Black History Month showcases University history, student experiences
When the University was established, if black students applied to UH they were referred to Texas Southern University.
UH was designated as the white school and TSU was the black school, both of which had started as junior colleges.
For 35 years, UH did not enroll black students.
It was in June 1962 when the University welcomed the first African American student, Charles Rhinehart.
While the inclusion has continued to grow, some believe UH still fails to uplift the black community on campus.
“It’s very clear to see that regardless of how much the school claims to love and accept the diversity that it has, the institution is very weighed against the black population,” communication sciences and disorders senior Yvonne Taboh said. “The neglect is genuinely disheartening.”
To remember and reflect on the movements and actions of those who came before, Taboh describes her celebration of Black History Month as a learning experience from before her time.
“I believe that celebrating the accomplishments of the many things black individuals have contributed to today’s society shouldn’t be confined to just a month,” Taboh said. “Black History Month is a step forward in the million steps we have to take in recognizing the amount of work that African Americans have put into building America.”
The start of UH’s black history on campus began even before non-white students were allowed to enroll.
Andrew Joseph Pegoda, a professor of Women’s Studies at the University, wrote for the Houston History Magazine that it was at least 1956 when black Americans wrote to UH requesting admission.
In Pegoda’s thesis, it’s mentioned that the only reason the University considered desegregation was due to financial troubles and the amount of debt UH was in while still being a private institution.
Demographics, as well as circumstances, have had a serious turnaround since that time, as told by some current students.
“I usually celebrate (Black History Month) with my family,” finance senior Eric Rowe said. “We’ll get together and just talk about it, and I’ll read some articles to educate myself on some of the black history as well.”
The first impression of the black community on campus Rowe had was Greek life and the historically black fraternities and sororities.
The University is home to Greek chapters involved in the National Pan-Hellenic Council that is comprised of nine historically African American and international Greek lettered fraternities and sororities sometimes referred to as the “Divine Nine” originally formed at Howard University.
There are other organizations at the University that are considered historically black such as the Black Student Union and the Nigerian Students Association.
“Being a part of organizations such as (NSA) has been the best decision I’ve ever made in my life,” said Taboh, who is also president of NSA. “However, as the years have progressed, I began to notice the neglect of proper recognition and celebration of cultures that make this the second most diverse school in the nation, as they like to enunciate constantly.”
Taboh, who identifies as black and African, said there can be some disparities in how people identify themselves among black Americans, African Americans and Africans, but she has a Pan-African mindset and believes in the power of unity of the black race.
In 1968, Lynn Eusan became the first black homecoming queen crowned at the University. Eusan was not just the first black homecoming queen at UH, but in the South in general, which Taboh said she recently learned.
Identities in the black community on campus are varied among students. Public health junior Jlyn Carpio-Paez said she tells people she is Hispanic when asked about her ethnicity.
“I used to explain to (these people) that my parents are from the Dominican Republic and that Dominicans come in all shades,” Carpio-Paez said. “It hasn’t affected my college experience negatively, if anything, college students are more aware that Afro-Latinos exist.”
There are other organizations on campus that cover this spread of diversity such as the Caribbean Students Organization and the Society of Afro-Latino Students in America.
SALSA president LeGbara Gbaanador said SALSA has many events in the works to celebrate this month.
“SALSA has opened my eyes to how well people can connect regardless of racial or cultural differences,” Gbaanador, a computer engineering junior, said.
Afro-Latinos are underrepresented in UH, Carpio-Paez said. She feels as SALSA and representation was something she did not realize she needed until she actually experienced it.
While most UH civil rights milestones happened in the 1960s, like integrating the athletic teams in 1964, one of the more recent milestones happened in 2018 when African American studies was declared a major.
African American studies as a program was added in 1969 as a response to student protest.
Director of African American studies James Conyers told The Cougar that while the major was approved in December 2018, the first graduate of the program came in Spring 2019.
Black history on campus can be traced to former University president Marguerite Ross Barnett as well. She made leaps of progression in being the first woman and the first black president of the University and left her mark nationally by becoming the first black president of any major American university before her death in 1992.
The month of February as a whole can be celebrated in different ways for each student. Students such as Rowe tend to lean toward talking about relevant topics with friends and family, while students such as Taboh take the time to attend the cultural events when the campus offers them.
“Black History Month is a time to acknowledge and praise how we as a people have overcome and continue to battle unjustified adversities,” Carpio-Paez said. “February is just a month, but a black person is black every day. We are still faced with prejudice, but it would be an injustice to those who came before if we chose to settle for less than what they fought for.”