Still Celebrating Black History 2024 – Part 4

Dr. Regina Stevens-Truss

A Word From the HHMI Director

Did you enjoy the beautiful 61° weather yesterday? Unbelievable for February in Michigan, right? How are our strange weather patterns linked to climate change? What do you know about environmental and climate justice? This repost story was written by our Director of Environmental Studies, Dr. Binney Girdler, and is about Dr. Robert Bullard the “father of environmental studies.”

Read the essay

Celebrating Black History 2024 – Part 3

Dr. Regina Stevens-Truss

A Word From the HHMI Director

It’s been interesting to me to re-read these stories; history has a way of repeating… This week’s story is one about the highest court in the land [The Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS)] and its impact on the lives of people. Although written in March of 2022, it could have been written today with the monumental decisions that the Court will be making in a matter of weeks or months.

Read the essay

Celebrating Black History 2024 – Part 2

Dr. Regina Stevens-Truss

Dear friends, this is the second re-sharing of a 19: This Month in Black History story Lisa Brock and I wrote in January 2021.

This story is about the Devine Nine – a nickname used to speak of the nine historically Black Greek Organizations originally created at a time in US history when higher education for Blacks was inhibited by racism & discrimination – this story, however, has a specific focus on sororities; you will see why. If interested in learning more, this short YouTube video will help you better understand the Devine Nine’s history. Please set aside your views of the current US administration and of Vice-President Kamala Harris herself, and read this story. It highlights the resilience of a people in this country, that despite all odds, have overcome and thrived.

Read the essay

Celebrating Black History Month – 2024

Happy Black History Month!

It’s hard for me to believe that it is already February, and I am excited that it is a leap year because we get 29 days to celebrate Black history. To begin the celebration I am posting the 19: This Month in Black History story Lisa Brock and I wrote in 2020. Just an FYI, I will post a different one of these stories every Thursday for the rest of February. Enjoy!

19: This Month in Black History (February 2020)

Carter G. Woodson

Carter G. Woodson: Father of Black History

By Dr. Lisa Brock (conceptual and editorial support from Dr. Regina Stevens-Truss)

Many people in the United States, in some way, participate in celebrating Black History Month. How many people, however, know the catalyst of this ritual? This February’s post is in honor of the man who founded what was first Black History Week, which then became Black History Month, Carter G. Woodson (1875-1950).

Carter G. Woodson was born in 1875 in New Canton, Virginia, to formerly enslaved African Americans, James and Eliza Riddle Woodson. As a child, like many of his time, he worked as a sharecropper, a coal miner and various other jobs to help support his large family. Because of a lack of opportunity, he entered high school late, but according to all of his teachers, he was so bright that he graduated in only two years. He then attended Berea College in Kentucky, and while there, taught at Winona, Fayette County, WV in a school established by Black coal miners for their children. (Yes, there were and still are Black coal miners). Woodson continued his education at the University of Chicago, where in 1908 he earned two bachelor’s degrees as well as a Master’s degree in European History. Woodson also studied at the Sorbonne in Paris, and in 1912 earned a Ph.D. at Harvard University in history. Woodson was the second African American to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard University; Dr. W. E. B. DuBois was the first to achieve this in 1907.

In the summer of 1915 thousands of African-Americans traveled to Chicago from around the country to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of emancipation. This major celebration showcasing African-Americans’ progress and achievements after the end of enslavement was held at the Chicago Coliseum. According to records, at one point, an overflow crowd of six to twelve thousand waited outside for their turn to view the exhibits. This event spurred Woodson to begin the work towards honoring Black History. Inspired by the three-week celebration, before he left Chicago he decided to form an organization to promote the academic study of Black life and history. On September 9, 1915, Woodson met with other Black intellectuals at the Wabash YMCA in Chicago and formed the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH). One year later the organization established the Journal of Negro History.

Woodson, though, understood that if they were going to promote and popularize the history of African-Americans that they needed greater impact beyond the journal. He urged Black civic organizations to promote the journal and the achievements that researchers were uncovering. As a graduate member of the Omega Psi Phi fraternity, he urged his brothers to take up the work, and in February of 1924, they created the Negro History and Literature Week.

