African American Studies faculty reflect on department’s history
Although it was only recently granted departmental status, African American Studies at UH has a long and rich history contributing to campus and community culture.
The African American Studies program was the first of its kind for Texas public schools back when it was created in 1969. However, this historic step forward in education wasn’t made without a struggle.
In the latter half of the 1960s, when the Civil Rights Movement had significant traction countrywide, students decided it was time to advocate for the University’s adoption of a program that reflected the beauty and the struggles of the African American community.
“This particular program was born out of student protest,” said African American Studies program manager Kevin Thompson. “Students like attorney Gene Locke, Mr. Dwight Allen, who is now known as Mr. Omowale Luthuli-Allen, and the late Lynn Eusan–who the Lynn Eusan Park is named after–the first African American homecoming queen, were a part of a consortium of students who actually quote-unquote stormed, basically, the president’s office.”
The group presented to the then UH President Phillip G. Hoffman with 10 demands, one of them being to create the African American Studies program, Thompson said.
“It was this time of intellectual curiosity and tenacity, and student organizations across the country were petitioning and protesting because this discipline came out of the struggle to see oneself within academic settings,” Thompson said. “And then also was reflective of the times, you know, we just weren’t taking it anymore.”
Aside from spearheading the effort to create the program, these same students pushed for a better relationship between the University and the surrounding community.
Eusan, Locke, Luthuli-Allen and others did this by asking to raise the pay for campus employees such as cleaning staff and groundskeepers, many of whom were from the local community.
From what started off as only a few courses to a degree-granting department, the African American Studies department holds a great significance for many.
“It is very important that we have it because it’s a subject area of that, as we can see from the times in which we live, America is still dealing with a lot of its historical past, a lot of questions need to be addressed in a very forthright way,” said African American Studies interim director Linda Reed. “It’s significant that people look at African American Studies, specifically because we practice it in our daily lives, but we don’t realize how we are practicing the culture.”
Beyond the classroom, the department hosts an annual study abroad program for students to be educated on the life of the African locals as well as the Diaspora.
“The biggest thing was, I think, for us is watching our students blossoming into viable pillars within our community, becoming productive citizens who maintain an elevated sense of consciousness (and) who show that they are willing to work to make the community better,” Thompson said.
With student engagement being one of the department’s priorities, Thompson said fostering an environment where former and current students create bonds with the faculty and staff is what motivates him to come to work every day.
“I want every student to know that they have a home here at African American Studies whether they choose to major, or minor, or not,” Thompson said. “It’s just basically the spirit of what we embody. That’s the African spirit.”
Reed expressed the department’s importance in how it spurs conversations about current events, especially during times like the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020.
“I think it’s important to actually see that from the president’s office, that from the dean’s office, that from other units on the campus others are addressing the similar kinds of concerns that African American studies had talked about for a long period of time,” Reed said. “To see that embraced is very significant, and that others are not leaving it up to only African American Studies, and the department (to have these discussions).”
While some might question what the purpose of the department is in having these conversations, it has helped others realize it’s their responsibility to carry these into the communities outside of the University, Reed said.
“Everybody understands the significance of paying attention to that history and culture, but to the history and culture of all ethnicities of Americans,” Reed said. “Now it’s the responsibility of the people, faculty, staff and students to help others outside of the University of Houston, understand that significance.”