Fifty Years of Black Activism and Study

In December 1968, African American students at Washington University, organized under the name of the Association of Black Students, and acting similarly to their counterparts across the nation in that turbulent year, confronted the administration with a position paper during the take-over of Brookings Hall. This paper’s list of demands was later expanded as The Black Manifesto, which became a kind of bill of rights and expectations for black students at the university. One of the principal demands was the institution of a Black Studies Program, “which will radically reform our future education.” The document continues, “We ask for this Black Studies Program because we feel it is not only necessary for our education, but for our very survival.” 

Doubtless, for many black students, adjusting to the alien environment of a predominantly white university and the particular pressures, stresses, and humiliations such an adjustment subjected them to, may very much have seem a matter of psychic survival. What black students was not necessarily to feel less alienated from the whites around them but rather to put their alienation to a political and social purpose that would advance their interests as blacks. A Black Studies Program for many such students was not only place to study about African-descended peoples but also to protect themselves from “miseducation,” to borrow historian Carter G. Woodson’s term, or from being de-racinated or alienated from their own group for what these students sought was not integration but independence, the sort of specialized independence they felt they needed as young African American adults being forced to operate in a world largely based on white sensibilities. A Black Studies Program was meant to reassure these students about the core mission of their education: to change the world’s values to bring about the liberation of African-descended peoples from the thralldom of Eurocentric hegemony. The Black Manifesto was of such importance in the history of black student consciousness at Washington University that new, updated versions of it have been issued in 1978, 1983, and 1998 as repeated calls for action.

Black Studies was formally established in September 1969 with a part-time director.  Robert L. Williams became the first full-time director when he was appointed on June 15, 1970. The original faculty included Williams, PhD (Psychology), Jack Kirkland, MSW, (Social Work), Ronald S. Bailey, PhD, (Political Science), Curtis Lyle, poet in residence, Tilford Brooks, MA, (Music), Robert C. Johnson MAT (Education), and Paul Smith, BD (Religion). Fifty years later, their spirit lives on in the faculty and students of the current Department of African and African-American Studies at Washington University. 

Discover Our History

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Takeover of Brookings Hall

In December 1968, African American students at Washington University, organized under the name of the Association of Black Students, and acting similarly to their counterparts across the nation in that turbulent year, confronted the administration with a position paper during the take-over of Brookings Hall. This paper’s list of demands was later expanded as The Black Manifesto, which became a kind of bill of rights and expectations for black students at the university. One of the principal demands was the institution of a Black Studies Program, “which will radically reform our future education.”

Black Studies established

Black Studies was formally established in September 1969 with a part-time director. Robert L. Williams became the first full-time director when he was appointed on June 15, 1970. The original faculty included Williams, Ph.D. (Psychology), Jack Kirkland, MSW, (Social Work), Ronald S. Bailey, PhD, (Political Science), Curtis Lyle, poet in residence, Tilford Brooks, MA, (Music), Robert C. Johnson MAT (Education), and Paul Smith, BD (Religion).

Initiatives Launched

Two signature events related to Black studies - the Martin Luther King Symposium and the Black Graduate Luncheon - began in 1970.

New Awards and Festival Launched

The Black Honors and Awards were established in the spring of 1972, followed by the first Fall Black Arts & Sciences Festival.

10 Years of Black Studies

In 1978, when the Black Studies Program did a lengthy ten-year review, it assessed in separate chapters, how it had changed, in cooperation with others on campus, the culture for black students, faculty, and staff at the university. An updated version of the Black Manifesto was issued.

Student Sits on Board of Trustees

Association of Black Students president Clarence Robie succeeds in getting a student seat on the Board of Trustees, a first for any student group.

Student Seat Made Permanent

President Stephanie Lewis makes Board of Trustees seat permanent, also a first for any student group.

Gerald Early Leads the Program

Gerald Early becomes director of African and African-American Studies.

30 Years of Black Studies

This year the Association of Black Students reviewed the Black Manifesto once again and formed a committee of members to come up with a way to address the concerns that were still relevant 30 years later. The document created is the Action Proposal. There was a ceremonial march on Brookings and the Action Proposal was presented to Chancellor Wrighton.

African Film Festival Launched

Wilmetta Toliver-Diallo, academic coordinator and senior lecturer in African & African American Studies and assistant dean in the College of Arts & Science, founded the festival in fall 2005 in an effort to increase dynamic conversations about the African continent on Washington University’s campus. The festival introduces contemporary artistic production by African artists to American audiences, combating stereotypes. The festival promotes African filmmakers, who have limited access to international distribution.

AFAS Becomes a Full Department

In spring 2017, African and African-American studies, up until this time an academic program, became a full department. This means that AFAS would soon be able to confer PhDs, hire its own faculty (previously, faculty could only hold a joint appointment with AFAS and another full department), and be a primary major for undergraduates. Overseeing the transition of AFAS from program to department was longtime faculty member Gerald Early, the Merle Kling Professor of Modern Letters and professor in the Department of English and African and African-American Studies. Previously, Early was director of the program in the early 1990s for nine years.