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 (Quincy.Thomas@kzoo.edu); for questions about the 19 stories, especially if interested in submitting a story – contact Dr. Regina Stevens-Truss (Regina.Stevens-Truss@kzoo.edu)

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., History.com)
  • 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, History.com)
  • 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., History.com)
  • 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

19: This Month in Black History – “Happy Holidays”

Dr. Regina Stevens-Truss

“Happy Holidays”

by Dr. Regina Stevens-Truss

How many times have you written that, heard that, or received that wish at the end of an email or in a card? Likely hundreds of times every year. How many times, however, have you (we) stopped and reflected on what exactly we were wishing or being wished?

I have personally experienced Christmas Celebrations in Panamá, in Spain (Madrid and Valencia), in France (Strasbourg), and in South Africa (Johannesburg, Cape Town, and Durbin) – oh, and of course in the USA – and every one of these celebrations have been different.

There are many December Holidays across the world, all with their own rich traditions. So, for this December 19th story, we will just share some links with some readings and videos for you to enjoy as you reflect on your own cultures and traditions.

Readings and Videos

Just for Grins – reply to this post with celebrations you are aware of and that are not listed in these links – maybe tell us one of your traditions!!!

Wishing you and your loved ones, Peace, Health, and Joy this Holiday season.

Regina Stevens-Truss


Questions about this series or if interested in authoring one, please contact Dr. Regina Stevens-Truss (Regina.Stevens-Truss@kzoo.edu)

19: This Month in Black History – “I’ll Go to Jail”: Detroit’s Richard Henry and GOAL

Written by Dr. James Lewis, Professor of History (editorial support from Dr. Regina Stevens-Truss)

“OK, you would have to have been living under a rock to not have heard of the current political discourse regarding banning American History books from K-12 schools – and burning them! The fight for representation and true American history teaching, however, is not new and has roots in Michigan!”

R. Stevens-Truss

On Tuesday, November 27, 1962, Richard Henry, the president of Detroit’s Group On Advanced Leadership (GOAL) and the father of an eighth grader at Durfee Junior High, announced: “I’ll go to jail before I allow my son to return to a history class in which these objectionable text books are being used.” His strong stance was an emotional climax in an ongoing battle between GOAL and the Detroit School Board over the coverage–and, more frequently, simply the omission–of Black people and Black history from the books required in the city’s primary and secondary school classes. GOAL had raised this issue in the spring, as part of a larger challenge to the school board to address discrimination against Black students in terms of access to vocational training programs and guidance counselling and Black adults in terms of hiring. The school board’s initial response about the textbooks was that better books were not being adopted simply because they did not exist.

In large measure, that assessment was correct. It was not that historians did not know better. Even by the early 1960s, academic historians were already revising and overturning old myths about slavery, Reconstruction, and Black life, often following the lead of Black scholars such as W. E. B. DuBois, Carter Woodson, and John Hope Franklin. But that work had made little impact on primary and secondary school history texts. These texts continued to present slavery as benign and enslaved people as happy with their lot in life (which was often described as easier than that of the northern working class) and Black empowerment in the Reconstruction Era South as misguided and disastrous. The explanation for the disconnect, not only between what happened and what the textbooks said had happened, but even between what scholars were saying had happened and what made it into textbooks arose from the confluence of the profit seeking of textbook publishers and the white supremacism of Southern adoption boards. Textbook publishers wanted to be able to sell their products nationally, pitching the same product to as many potential adopters as possible. The white Southerners who made adoption decisions, whether on the state or the district level, insisted on a version of U.S. history that left little room for Blacks at all and slotted them into acceptable accounts of slavery and Reconstruction when they had to be included. Outside of the South, states and districts had merely chosen from among the available options.

There had been Black activism around school textbooks long before GOAL took up the issue in 1962, by Black educators and organizations and in northern cities with large Black populations (including Detroit). But the battle gained new energy in the context of the dynamism of the early ’60s Civil Rights Movement. In response to the Detroit school board’s insistence that there were no better options, GOAL had called on it to issue an ultimatum to publishers that it would stop adopting their textbooks unless “the races [were] treated with equal respect and distinction.” After two months with little movement on the issue, GOAL had prepared a draft ultimatum for the school board’s use in June 1962.