From the beginning, Woodson found a huge response to his call. Negro History and Literature Week appeared across the country in Black schools, churches and popular spaces. The 1920s, after all, was the decade of Marcus Garvey’s Black Pride Parades, the Harlem Renaissance, and the New Negro, a name given to the Post-War I generation because of its rising racial pride and consciousness. Urbanization and industrialization had brought over a million African Americans from the rural South into big cities of the nation, which became centers of expanding literacy and confidence. The expanding Black working and middle classes became participants in and consumers of Black literature and culture. Black history clubs sprang up and teachers demanded materials to instruct their pupils. Even some progressive whites endorsed the efforts.

It is interesting to note that Woodson’s first inspiration for the study of Black History was actually based on his experience in the Philippines. How you might ask did Woodson get to the Philipines? The US government, in the aftermath of the Spanish American War, decided to use some African-Americans in their colonial territories. Woodson, because of his accomplishments, was sent to the Archipelago in 1903 to work as an education superintendent. He quickly became concerned that the learning materials he had been given focused on European and White American history and he worried that this would have a negative effect on the confidence and sense of self of the Filipino people. After this experience he returned to the US determined to change the experiences for African-Americans. In fact, although he is the author of over a dozen books, his most well-known work is The Mis-education of the Negro . This text is still in publication today and is a grounding text for how the silences and erasures of Black History can have a negative effect on Black people.

Carter G. Woodson died in 1950 but his legacy lives on. Honored as the Father of Black History, the organization and journal that he founded continue to thrive and are known today as The Association for the Study of African-American Life and History (which still conducts an annual conference) and the Journal of African-American History. And oh yes, of course, we now celebrate Black History Month during the month of February!

Let’s celebrate Black history today and every day!

Regina Stevens-Truss, Director of the HHMI Inclusive Excellence grant & Professor of Chemistry
Lisa Brock, retired, ACSJL Academic Director & Professor of History

19: This Month in Black History – Juneteenth, It’s Time to Celebrate

Juneteenth 2021 dance.

Juneteenth – It’s Time to Celebrate  
by Drs. Lisa Brock and Regina Stevens-Truss

This month we’re taking it back to the inaugural year of the 19 stories. This 19 story was released to the Kalamazoo College community on June 19th, 2021.

Breaking News – AP: “The Senate passed a bill Tuesday [June 15, 2021] that would make Juneteenth, or June 19th, a federal holiday commemorating the end of slavery in the United States.” 

Breaking News – NPR: “The Democratic-led House of Representatives on Wednesday [June 16, 2021] easily approved legislation to commemorate Juneteenth, the national remembrance of the end of chattel slavery in the United States, as a federal holiday.”  

Breaking News – TWP: on June 17, 2021, President Biden signs into federal law that June 19 will forever be known as Juneteenth National Independence Day!  “Great nations don’t ignore the most painful moments. They don’t ignore those moments in the past. They embrace them” stated President Biden in his remarks.

What a GLORIOUS week this has been!  Before this year, however, if we had to guess, maybe 20% of the Kalamazoo College community knew what Juneteenth meant, and even less than that knew where the name came from.  So, this Month in Black History story is dedicated (1) to K and the nation celebrating Juneteenth, (2) to everyone understanding why it is especially important that the nation will be celebrating it, and (3) to introduce you to what’s next for these monthly posts.  Please read Lisa Brock’s keynote address given on Wednesday, June 16th during K’s inaugural Black Joy Week.

Juneteenth is a mashup of June and nineteen as a commemoration of the official day, June 19, 1865, when the last slaves in the USA were emancipated in Texas, and is considered the oldest known celebration commemorating the ending of slavery in the United States.  Many African-Americans have for years celebrated Juneteenth (or Emancipation Day), something that began in Texas because on June 19, 1865 Union Major-General Gordon Granger read General Order No. 3 to the people of Galveston which, in all honesty, lacked the joy that Blacks must have felt.  It stated:

The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.”

Juneteenth has been a quiet holiday among African-Americans, but has been gaining in popularity over the years in many communities, not just in the Black community.

