.

A formidable educator

Oscar Washington Ritchie first arrived on the campus of Kent State University in 1942, at the age of 33. He began studying pre-law but switched to sociology and graduated in 1946 with a bachelor of science degree – all while still working full-time at Republic Steel in Massillon.

Immediately after graduation, Ritchie enrolled in a master’s degree program. He excelled in the program and was offered a teaching position by the department chair in 1947, taking over for a former faculty member. It was exceptionally unusual for a graduate student to work as a full-time faculty member. This appointment made Ritchie the first Black faculty member at Kent State and the first at any predominantly white university in Ohio.

He studied for his doctorate at the University of Wisconsin and at New York University, completing his Ph.D. in sociology in 1958.

In total, Richie taught at Kent State for 29 years. Shortly before his death, he was appointed as the chair of the Sociology Department.


A passionate force for positive change

Ritchie was an active member of the Massillon Urban League and the Canton NAACP. He led a recruitment drive in the 1950s that nearly doubled the membership of that NAACP chapter. Then Kent State University President George Bowman viewed both of these organizations as “radical” and refused to allow students to start an NAACP chapter on campus.

At the time, the university also had discriminatory housing policies, which Ritchie fought and eventually got the university to change by threatening a walk out of faculty from Kent State’s Sociology and English departments.

Oscar Ritchie with Marvin Koller.
Dr. Oscar W. Ritchie (left) and Dr. Marvin R. Koller (right) of the Kent State department of sociology and anthropology with a textbook they co-authored.


Working with several Greek organizations on campus, including Kappa Alpha Psi and Alpha Phi Alpha, Ritchie assisted in the establishment of an Alpha Phi Alpha scholarship and served as director of educational activities for the organization’s national chapter.

He, along with two other Kent State professors, co-founded the Portage County Family Planning, Counseling and Mental Health Center in Ravenna.

Oscar Ritchie Hall
Oscar Ritchie Hall, formerly the Kent State Student Union.


The origin of Oscar Ritchie Hall

Mwatabu Okantah

Mwatabu S. Okantah is an associate professor, interim chair, Department of Africana Studies and the director of Kent State’s Ghana Education-Abroad Program. He describes himself as an American poet, essayist, professor, and vocalist. He’s also an excellent person to speak with about Black History at Kent State.

Arriving on campus as an undergraduate student, Okantah has been part of Kent State for nearly 52 years and has worked in the Department of Africana Studies for 32 years.

When Oscar Ritchie passed away in 1967, Okantah was in high school. “I never met him,” he said. “I met some of his family, I met some of his former students. The people that I met who were his former students, including Dr. Crosby, our founder, absolutely revered him. He was an extraordinary figure.”

In 1968, Black United Students at Kent State were initiating protests and demonstrations designed to make the university community aware of the organization’s intent to bring about needed sensitivity and changes. One of the most well-known protests was in response to Kent State allowing the Oakland, California, police force to recruit on campus.

At the time, due to social unrest in Oakland, there were a series of public confrontations between the police and members of the city’s black community. The Black Panther Party for Self Defense was founded as a response. 

Black students walk off campus in protest in 1968.
The student walkout on November 21, 1968.

“When the university allowed them (the Oakland police force) to recruit on campus, Black United Students asked university officials to have them removed,” said Okantah. “The university did not do so, and so Black United Students walked off campus. Almost 300 black students walked off campus and the university had to negotiate with them to get them back on campus.”

‘We’ve created something in Dr. Ritchie’s name’

In these negotiations, Black United Students demanded a Black studies program, that became an academic department. They demanded more Black faculty and staff on campus and they demanded a Black cultural center to deal with cultural and social programming. “So, the building for which Oscar Ritchie is named is the house that came out of all of that,” said Okantah.

In 1972 when the Kent Student Center opened, Okantah was the vice president of Black United Students and was in the group of students who sat in the first floor of the old student union (now Oscar Ritchie Hall) and refused to leave in order to claim that building for Black students at Kent State.

Program from the 1977 dedication of Oscar Ritchie Hall
Program from the dedication of Oscar Ritchie Hall in 1977. Note Kent State student Arsenio Hall as a performer in the Black Drama Workshop. 


This activism finally resulted in the creation of the Institute for African American Affairs in 1969, the Center of Pan-African Culture in 1970, the Department of Africana Studies in 1976 under the direction of program founder Edward W. Crosby, Ph.D., and the renaming and dedication of Oscar Ritchie Hall in 1977.

Oscar Ritchie's widow and son presented with a painting created by a student.
At the building's dedication ceremony, a Kent State alumnus Ernest Pryor (right) presented Oscar Ritchie's widow, Edith (center) and son, George, with a portrait. 


“We do a lot with alumni,” said Okantah. “When alumni who now come to the building who were part of the students who walked off campus, it brings them to tears because they can literally see the fruit of their labor.”

“We’ve created something in Dr. Ritchie’s name. So, we just have to continue to do that work,” he said.

Ritchie’s continuing legacy

Mwatabu Okantah

Okantah said that, to him, Oscar Ritchie’s ongoing legacy is to promote and cultivate excellence in our students. He noted what a rare achievement it was for any student – especially a Black man in the 1960s – to be appointed as a faculty member while he was still a graduate student. He said that Ritchie promoted that kind of excellence in the students he worked with. Ritchie became a department chair. Okantah said ,“That aspect of his legacy to me is to be the best chair of the department that I can be.”

From generation to generation

“For previous generations on campus, they were operating out of a need to create things on campus that did not exist; to create things on campus that allowed them to develop a sense of belonging,” said Okantah. “For this generation of students, the challenge is getting them to recognize that what is now Oscar Ritchie Hall, the Department of Africana studies, is their inheritance.”

Speaking with the ancestors

Okantah was asked if he could speak to Oscar Ritchie, what he would say. He said “Oscar Ritchie is with the ancestors. He’s one of our ancestral heroes. In my house, I have an ancestral shrine, so I speak to the ancestors every day.”

“I ask him for strength. I thank him for what he did and what he left,” Okantah said. “And, as I ask of all the ancestors, to guide and protect us and help us navigate the ship through the same kind of stormy waters he had to navigate.”

Archival photographs courtesy of Kent State Libraries, Special Collections and Archives.


POSTED: Wednesday, February 21, 2024 02:46 PM
Updated: Thursday, February 22, 2024 10:15 AM
Phil B. Soencksen
Bob Christy, senior photography coordinator, University Communications and Marketing, Kent State University Special Collections and Archives