At a meeting with GOAL in July, the superintendent of schools had promised that textbooks “more suited to the urban community” would be used in the fall. But, when Richard Henry’s son Frederick attended his first day of school that September, the book for his history class, Our United States: A Bulwark of Freedom, was worse than most (it was also in use in Birmingham, Alabama). In the words of an NAACP review, “The image of the Negro projected by the authors is that of a dependent, servile creature, who, with the exception of his ability to sing and make music, has contributed only minimally to the development of his country and is incapable of functioning as a responsible person.” Richard Henry told his son to stay home from school in protest. And, while Frederick returned to Durfee soon, his father kept him out of his history class. On November 23, the superintendent of schools rejected a demand, made jointly by GOAL and the NAACP, that the book be withdrawn from use in the school system—a decision that was reported even in the New York Times. This refusal prompted Richard Henry’s announcement that he would go to jail before letting Frederick return to the class, as well as a threat to sue to prevent the use of the book. After a GOAL meeting at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church a few days later, Henry informed a reporter for the Michigan Chronicle–one of the city’s Black-owned newspapers–that GOAL was “preparing to mobilize 10,000 Negroes to protest the use of [that] text.”

Within a week, the Chronicle would announce “Ultimate Victory Predicted” in the battle over Our United States as the state curriculum committee made clear the need for better options. Within four months, the school board had commissioned a supplement, “The Struggle for Freedom and Rights,” that it quickly sent out to middle schools to use in conjunction with the problematic book. In May 1963, the Chronicle described this step as “an initial victory,” noting that “the problem of more representative textbooks is far from being completely solved in” Detroit. That November, the school board officially dropped Our United States from its approved list and began looking for a replacement. By the beginning of the new school year in September 1964, it had selected a heavily revised version of Our United States that had overhauled its coverage of Blacks with the help of an academic historian and material drawn from “The Struggle for Freedom and Rights.”

Victory in Detroit, when combined with the release of some highly critical assessments of the available textbooks, sparked increased activism around the presentation of Blacks in primary and secondary school history textbooks in other northern cities (including New York City), in California, and, within a couple of years, in the U.S. House of Representatives. The furor in Detroit led most of the textbook publishers to launch internal reviews of their products and policies that included meetings with civil rights groups and educators. Other cities followed Detroit in setting guidelines for textbook approval that called for racial diversity and honesty. The new textbooks, perhaps not surprisingly, produced a backlash, not only from adoption committees in Southern states, but also in places with a large population of conservative whites, such as California.

What the efforts of textbook authors and publishers to offer a more inclusive and more honest representation of the American past revealed was the complexity of incorporating Blacks into that past on anything beyond the superficial level of “great contributors,” whether the mathematician Benjamin Banneker or the agricultural pioneer George Washington Carver. Revisions designed to give Blacks their full place in the American past could only challenge the simplistic, nationalistic myths that served to hold that past—and the idea of Americans as a single people—together. These basic myths were encapsulated in such phrases as: “a bulwark of freedom” (the subtitle of Our United States) or “land of opportunity” or “a nation of immigrants” (which implies a voluntarism that was entirely absent from the experience of enslaved Africans). None of them could easily accommodate the Black experience—many required denying its most important features.

Richard Henry (later Imari Obadele), GOAL, and other Black Detroiters helped to launch real changes in what most American children now see in their textbooks. But the difficulty of fully incorporating Black history into the feel-good national story that many Americans expect (and demand) remains and has shaped battles over everything from multiculturalism in the 1990s to the 1619 Project in recent years.

For further reading on this issue, see: Joseph Moreau, Schoolbook Nation: Conflicts over American History Textbooks from the Civil War to the Present (2003), esp. chapter 7; and Hillel Black, The American Schoolbook (1967).