It is important to note that the Emancipation Proclamation signed by Abraham Lincoln on January 1, 1863, freed the enslaved.  However, several southern states that voted to secede from the Union were still battling the northern and pacific states in the Civil War (which ran from April 12, 1861 to May 9, 1865) in efforts to maintain slavery and form the “Confederate States of America.”  Lincoln’s proclamation also expressly exempted parts of the Confederacy that had already come under Union (United States) control during the war. Thus, the system of enslavement was a negotiating tool used by President Lincoln to end the Civil War.  It is difficult to imagine that the freedom promised in the Emancipation Proclamation depended upon a Union military victory.  On January 31, 1865 the Thirteenth Amendment was passed, outlawing enslavement, but Section 1 of the Amendment states:

“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

To understand how this clause of the 13th Amendment has contributed to racist penal policies and the Prison Industrial Complex of today, see Slavery By Another Name and Thirteenth, a Netflix documentary.  Because many southern states refused to implement the new law, it was not until the end of the last battle of the Civil War in April of 1865 that the north claimed victory and the enslaved could begin to experience their new dispensation. Such was the situation in Texas.

So, this June marks the first time ever that Kalamazoo College is acknowledging Juneteenth and will, from here on, celebrate it during our annual Black Joy Week.  This celebration has actually been in the cards for Kalamazoo College since June 19, 1861 when the College’s first Black student, Rufus Lewis Perry (a former enslaved person), graduated from the College’s Theological Seminary (check out the 1861 graduation program here).

A note from Lisa – “This is my last 19 Essay. Please welcome the new writer of the 19 Series, who will begin writing the monthly column in September, 2021.  Dr. Pamela Brooks is an associate professor of African-American and African Studies at Oberlin College (please see Dr. Brooks on Juneteenth).”

A note from Regina – “It’s been an honor to work with Lisa on the first year of the 19 Series, and I look forward to working with Dr. Brooks next year.  We did not imagine the impact and reach that these stories would have, and we have been delighted with the interest in them we’ve experienced.  In July and August, I will post special short issues – so look for those.  Also, starting in September 2021 the BAFSA will begin a video stories project called “We are not a Monolith: Stories from the Diaspora.”  Have a great summer, get some rest, and rejuvenate.”


As we conclude our inaugural year of these stories, we would like to remind our community that these messages have been a collaboration of the ACSJL and the HHMI Inclusive Excellence team aimed at educating the K community on African-American history and culture as we continue to work towards being an anti-racist Institution.  The number 19 marks multiple important dates in the lives of Blacks in the USA – 1619 being the year in which the first set of African slaves were brought to what would become the United States, and June 19, 1865, marking the day that Blacks celebrate the end of enslavement in the US.

We need to know our history, we need to teach our history, we need to remember our history.

Regina Stevens-Truss, Director of the HHMI Inclusive Excellence grant & Professor of Chemistry
Lisa Brock, retired, ACSJL Academic Director & Professor of History

19: Asian & African American Solidarity

This Month in Black History, May 2023

Asian & African American Solidarity

authored by Dr. Fari Nzinga (editorial support from Dr. Regina Stevens-Truss) in 2022

Before I re-share this story, I would like to invite everyone to celebrate joy during Black Joy Week, May 30 – June 02, 2023.  We are planning several events throughout the week that will highlight joy and fun, and that are intended to bring out the kid in all of us!!! (none of the events are long or arduous; please check for the most up to date events times and locations here).  

Given that it is Asian American heritage month (May 1-31st), I am re-sharing parts of last year’s May post because it’s message really resonates today in light of the current immigration discussions.  Immigration is the U.S story!!!

“The first Asian immigrants arrived in the 16th century (Filipino sailors who came to the shores of the so-called “New World” aboard Spanish ships).  These sailors survived pirates and shipwrecks to settle in parts of colonial Mexico and Louisiana, and, while there, some joined maroon societies comprised of Indigenous people, Africans and European deserters.  In the 17th and 18th centuries, large numbers of Chinese, Indian, Korean, and Japanese men travelled across the globe to toil on large industrial plantations in the British West Indies, Hawaii, and the U.S. Deep South as indentured laborers. Pejoratively called “coolies,” countless men and many women were taken advantage of and lured with promises of economic prosperity by contractors and agents, only to work over ten hours a day, six days a week, for five or more years before gaining their freedom. During this time Asian Americans were being forced into the bottom of the white supremacist racial hierarchy, working closely with Africans both enslaved and free; and upon emancipation, Asian mobility and labor power were weaponized against newly emancipated Africans in order to keep wages low and profits high. While racial animus was sewn to ensure competition, there were also new opportunities to cultivate Afro-Asian relationships and build political alliances.  It wasn’t until the mid-nineteenth century that Asian immigrants would begin to migrate in their greatest numbers to the U.S. When gold was “discovered” by white settlers in California in 1848, word quickly got out, spawning the California Gold Rush (and providing the reference for the present-day NFL team the San Francisco ‘49ers). The Gold Rush sped up the process of colonization, kept up the momentum of U.S. expansionism and, later, so-called Manifest Destiny, attracting entrepreneurs and cut-throat capitalists alike.

