KU’s African & African-American studies department finally able to celebrate 50-year anniversary after COVID-19 forces delay

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The University of Kansas wasn’t the first higher education institution in the country to have a full-fledged Black studies program — that was at San Francisco State in 1969 — but as early as 1968, courses on Black history and culture were being taught at Kansas’ flagship university.

Black students at KU formed a student union that year, and those students took the lead on teaching courses at the university and in the Lawrence community, which was seeing efforts at the time to integrate similar curriculum into the Douglas County K-12 school system.

Though a full department didn’t take hold right away, after a tumultuous spring and summer in 1970 — which included the firebombing of the Kansas Union and the killing of Rick “Tiger” Dowdell, a Black KU student, by a Lawrence police officer — KU gave final approval for the creation of an African Studies department that July.

Now known as the Department of African and African-American Studies, KU faculty members were excited to celebrate the department’s semicentennial anniversary last year before the COVID-19 pandemic intervened, and celebrations were put off in the hopes that spring would yield a safer ability to gather and commemorate the department’s founding.

Almost a year past the 50th anniversary, it’s still not quite comfortable enough to gather large groups together for such celebrations, but the department is ready to mark its impact on KU’s campus with a slate of virtual events next week.

Shawn Leigh Alexander, the current AAAS chair, said in a press release that recent events across the United States have continued to demonstrate why the department was founded in 1970, another era of racial strife.

“AAAS’ golden jubilee occurring at this moment in time, a period when the nation finds itself once again engulfed in protests directed at anti-Black racism and social injustices, and the continued devaluation of Black lives, is a reminder of the importance of Black studies and how the struggle that helped create AAAS at the University of Kansas continues 50 years later,” he said.

Here’s the full schedule of events:

Thursday, April 22

Zoom RSVP here

6:30 p.m. – Opening Program and Welcome: Peter Ojiambo & Elizabeth MacGonagle          

7 p.m. –   AAAS Chairpersons Speak:  Dorthy Pennington, Moderator

  • Jacob U. Gordon, founder of KU’s department and former chair
  • John Janzen, former chair
  • Peter Ukpokodu, former chair
  • Shawn Leigh Alexander, current chair

(Former chairs Arthur Drayton, Clarence Lang, and Cécile Accilien are unable to attend, the department said in a press release.)

Over the course of the two days, there will be language skits between each session, highlighting KU’s African & African Diasporic Language program.

Friday, April 23

Zoom RSVP here

 9:45 a.m. – Welcome: Dorothy Hines & James Yékú

10 – 11:30 a.m. – “Tilling the Soil”- Former KU Student Activists Panel – Shawn Alexander, Moderator 

  • Walter Bgoya
  • Dr. Alferdteen Harrison
  • Darryl Bright
  • Dr. Linda Loubert
  • John Spearman, Jr.
  • Brenda Vann

11:45 a.m. – 1:30 p.m. – “Black Struggle and Black Studies from ‘More Relevant Education’ to Black Liberation”Dr. Charisse Burden-Stelly, keynote speaker

Moderator: Amal El Haimeur               
Respondents: Nicole Hodges-Persley & Abel Chikanda

1:45 – 2:30 p.m. – Art and Activism: 50 Years of Africana Studies at KU: Jessica Gerschultz, Moderator

  • Tyler Allen, AAAS and Museum Studies, MA Student
  • Jenny Welden, Visual Arts, MFA Student
  • Angela Watts, Collection Manager, Spencer Museum of Art
  • Cassandra Mesick Braun, Curator of Global Indigenous Art, Spencer Museum of Art

2:45 – 3:30 p.m. – What AAAS Meant and Means to Me – Current and Former AAAS Students: Tony Bolden, Moderator

  • Maria Beg (BA 2011)
  • Derrais Carter (BGS 2008)
  • Jacoby Hawkins (Current AAAS Major) 
  • Owen MacDonald (MA 2019)
  • Niya McAdoo (Current AAAS Major)                            

3:30 – 3:45 p.m.  – Closing Remarks – Dr. Katie Rhine & Dr. Randal M. Jelks

“The 50th anniversary of the Department of African & African-American Studies is a celebration of the steadfast determination of students who desired to make a better world and space for themselves at the University of Kansas,” Alexander said. “It is a stark reminder of all the students who have come through our classrooms and have gone on to do wonderful things with their degrees, who have made a difference in other people’s lives and have carried forth the mission of advocating for a global consciousness — and social change — both in the United States and throughout the world.”

All events are free and open to the public.


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