Questions about this story, please contact Dr. James Lewis (James.Lewis@kzoo.edu). Questions about this series or if interested in authoring one, please contact Dr. Regina Stevens-Truss (Regina.Stevens-Truss@kzoo.edu)

19: This Month in Black History – Milestones in Environmental Justice, Dr. Robert Bullard

Dr. Robert Bullard

Written by Dr. Binney Girdler, Professor of Biology & Director of Environmental Studies

Photos: See photos of Dr. Robert Bullard

This month, we celebrate Dr. Robert Bullard, often called the “father of environmental justice,” who in October of 1990 published Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class, and Environmental Quality, a path-breaking book with a national focus on environmental injustice in the United States. Dr. Bullard was also a key organizer of the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit held in October 1991, which resulted in the adoption of 17 Principles of Environmental Justice as a comprehensive platform for a national and international movement of all peoples.

Robert Bullard was born in 1946 in the small town of Elba, Alabama, where he attended segregated schools. He received his B.S. in Government from Alabama A&M University. After serving in the Marine Corps during the Vietnam war, he pursued his M.A. in Sociology from Atlanta University and his Ph.D. in Sociology from Iowa State University. He has held faculty and director positions at Clark Atlanta University, where he founded the Environmental Justice Resource Center, University of Tennessee, the University of California – both Riverside and Berkeley, and Texas Southern University, where he is now Distinguished Professor of Urban Planning and Environmental Policy and Director of the Bullard Center for Environmental and Climate Justice.

Robert Bullard began his efforts to catalog environmental injustice as an expert witness in a Houston, Texas class action lawsuit that attempted to block construction of a landfill proposed to be built within two miles of six schools, one within 1500 feet of the proposed dump. Recruited by his wife, Linda McKeever Bullard, the lead attorney for the plaintiffs, the young sociology professor Bullard recruited students in his sociology methods class, and together they conducted a painstaking study of landfills in Houston. At that time, in 1979, “[t]here was no Google, there was no GIS mapping,” Bullard says in a recent interview with the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). The team eventually reported that all five city-owned landfills were sited in Black neighborhoods, as were 80 percent of city-owned garbage incinerators, and 75 percent of privately-owned landfills, even though only 25 percent of Houston’s entire population was Black. That lawsuit, Bean v. Southwestern Waste Management, Inc., did not succeed in stopping the landfill, because it was difficult to prove intent. But Bullard was “hooked,” as he said in a 2006 interview: “I started connecting the dots in terms of housing, residential patterns, patterns of land use, where highways go, where transportation routes go, and how economic-development decisions are made. It was very clear that people who were making decisions — county commissioners or industrial boards or city councils — were not the same people who were “hosting” these facilities in their communities” (Grist, Meet Robert Bullard, the father of environmental justice)

Bullard expanded his study of environmental injustice to a nationwide scope in his landmark book Dumping in Dixie, published this month in 1990. He cataloged the stories of five Black communities across the American South where ordinary people spoke up, organized, resisted, protested, and fought for their right to live free from contamination and other environmental harms. Dr. Bullard has gone on to publish dozens of peer-reviewed articles and 17 more books on topics ranging from the racist roots of the unequal toll of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, to city planning, health equity, food security, transportation apartheid, and climate justice.

Although Bullard has had a successful career in academia, it is his work within marginalized communities that has been most impactful. Bullard related in a 1999 interview: “What we’ve tried to do over the last twenty years is educate and assist groups in organizing and mobilizing, empowering themselves to take charge of their lives, their community and their surroundings. … For the most part, a lot of the small grassroots groups operate from a bottom-up model. They don’t have boards of directors and large budgets and large staffs but they do operate with the idea that everyone has a role and we are all equal in this together” (Earth First! Journal, Environmental Justice: An Interview with Robert Bullard).