At the same time, many Chinese laborers migrated by the thousands to California. While many had come in hopes of striking rich, the majority found work laying track for the Pacific/Transcontinental Railroad between 1863 – 1869. Comprising the vast majority of railroad workers on the Western routes, Chinese immigrants were paid to physically clear Indigenous homelands in order to connect the distant colony of California to industrial centers in the East Coast and Midwest, thereby consolidating the U.S. continental empire. As railroad towns began to proliferate, Chinese merchants followed the construction boom. Before, during and after the transcontinental railroad’s construction thousands of enslaved and then freedmen also worked on the railroads grading lines, building bridges, and blasting tunnels. Often paid the least to do the most undesirable jobs, both Black and Asian workers survived brutal conditions of economic exploitation and racial violence.

In the wake of the devastation of the Civil War, as the nation scrambled to rebuild, the United States and China negotiated the Treaty of Trade, Consuls, and Emigration, known as the Burlingame Treaty in 1868, which established a reciprocal relationship for the movement of people and goods between the two countries. But that didn’t stop white settlers from discriminating against Asian immigrants, seizing their property, and perpetrating cowardly acts of violence and intimidation. In his speech “Our Composite Nation,” delivered in Boston in 1869, powerful orator and statesman, Frederick Douglass, condemned anti-Asian racism:

Men differ widely as to the magnitude of this potential Chinese immigration. The fact that by the late treaty with China, we bind ourselves to receive immigrants from that country only as the subjects of the Emperor, and by the construction, at least, are bound not to [naturalize] them, and the further fact that Chinamen themselves have a superstitious devotion to their country and an aversion to permanent location in any other, contracting even to have their bones carried back, should they die abroad, and from the fact that many have returned to China, and the still more stubborn [fact] that resistance to their coming has increased rather than diminished, it is inferred that we shall never have a large Chinese population in America. This however is not my opinion.

[…] Already has the matter taken this shape in California and on the Pacific Coast generally. Already has California assumed a bitterly unfriendly attitude toward the Chinamen. Already has she driven them from her altars of justice. Already has she stamped them as outcasts and handed them over to popular contempt and vulgar jest. Already are they the constant victims of cruel harshness and brutal violence. Already have our Celtic brothers, never slow to execute the behests of popular prejudice against the weak and defenseless, recognized in the heads of these people, fit targets for their shilalahs. Already, too, are their associations formed in avowed hostility to the Chinese.

[…] I have said that the Chinese will come, and have given some reasons why we may expect them in very large numbers in no very distant future. Do you ask, if I favor such immigration, I answer I would. Would you have them naturalized, and have them invested with all the rights of American citizenship? I would. Would you allow them to vote? I would. Would you allow them to hold office? I would.

A short-lived treaty, it didn’t last long before white settlers began to discriminate against and harass Asian immigrants, chasing them out of the West Coast through the twin prongs of violence and legislation. By 1882, not even twenty years later, President Chester A. Arthur signed the Chinese Exclusion Act, placing the first restrictions on immigration in U.S. history. The law specifically sought to eliminate Chinese immigration.

At a time when white supremacist policies, laws and ideologies are precipitating near-constant racial violence against Black and Asian communities, it is important to learn from those moments in history when these groups labored together and (sometimes) stood in solidarity. To learn more about how you might get involved in supporting contemporary solidarity and coalition-building work, check out The Cross Cultural Solidarity History Project’s resource on Black/Asian solidarity.

