UMN celebrates black history on campus with film, panel

The University’s African American and African Studies Department is celebrating its 50th anniversary.

Panelists John Wright, left, and Abdul Omari discuss the “This Free North” documentary at Northrop Auditorium on Tuesday, Feb. 18. The event included a documentary premiere and a discussion about black history at the University of Minnesota.

Emily Urfer

Panelists John Wright, left, and Abdul Omari discuss the “This Free North” documentary at Northrop Auditorium on Tuesday, Feb. 18. The event included a documentary premiere and a discussion about black history at the University of Minnesota.

Jasmine Snow

The University of Minnesota celebrated the 50th anniversary of the African American and African Studies Department with a discussion about Black history on the Twin Cities campus on Tuesday. 

Hundreds gathered in Northrop for the premiere of “This Free North,” a Twin Cities PBS documentary showcasing the University’s long and complicated position in Black history. The viewing was followed by a panel discussion of current and former University scholars and activists. 

“[Activists] did this work and we [BSU] are the embodiment of the work that they did,” said Black Student Union member Marcus Johnson-Luther.

The documentary went as far back as 1851 when the University of Minnesota first opened its doors. It went on to detail more racist aspects of the University’s history, including accepting money from slaveowners, participating in segregation and resistance to Black activists and demands. The film was named after language used in an essay penned by activist Charlotte Crump, founder of the Negro Student Council at the University in 1937.

A large portion of the event was dedicated to the Morill Hall takeover, a 24-hour protest in 1969 that resulted in the formation of the AAASD, among other things. 

“We’re trying to just show that all the work that [protestors] did and everything they did was not for naught,” Johnson-Luther said. “[The takeover] is literally the formation of the BSU.”

The viewing was followed by a panel discussion moderated by Daniel Bergin, senior producer at TPT. 

Panelists included former University Regent and BSU President Abdul Omari, activist and Professor Emeritus John Wright, the University’s Urban Research and Outreach-Engagement Center Executive Director Makeda Zulu-Gillespie and current BSU President Sharon Ogata.

Fourth-year University student Natasha Rice said that she went to the event in an effort to celebrate Black History Month. 

“I thought it was really great that the panel we had included different generations, different genders and different skin tones,” she said. “I think that really [showed] the diversity of the Black community.”

Graduate student Adam Pallas, who specializes in research on institutional responses to racial bias incidents on college campuses, said he went to the event to educate himself further on the University’s history. 

“I’m also just personally interested in the history of the University and Black history is our history,” Pallas said.

Wright, who authored the seven demands sent to President Malcolm Moos during the Morrill Hall takeover, helped develop the film, which he was also featured in. He said his work on “This Free North is part of a 20-year effort that will hopefully act as a “springboard” for future projects.  

“We intend to keep trying to tell the story of Black folks at this University and their connections with the larger community going forward,” Wright said in an interview with the Minnesota Daily. “Without understanding where we’ve come from … it’s very hard to chart any kind of coherent path to the future.”

Eighth grader Riya Stebleton attended with her teacher to gather information for her school project on the Morrill Hall takeover. 

“The Morrill Hall takeover broke racial barriers, and it created the African American Studies Department and on other campuses too, and I thought that that was really cool,” she said.

University president Joan Gabel and MSA President Jael Kerandi were also in attendance and gave opening remarks.