In addition to his deep engagement in communities facing environmental harms, Dr. Bullard has continued to serve as expert witness in court cases across the nation, and has served on several national advisory panels. This month in 1991, the Principles of Environmental Justice were adopted at the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit, co-organized by Dr. Bullard and held in Washington, DC. The EJ Summit, attended by well over 1,000 participants, was foundational in the Environmental Justice Movement. Delegates came from all fifty states including Alaska and Hawaii, and from Puerto Rico, Chile, Mexico, Nigeria, and the Marshall Islands. The seventeen principles were developed as a guide for organizing, networking, and relating to each other as people of color, non-governmental organizations, and governments. Bill Clinton appointed Dr. Bullard to the inaugural National Environmental Justice Advisory Council, a federal advisory committee to the EPA, which was pivotal to Clinton signing the landmark Environmental Justice Executive Order 12898, “Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations.” Dr. Bullard continues this important work at the intersection of civil rights and environmental justice today as a member of President Joe Biden’s White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council, which now advises the entire administration, from the U.S. Department of Energy to Health and Human Services.

Bullard’s list of honors and awards is long and wide-ranging, so we’ll highlight just the last few years. In 2020, the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) honored Dr. Bullard with its Champions of the Earth Lifetime Achievement Award, the UN’s highest environmental honor. Most recently, Dr. Robert Bullard was among the 2022 cohort of scholars inducted into the American Academy of Arts & Sciences. In an interview at Texas Southern University, Bullard reacted: “It is truly an honor to be elected to such a prestigious body and to have the American Academy of Arts and Sciences recognize and lift up our justice and equity work,” he said. “I accept the honor on behalf of the struggles in frontline and fence-line communities where there is still much work to be done to secure environmental and climate justice for all” (Texas Southern University, TSU’s “Father of Environmental Justice” selected to join American Academy of Arts & Sciences)


Questions about this story, please contact Dr. Binney Girdler (Binney.Girdler@kzoo.edu). Questions about this series or if interested in authoring one, please contact Dr. Regina Stevens-Truss (Regina.Stevens-Truss@kzoo.edu)

19: This Month in Black History – The State of Education of Black Folks in the USA

Black student and woman in tech working on her laptop.

The State of Education
of Black Folks
in the USA

by Dr. Regina Stevens-Truss, Professor of Chemistry & Biochemistry, Director of the HHMI IE Grant

As we begin our school year and because of the landscape of higher education in the USA, I thought that a ‘feel good’ story was in line, albeit, I will add some caution to this.

The U.S. is doing better (said out of one side of my mouth) when it comes to educating the Black population. According to the 2020 US Census report “88% of Blacks have a high school diploma.” In that report they also state that ~90% of the U.S. population have graduated high school, putting the Black community in almost parity with the rest of the Nation. As a point of comparison, in 1940, only 7% of Blacks completed high school when the National average was 24%. Many credit this increase to the Compulsory Education Laws enacted by states in the late 19th and early 20th centuries – Massachusetts was the first U.S. state to enact a compulsory education law in 1852. In a 2012 report that examined whether schooling laws matter, it was found that the “introduction of compulsory attendance laws had positive and statistically significant effects on schooling in states that passed laws after 1880.” This means that overtime then, the educational gap between Black students and the National average had closed to about 2%, as measured in 2019; at least at the high school level.

The college degree gap has also closed, but nowhere as tightly; in 2019, the gap between Blacks and the National average was 26% for college degree attainment. It is important to note that the vast majority of college degrees attained by Blacks before 1967 in the U.S. were from Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). HBCUs were the only game in town in educating Blacks prior to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. To be clear, Blacks were “allowed” to attend White universities in northern states before the abolition of slavery. However, because of institutionalized racism and discrimination at these institutions, as well as the poor college preparation that Black students were afforded, their education was hampered. HBCUs were the predominant means of African American post-secondary education for about 100 years (from right after the Civil War to the Civil Rights era of the 1960’s). Before the establishment of the first HBCU in a southern state (Atlanta University – now Clark Atlanta University on September 19, 1865), there were four HBCUs established in northern states: Cheyney University of Pennsylvania in 1837, University of the District of Columbia in 1851 (then known as Miner School for Colored Girls), Lincoln University in 1854, and Wilberforce University in 1856. Atlanta University (Clark Atlanta University) was one of the first graduate institutions in the Nation to award degrees to African Americans, and the first to award bachelor’s degrees to African Americans in the south. According to Wikipedia, “HBCUs have a rich legacy of matriculating many leaders in the fields of business (Spike Lee, film director and producer – Morehouse), law (Thurgood Marshall, Supreme Court JusticeLincoln and Howard; featured in our 19 story in July 2020), science (Katherine Johnson, NASA mathematician – attended West Virginia State College, now West Virginia State), education (Booker T. Washington, educator, orator, and advisor – Hampton), military service (The Tuskegee Airmen were educated at Tuskegee University), entertainment (Oprah Winfrey, talk show host and media mogul – Tenn State), art (Erykah Badu singer, entrepreneur, and actress – Grambling State), and sports (Jerry Rice, considered the greatest NFL wide receiver of all-time – Mississippi Valley State).”