Please plan to celebrate joy with us from May 30 – June 02, 2023

Regina Stevens-Truss

19: This Month in Black History – Domingos Álvares

a graphic portrait of Domingos Álvares
“Domingos Álvares,” by Oga Mendonca / Companhia das Letras

“Domingos Álvares: Healing, Community, and Resistance in the Atlantic World”

by Dr. Rochelle Rojas

Domingos Álvares, an eighteenth-century African healer, traversed the early modern Atlantic World like few of his time. From Africa to Brazil to Portugal, Domingos navigated these forced border crossings through his therapeutic technologies, religious authority, and political subversion.

Domingos, as he was called by the Europeans writing of him, ascended from a long line of priests of Vodun, the dominant religion of the Fon-Gbe-speaking region in present-day Benin. His societal status and powerful healing knowledge threatened the rulers of the mighty and expanding kingdom of Dahomey, which enslaved him (among countless others) and sold him to Portuguese traders. Though his forced transatlantic migration uprooted him violently from his prestige and community, Domingos drew from his healing technologies to create new ritual communities throughout Brazil, wrest himself from multiple enslavers, purchase his freedom, commodify his healing, and eventually, recross the Atlantic to Portugal where a suspicious Inquisition awaited him.

Around 1732, Álvares was transported across the Atlantic to rural Pernambuco, Brazil, where he was forced to work on large sugar plantations in the region. But Álvares had no intention of acquiescing to forced manual labor, and quickly cultivated his reputation as a powerful diviner and healer, one who might alleviate the suffering of enslavement. Beyond treating their physical ailments, Domingos addressed the psychological alienation that slavery caused, and brought otherwise politically different Africans together. The power he gained quickly in this community threatened the authority of his enslaver who wasted no time in removing Álvares from the plantation, while boasting simultaneously of his healing powers to prospective buyers.

When Domingos Álvares arrived in Rio de Janeiro around 1734, his reputation preceded him. His eager new enslaver had purchased him specifically for his skills and to heal his ailing wife. Álvares quickly found clients in this setting, using rituals learned in his homeland, pharmacological knowledge, and religious beliefs to create a small healing community. But his healing authority threatened his enslaver’s dominance, and his wife was not getting better, so he sold Domingos to remove his influence from his household. Domingos’s final enslaver appreciated fully both his healing knowledge and the profits he could earn from his skills. With a newly granted bit of freedom, Álvares expanded his healing practice rapidly, making his owner eventually set up an office in the center of Rio to accommodate the burgeoning demand for his services. By 1739, Domingos Álvares’s medical skills had brought in enough money for him to purchase his freedom.

Álvares quickly capitalized on his status as a freedman and opened several healing centers around Rio. Just south of the city, he also established a vibrant ritual community consisting mostly of his compatriots but including also Portuguese and mixed-race clients. Domingos married a Mina woman, and together with their young daughter, and a group of ritual adherents, he built a new healing community from the uncertain and fractured lives of various African pasts. Each of these individuals reclaimed selfhood through idioms of healing, kinship, and collective identification that bound the ritual and religious community. And, despite forced baptism, Álvares never renounced his traditional religion. Instead, he remained a practitioner of Vodun and used this knowledge to reaffirm Africa and as a form of resistance to the estrangement caused by enslavement.

Domingos was the colonial project’s worst nightmare, and his freedom and success only made him more suspicious in its eyes. Domingos’s intellectual traditions challenged the authority of enslavers, the legitimacy of priests, and a racial hierarchy which refused to accept his therapeutic skills as scientific. Yet, far from being prescientific faith, much of Álvares’s knowledge of the pharmaceutical properties of roots and plants has in fact been subsequently confirmed by medical science. Still, holding on to his freedoms proved to be challenging as local priests raided his healing centers and denounced him to the Inquisition. The Portuguese Inquisition, astounded by the extraordinary powers Domingos was said to possess, called for him to report to Lisbon, one of only a few dozen Africans sent to Portugal to appear before its inquisitors. And so again Álvares was uprooted violently from his home, family, and community and forced back across the Atlantic to Portugal in 1742.

