Black History Month

When I joined the University of MinnesotaâÄôs General College as an assistant professor in 1999, I did not know much about the history of the University in general, let alone the specific history of African-Americans at the University. Over the years IâÄôve learned that African-Americans have had a long presence at the University and that they have made many lasting contributions.

Most of my initial knowledge of African-Americans at the University revolved around the General College, where I was a faculty member for eight years.

I began to learn about contributions that African-Americans made outside of the General College when I became chairman of the Department of African American & African Studies in 2007.

One of my first tasks as the new chairman was to meet with a committee of alumni planning a celebration of the 40th anniversary of the department in 2009.

During the planning process, I learned the history surrounding the departmentâÄôs establishment. In January of 1969, a group of African-American students and their supporters occupied Morrill Hall to demand the expansion of educational opportunities for African-American students at the University. The committee created “We Still Have a Charge to Keep,” a series of events designed to commemorate the January 1969 Morrill Hall occupation that led to the formation of the department in the fall of 1969; examine the status of African-American student recruitment, admission, retention and graduation; and create strategies for advancing the UniversityâÄôs goal of becoming a top-three public research institution.

In order to recognize the continuing relevance of the 1969 Morrill Hall occupation, alumni and friends of the Department of African American & African Studies created the “Morrill Hall and Rachel Tilsen Social Justice Fund.” This fund is used to issue annual awards to individuals and/or organizations conducting important social justice work. Last year a total of $6,000 was awarded for a project in restorative justice in North Minneapolis and for an urban farming and community garden initiative in St. Paul. Information about this yearâÄôs awards can be found on the department website: http://aaas.umn.edu.

I am excited that the Minnesota Daily has decided to publish past articles online about African-American history at the University. IâÄôm sure that many of these articles will concern the 1969 Morrill Hall occupation and events from the 74-year life of the General College.

I am looking forward to gaining more insights about those two topics and also to learning about additional African-American history at the University, which stretches as far back as 1882, when Andrew Hilyer was the first-ever African-American graduate.

African American & African studies faculty member John Wright has extensive knowledge of African-Americans at the University, including personal history âÄî he was a graduate student during the 1969 Morrill Hall occupation and helped draft the list of demands presented to the administration.

Now a full professor, Dr. Wright is advising the Daily on events and people to search for in its archives. IâÄôm sure that many Daily readers also know of interesting historical moments or figures, so contact the editors with ideas or write your own letter to the editor.

If an important incident or person in the history of African-Americans at the University inspired you, you may also want to write a “Legacy Letter.” Legacy Letters are Emmy award-winning, one-minute films that appear on Twin Cities Public Television. These films were created by the group “1000 Friends of Minnesota” and Twin Cities Public Television to reflect on MinnesotaâÄôs past and to speculate on the future. A second round of Legacy Letters is in the works; see http://www.1000fom.org/envision/legacy/2010-legacy-letters.

Black History Month starts today, Feb. 1. Check the DailyâÄôs website each day in February for reprints of articles on African-American history at the University.