Despite their excellent track record of educating Blacks, HBCUs have struggled to stay open. Once predominantly white institutions committed to educating Black students and opened their doors during the Civil Rights Era, and because of the government’s affirmative action goals, enrollment at HBCUs began to drop. While the number of Black students enrolled in U.S. colleges and universities increased by ~377% from 1966 to 1976, only 18% were enrolled in HBCUs; which dropped to only 9% in 2010. The reduced number of students attending HBCUs has also led to a decrease in the number of these institutions (from 121 in 1930 to 101 in 2019).

A possible shiny light for HBCUs – while in 2020 (the year when Black Lives Matter issues was heightened) the enrollment of Black and White students attending secondary institutions declined, however, some HBCUs experienced a surge in enrollment – Howard University, for example, increased 15 percent from 2019 to 2021. This could be a sign that Blacks are finding needed support at these institutions. Historically, HBCUs have been a pillar in the lives of many successful Blacks, offering an education that is unmatched by many of the Nation’s other institutions. For non-HBCU institutions to truly ensure access to students of color, these institutions (like K) have a duty to make sure that these students are supported in all the ways!

19: This Month in Black History – Juneteenth Culinary Traditions

by Drs. Fari Nzinga and Regina Stevens-Truss

Happy Juneteenth everyone! Today, everyone in the United States can enjoy a federally-recognized holiday in honor of Juneteenth, and many may have heard the story of its roots at least once – on June 19, 1865, two years after the Emancipation Proclamation, enslaved Africans in Texas were finally informed that they could claim their freedom. Imagine the joy and celebration, and the birth of Juneteenth (celebrated since 1865 by many Black people – you can re-read this Juneteenth story). By now then, you may know about the why behind the holiday, so this final story of the 2021-22 school year will focus on some of the how to celebrate Juneteenth – the culinary traditions.

As in most cultures around the world, Black people typically celebrate with and gather around food. Red-colored foods and drinks are of primary significance to the culture. Culinary historian and chef, Michael Twitty, discusses in Oprah Daily (The Traditional Foods of Juneteenth Carry a Rich History, Dating Back Centuries), “Texas was at the end of the world to the Antebellum South. There were a lot of enslaved Africans who were coming to Texas from the continent and through the Caribbean. The color red is highly associated with the cultures that would’ve come through the later years of the trade, which would have been Yoruba and Kongo.” Twitty also writes in his blog, Afroculinaria, “enslavement narratives from Texas recall an African ancestor being lured using red flannel cloth, and many of the charms and power objects used to manipulate invisible forces required a red handkerchief” (Juneteenth, A Culinary History Part 1).

The places where many newly-imported African laborers passed through, cultural and culinary traditions were carried along and continue to manifest. For example, Dr. Fred Opie, makes the connection that West African peoples like the Asante, Yoruba and Kongo among others, marked special occasions with the offering of sacrifices, especially the red blood of white birds and goats.

Soul Food Scholar Adrian E. Miller has further traced red drinks served at Juneteenth celebrations to the fruits of two native West African plants: the kola nut and the hibiscus flower. The kola nut, typically white or red, was and still is served to guests throughout West and Central Africa as a snack to chew, used as a water purifier, or steeped for tea. The flowers of the hibiscus, too, are often stewed to make a reddish-purple, tartly-sweet tea called sorrel or bissap.