Domingos Álvares’s intellectual traditions of healing perplexed the binary and prescribed epistemologies of the Portuguese Inquisition. Though throughout his trial Álvares argued compellingly that his cures were “natural” remedies learned in his homeland and drawn from the properties of plants and herbs, the inquisitors concluded nonetheless that Domingos must have made a “pact with the devil.” Despite his sophisticated pharmacological knowledge of natural medicine, the inquisition sentenced him to exile in a small frontier village in the extreme southeast corner of Portugal. From there, Domingos traveled hundreds of miles across the Portuguese Algarve, once again establishing his healing practice, this time among the Portuguese themselves. Domingos moved cleverly and quickly from one place to the next to not arouse inquisitorial attention, and along the way, continually remade himself to adhere to Portuguese expectations, while maintaining his knowledge as a healer, one rooted in West African practices and traditions.

For three years Domingos worked and traveled throughout the rugged terrain and scorching coasts of the Algarve. With few Africans in the region and his facial and dental tribal markings, his status as an exile was obvious, which no doubt made his foundation of a healing community impossible. He peddled, labored, and sometimes cured. Still the inquisition stalked him, and he was rearrested. His second trial differed little from the first and again he was shuttled off to serve his exile in the mountains. At this point, Álvares–a forty-year-old African making at least the fifth forced migration of his lifetime–disappeared from the available records.

The carefully calculated ways Domingos navigated colonial systems of power invite us to appreciate how he and countless other diasporic Africans forged the Atlantic World. Drawing on West African healing practices and epistemologies, Domingos Álvares cured ailing bodies, contributed to eighteenth-century science, and offered kinship and community to the oppressed.


Questions regarding this story – contact Dr. Rochelle Rojas (; for questions about the 19 stories, especially if interested in submitting a story – contact Dr. Regina Stevens-Truss (

19: March is Women’s History Month

Three black women laughing and embracing.

“A Black Women’s History of the United States”

Reading suggestion and 19 story by Dr. Regina Stevens-Truss, Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry

March is Women’s History Month – but did you know that it began as Women’s History Week in 1978, and declared National Women’s History Week in February 1980 by President Jimmy Carter?  The initial celebration happened during the week of March 8th to coincide with International Women’s Day.  In 1987 Congress passed Public Law 100-9 designating March as “Women’s History Month” and since 1995, the US President issues an annual proclamation designating the month of March as “Women’s History Month.”

And perhaps because of Women’s History Month, we may have all likely heard about Sojourner TruthHarriet TubmanIda B. Wells, and Rosa Parks.  But there are many other courageous Black women in the history of the USA whose stories we may have never heard about.  A new book by historians Daina Ramey Berry and Kali Nicole Gross chronicles stories of amazing women.  The book: A Black Women’s History of the United States, tells of several women whose heroism overcame the oppressive climate of their time – these are stories that need to be told. 

As the war on history accelerates, we need to continue to push back on any idea that whitewashes the history of Black people in the USA, or that dilutes the history of incredible women.

Freelance writer Krishna Mann brilliantly summarized this book in her Ideas Worth Spreading piece – check it out!

My plan for this spring break is to continue reading this book – it’s available in paperback and hardcover at Amazon, and also on Kindle and Audible.

Stay safe this break, and see you in spring!

About 19: This Month in Black History

Dear friends, several of you have asked about the history of these monthly posts, so here is the back story.

Since July of 2020 Lisa Brock, Professor Emeritus (former Academic Director of the ACSJL and Professor of History) and I, as the Director of our HHMI Inclusive Excellence program, began sending these stories to the campus in preparation for our first celebration of Juneteenth.  Every post had the following message, which helped explain the impetus for the posts as well as why 19:

*The Faculty Advisory Board of the Arcus Center for Social Justice leadership and the HHMI Inclusive Excellence Faculty team present this monthly notice aimed at educating the K community on African-American history and culture. 19 marks 1619, the year in which the first set of African captives were brought to what would become the United States, and June 19th, 1865, the day that Blacks celebrate the end of enslavement in the US. Both of these dates, and their meanings, were largely unknown to many outsides of the Black community. We feel much of the “surprise” at recent uprisings led by the Black lives Matter movement derives from a lack of knowledge of the rich fabric of Black History. Thus, beginning this month, and every month, hereafter, we will offer messages like this one to help better educate our College community as we work towards being an anti-racist Institution.*

As we grow into being a more inclusive community, learning history (all history) is critical.  Kalamazoo College has a rich and complex past that we should all learn about – if you have not read Anne Dueweke’s book, Reckoning: Kalamazoo College Uncovers Its Racial and Colonial Past, yet, consider reading it.  Also, there is lots of good stuff in the College’s archives – contact Lisa Murphy for how to access these.

Write a 19 Story

Have a story to tell? Or, know of a story that needs to be told? Please contact: Regina Stevens-Truss, Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry, and Director of the HHMI IE program.

19: The Moment in Time in the History of Black Theatre

Bert Williams and George Walker

“The Moment in Time in the History of Black Theatre”

by Dr. Quincy Thomas, Assistant Professor of Theatre (editorial support from Dr. Regina Stevens-Truss, Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry)

The Nation celebrates Black History this month and every February – “Happy Black History Month” to all. Every February, for 28 to 29 days on a good year, the many contributions of Black Americans is highlighted and featured in many settings – so glad that at K we do this every month.

“Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill” (2014); “Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk” (1996); “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” (1984); “The Wiz” (1975); these are but a few of the offerings by Black theatre practitioners that, to this day, stand as a testament to artistic excellence within musical theatre’s historical canon. All of these stories speak to the eternal struggles that are all too well known within the Black community.  They possess themes and messages that for far too long have resonated throughout the diaspora. But while today, in 2023, many appreciate current day Black art and performance, we would be remiss if we did not take time to track the harrowing paving of a path that has allowed shows such as Hamilton (2015) to even be seen beneath the garish lights of Broadway – this is the story of George Walker and Bert Williams.

At the turn of the twentieth century, Broadway was for many, as it is today, synonymous with quality and commercialism.  Black theatre practitioner longed to have their faces caressed by the spotlight of a Broadway stage, as so many practitioners still do, whether they want to admit it or not.  For Black theatre practitioners however, entry into this homogenized “Mecca” was nigh impossible, even in the minstrel era.

Minstrel shows were a wildly popular form of American entertainment that were built upon themes of racial stereotype that have endured to this day. In order to tell these stories of ignorant, lazy, and clumsy people of African descent, White actors would blacken their faces with makeup and perform in a show that moved through a three-part structure, beginning with jokes and songs, transitioning to comical skits and monologues, and ending with political critique and parodies of classical literary pieces or current events. This uniquely American form of theatre brought unfavorable representations of Blackness to Broadway’s stages.

The popularity and longevity of the minstrel show was a rallying cry for many Black American nineteenth and twentieth century artists who sought to upturn Broadway’s racist constructions of Blackness. There are, of course, the names that we know—the Harlem Renaissance magic of the poet Langston Hughes (1902-67), and the timeless power of playwright Lorraine Hansberry (1930-65). But few know of George Walker (1873-1911) and Bert Williams (1874-1922), two performers to whom Black actors, such as myself, owe an unpayable debt.

George Walker grew up in Kansas, watching his family perform in minstrel shows, thus exposing him to the popular entertainment at an early age. As he grew older, Walker moved all about the U.S., utilizing his skills in acting, comedic facial contortions, singing, and playing both instruments and dried animal bones. These talents, standards in the minstrel performer’s toolbelt, he put to use on the back of wagons owned by snake-oil salesmen and charlatans, as well as in minstrel shows.

The Nassau, Bahamas born Bert Williams spent his early years migrating with his Danish father and his mother, who was of Spanish and African ancestry. By the time Williams and his family landed in California, his dream was to be an engineering student at Stanford University, but financial woes forced him to seek out more immediate ways to make money. He started a small touring minstrel company, in which he was the only Black man, and as such, he traveled the West Coast. Williams, a fast-footed physical comedian, did not find success with his own troupe and, in 1893, he found himself in San Francisco, where he met George Walker.

Together the duo crafted fast-moving song and dance numbers and crowd-pleasing comedic skits. They performed from Los Angeles to Denver and eventually in New York City. When they weren’t working, they would go to minstrel shows with White casts and observed the banal and uneducated portrayals of Blackness. In the essay, Early Black Americans on Broadway, Monica White Ndounou gives readers a glimpse into Walker’s plan to address the reappropriation of Black representation on vaudevillian stages:
“We thought there seemed to be a great demand for Black faces on the stage, we would do all we could to get what we felt belonged to us to us by the laws of nature. We finally decided that as when men with Black faces were billing themselves as ‘coons,’ Williams and Walker would do well to bill themselves the Two Real Coons.”