A traditional Juneteenth spread consists of barbeque and red foods: tables lined with bbq chicken, hot links, watermelon, hibiscus tea, and, more recently, strawberry soda and red velvet cake. In addition to the cultural and spiritual meanings behind the red-colored foods, the color red symbolizes not only the bloodshed of enslaved people who never tasted freedom, but the resilience of all Black people in the face of continued oppression. Sides like cabbage, collard, turnip or mustard greens, and black-eyed peas are typically served as well. Often called prosperity dishes and eaten during the new year, black-eyed peas are said to bring luck and greens and cabbage, of course, money and abundance.

However you choose to celebrate Juneteenth, the point is to place one’s experience within a larger, historical context; to connect with family and cultural traditions, and to realize one’s own definition of freedom. This June, and in the many to come, take a moment to reflect and honor those who have demonstrated resistance to oppression (check out the Freedom Lifted “6 Ways to Resist” exercise by Mia Henry).

As Adrian Miller so eloquently puts it: “I think about all of those Emancipation celebrations, church suppers, family reunions and other occasions when people got together to celebrate, renew family ties and friendships, and affirm their humanity.” Chew on that.

Again this year, these monthly Black History stories have been brought to you by the ACSJL and the HHMI Inclusive Excellence team, and are 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.

Would you like to contribute a story?

Anyone can contribute a 19 story. Contact Regina Stevens-Truss at Regina.Stevens-Rruss@kzoo.edu for information on how to get started!

19: This Month in Black History – Asian & African American Solidarity

Protest sign reading "Together and Stronger."

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

In honor of Asian American heritage month (May 1-31st), we are going to look at some of the moments where Asian American and African American histories connect and overlap.

The first Asian immigrants arrived in the 19th century. They were Filipino sailors who came to the shores of the so-called “New World” aboard Spanish ships in the 16th century. Some of these Filipino 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.

Frederick Douglass

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.

Get Involved and Support

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.

And just for fun and maybe to occupy the summer months, here are some titles to peruse:

  • Lee, Erika. The Making of Asian America: A History. 2016.
  • Takaki, Ronald. Strangers from a Different Shore: A History of Asian Americans. 1998.
  • Yun, Lisa. The Coolie Speaks: Chinese Indentured Laborers and African Slaves in Cuba. 2008.

19: This Month in Black History – Accepting Tom Wiggins and #autisticblackpride

Accepting Tom Wiggins and #autisticblackpride

By Katrina Naoko Frank, an #actuallyautistic Afro-Asian Indigenous Latina (editorial support from Dr. Fari Nzinga)

Black Autistic Awareness

With April marking Autism Acceptance month, take a moment to clear your mind. When you hear the word “autism” what do you think of?

For many, the image of a thin, white, male–usually with a short haircut, blank expression and dry humor comes to mind. Looking past the American “ideal” of autism, autistic folks are as diverse in race, intellect, emotional intelligence, and ability, as any other group. We are Black, we are Latinx, we are Indigenous, we are Asian. We are of all gender identities and economic status–we are not a monolith.

And in fact, this month’s 19 story proves just that, by highlighting Thomas “Blind Tom” Wiggins, a renowned Black, blind, autistic musical mastermind of the mid-19th century.

What is Autism?

For those unaware, Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is defined as “a complex developmental condition involving persistent challenges with social communication, restricted interests, and repetitive behavior.” People with ASD have brains and neurosystems that work differently which is why we use the term “neurodivergent” to describe them. And just like with human sexuality, ASD exists on a spectrum with various outward manifestations.

A famous Autistic American from the annals of history, Thomas Wiggins was classified as “idiotic,” a medical term used at the time to describe “a person with profound intellectual disability.” It has been documented that Wiggins was “mostly non-speaking and used sounds and body language to communicate with others [he] rocked, twitched, and echoed people around him.” Based on his method of communication and his musical genius current historians “believe that Wiggins was an autistic savant” (NOSmag.org, Blind Tom Wiggins: Black Neurodivergent Excellence).

Tom Wiggins AKA “Blind Tom”

Thomas Greene Wiggins, known as “Blind Tom” was born into slavery on May 25, 1849 in Columbus, Georgia to Charity and Domingo Wiggins. As an infant Tom and his family came under the enslaver, General James Bethune, a Columbus lawyer that both fostered Tom’s gift and exploited him for his own gain.

There have been many accounts of Tom mimicking the sounds around him without error as a toddler. Around the age of eight, “Tom was licensed out to a traveling showman named Perry Oliver who promoted him as a barnum-styled freak” along with many other outlandish descriptors (Who Was Blind Tom?). By age eleven he was the first African American artist to perform at the White House while at age fifteen Wiggins “composed his most famous piece ‘The Battle of Manassas,’ a song evoking the sounds of battle interspersed with train sounds and whistles, which [he] made himself” (New Georgia Encyclopedia, Thomas “Blind Tom” Wiggins).

Although Tom was considered an international celebrity, he was both oppressed and taken advantage of. Not only was his neurodivergence used as a ploy to collect more money during his travels, but his musical talents, and his nontraditional way of interacting with others would keep him enslaved under the Bethune family even after emancipation during the Civil War.

Tom Greene Wiggins was unique, intelligent, empathetic, and resilient. To share Finn Gardiner’s sentiment in his article “Blind Tom Wiggins: Black Neurodivergent Excellence,”

“[…] we can still look to [Tom] as an example of black neurodivergent excellence. His deep connection to the world around him and his remarkable musical ability led him to create music that resonated within his own soul and the souls of others. We must remember, too, that the talents of black neurodivergent people should be nurtured without exploitation. We belong to ourselves. Tom Wiggins may not have had this freedom, but we can claim our own freedom today.”

Black and Autistic

Although we are working towards a better, more inclusive and socially just world, there are still specific stereotypes and stigmas that are hurting and killing autistic Black, Indigenous and other people of color (Elijah McClain and Osaze Osagie). For instance, in research unveiling the correlation between late diagnosis for Black children and provider racial bias, “Black children usually obtain a diagnosis for autism one and a half years later than white children.” Due to this delay, Black autistic children are being disadvantaged from the beginning. To create positive change in both autistic and neurotypical communities it is imperative that we honor and share the stories of Black autistic individuals, identify and openly discuss their challenges as well as their triumphs.


Want to learn more? Listed below are a handful of extraordinary Black autistic people and Black leaders based in the autistic community:

19: This Month in Black History – All Eyes on SCOTUS & the Dred Scott decision of 1857

By Dr. Fari Nzinga (editorial support from Dr. Regina Stevens-Truss)

All eyes are turned towards the SCOTUS (Supreme Court of the United States) because of upcoming challenges to laws that have set the legal precedents, standards and customs by which we live.

Some SCOTUS history & background:

According to White House Government Documents (the following are select passages given here for context):

“The Supreme Court of the United States is the highest court in the land and the only part of the federal judiciary specifically required by the Constitution. The Constitution does not stipulate the number of Supreme Court Justices; the number is set instead by Congress. There have been as few as six, but since 1869 there have been nine Justices, including one Chief Justice. All Justices are nominated by the [sitting] President, confirmed by the Senate, and hold their offices under life tenure. Since Justices do not have to run or campaign for re-election, they are thought to be insulated from political pressure when deciding cases…

The Court’s caseload is almost entirely appellate in nature, and the Court’s decisions cannot be appealed to any authority, as it is the final judicial arbiter in the United States on matters of federal law…

… the Court’s task is to interpret the meaning of a law, to decide whether a law is relevant to a particular set of facts, or to rule on how a law should be applied.”

The U.S. Supreme Court has quite a long history of arbitrating questions of race and rights. Social scientists call “race” – the product that is produced through processes of defining and categorizing people based on perceived physical traits – a political identity or designation, because it can be defined differently under different (historical and/or geographic) circumstances, and, more importantly, because one’s assigned racial membership is upheld and enforced by legal, political and economic systems.

On March 6, 1857, the SCOTUS, in a 7-2 vote, rendered what has been considered as “the most egregious example in the Court’s history of wrongly imposing a judicial solution on a political problem” in the Dred Scott v. John F.A. Sanford case.

This is the story of Dred Scott.