White men in blackface could not capture authentic Blackness in the ways that two men of African descent could, but this meant that Williams and Walker were forced to prop up the same damning stereotypes that they themselves were fighting to overturn. As they fought to carve out a place dedicated to Black comedy in Eurocentric spaces, both Williams and Walker were forced to deal with the racial terrorism brought on by white audience members and white performers, terrorism that often turned violent. Despite this, both men continued to do the life-threatening work and, in 1896, they were cast in The Gold Bug, making them the first Black Americans on Broadway. While leading the way for Black performers in the late nineteenth century, Williams and Walker produced seven original works that spoke to issues of African language, political satire, and colonization, and they told these stories through the usage of comic opera, the infusion of African themes into American performance tropes, and musical theatre.

The legacy of these two men, the safety that they sacrificed and the emotional and mental weight that they carried in order to do what they loved to do, lies before Black actors today.  The history of Black Theatre is one of a roughly hewn path, strewn with blood, tears, joys, and excellence of many beautiful men and women on whose backs many profited from hatred.

This is something that I think about every time I’m allowed to interact with and on the stage, and it is something for which I am eternally thankful – as should we all be.

Additional Information

Additional information about Williams & Walker can be found at:


Questions regarding this story – contact Dr. Quincy Thomas (; for questions about the 19 stories, especially if interested in submitting a story – contact Dr. Regina Stevens-Truss (

19: This Month in Black History – “Honoring Martin Luther King Jr.”

Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial statue.

“Honoring Martin Luther King Jr”

by Dr. Regina Stevens-Truss

Happy MLK Day! Every January since 1986 we celebrate the legacy and death of this iconic figure in US History. We feel like we know EVERYTHING about this person. In fact, it was difficult for me to write 1000 words that could truly honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. As I researched and thought about this story, you can imagine that I found tons of information.

So, here are some facts that we likely all know about Dr. King:

  • Martin Luther King Jr. was born in Atlanta, Georgia on January 15, 1929. (source: Martin Luther King Jr.,
  • In 1955, Dr. King organized and led the Montgomery Bus Boycott in protest of Rosa Parks’ arrest. This event propelled young Dr. King (then 27 years old) to the position of leader of the Civil Rights Movement. He was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 4, 1968. (source: Martin Luther King Jr. born,
  • In 1960, he co-pastored the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia, and continued to serve in the role of the church’s pastor until his death in 1968. (source: Martin Luther King Jr.,
  • The truth is that few people in the world can honestly say they that they do not know who Martin Luther King Jr is – Fun Fact: as of Jan, 2022 there are “41 states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico” (source: Nearly 1,000 U.S. Streets Named After MLK Jr. What Are They Like?, How Stuff Works) that have streets named for Martin Luther King Jr.

We know him as a brilliant orator with iconic and memorable speeches, many possessing inspirational and educational quotes. This week, in fact, the Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership (ACSJL) has invited us to reflect on MLK’s life and work by providing us daily quotes – themed “Radical Lessons.” I hope you have been following and reading these. If you did not receive them, contact the ACSJL to subscribe to the newsletter.

There are many things, however, that we might not know about Dr. King. I found this great site that delineates “10 Things you may not know about Martin Luther King Jr.” So, for this 19 story I’ll pose these questions to you – Test Yourself – and get the answers:

  • Did you know that MLK was not named Martin at birth?
  • Do you know at what age MLK enrolled at Morehouse College?
  • Do you know why MLK is referred to as Dr.?
  • Do you know what MLK’s first speech at the Lincoln Memorial was?
  • You may know that MLK was imprisoned, but do you know how many times?
  • Did you know that that there was a previous, and almost successful, attempt on MLK’s life prior to his murder in 1968?
  • You likely know that in the speech he gave the night before he was murdered, he foretold his death, right? Do you know what the speech was for?
  • Probably not news – the King family believes that MLK’s death was a conspiracy.
  • Do you know how MLK’s mother died?
  • Only 4 Americans have had National Holidays observing their birthday. Besides MLK, do you know the other 3?
  • I hope everyone used the holiday on Monday to honor Martin Luther King Jr – his life, his teachings, and his pleas for equality and justice.

If you are looking for additional ideas and resources to continue your education, sign up for the GlobalMinded Newsletters.

Regina Stevens-Truss, Department of Chemistry & Biochemistry