Dred Scott was a Black man who availed himself of every opportunity to be free. Born into slavery in Southampton, Virginia, Dred Scott had been called Sam as a youth; until he changed his name. Enslaved to a man named Peter Blow, Dred Scott was forced to migrate to Huntsville, Alabama and later to St. Louis, Missouri. In 1831, upon the death of Peter Blow, Dred Scott was sold to U.S. Army Surgeon, Dr. John Emerson. Again, Scott was forced to migrate, but this time to the free state of Illinois. Emerson reported for duty at Fort Armstrong, Illinois, and his assignment lasted for nearly three years. Under the conditions of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, and the State Constitution of Illinois, Dred Scott was entitled to his freedom. While living and working in what is present-day Minnesota, Dred Scott married Harriet Robinson, a young woman enslaved by Major Lawrence Taliaferro, an Indian agent for the Wisconsin territory. Harriet Scott then became the property of Dr. Emerson, and while he traveled to Louisiana and Florida to serve in the Seminole Wars, he hired out Dred and Harriet Scott.

Emerson died unexpectedly after serving in the wars and upon returning to Missouri. His widow, Irene Emerson became the owner of Dred and Harriet and refused to emancipate them, so they decided to take advantage of a Missouri statute that stated that any person, black or white, held in wrongful enslavement could “sue for freedom.” On April 6, 1846, Dred and Harriet Scott each filed separate petitions in suits against Irene Emerson in the St. Louis Circuit Court to obtain their freedom from slavery. These documents, identical in nature, stated that the petitioners were entitled to their freedom based on residences in the free state of Illinois (Rock Island) and the free Wisconsin Territory (Fort Snelling). After almost a decade of court cases and appeals the Scott’s case was finally heard by the U.S. Supreme Court. The case was argued February 11 – 18, 1856 by Montgomery Blair and George Ticknor Curtis on behalf of petitioner Dred Scott and Henry S. Geyer for respondent John F.A. Sanford (brother of Irene Emerson, who at this point owned the Scott family – Dred, Harriet, and their two children). The case was decided March 6, 1857, in a 7-2 decision in favor of Sanford; the majority held that “a negro, whose ancestors were imported into [the U.S.], and sold as slaves, whether enslaved or free, could not be an American citizen and therefore did not have standing to sue in federal court.” Because the Court lacked jurisdiction, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney dismissed the case on procedural grounds.

Appointed by President Andrew Jackson, Chief Justice Taney was the son of Catholic tobacco plantation owners in Maryland. As an active participant in the institution of slavery, Taney, from the bench, sought to limit federal regulation of the business of enslavement. He, therefore, held that the Missouri Compromise of 1820 was unconstitutional and foreclosed the ability of Congress to pass laws that would free slaves within Federal territories. The opinion showed deference to the Missouri courts, which held that moving to a free state did not render Scott emancipated. Taney ruled that slaves were property under the Fifth Amendment, and that any law that would deprive a slave owner of that property was unconstitutional.

On May 26, 1857, two months after the SCOTUS decision, Scott and his family were freed, but not through the courts! The Scott family was re-purchased by the Blow family who had sold Dred Scott in the first place, and freed them. Dred Scott died of tuberculosis in St. Louis the following year, and Harriet Scott lived until June 1876, long enough to see the Civil War and the passing of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865.

History archives about Dred Scott state that “The Dred Scott Decision outraged abolitionists, who saw the Supreme Court’s ruling as a way to stop debate about slavery in the territories.” And suggest that “The divide between North and South over slavery grew and culminated in the secession of southern states from the Union and the creation of the Confederate States of America. The Emancipation Proclamation of September 22, 1862 freed enslaved people living in the Confederacy, but it would be another three years until Congress passed the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery in the United States.”

Today, the Supreme Court holds in the balance judicial decisions that will be solutions to political problems, with a disregard for the people the decisions will affect. Stay active and vigilant!

It is still Women’s History Month – and if you are looking for things to occupy some time during our off week, check out the library’s Collections for Women’s History, created by our awesome Reference librarians: Collections for Women’s History