Celebrating Black History

February 7, 2020

Dear Campus Community,

This year’s Black History Month is much more than 29 days devoted to recognizing Black Americans’ history, culture, and contributions to the United States. It is part of a broader reflection and commemoration of one of the darkest events in our United States history – the 400th anniversary of the inhumane and involuntary arrival of the first enslaved Africans to the British colonies. Around the country – and here on campus through the 400 Years campus initiative – we are taking time to reflect on how deeply slavery has shaped all aspects of our society and led to injustices that continue to affect Black people throughout the U.S. today.

While many assume Black Americans now have equal rights, that is not the lived experiences of many Black Americans as they go about their daily lives encountering unequal access to services, racial profiling, and microaggressions. Racism – whether explicit or implicit – remains common, and racist actions occur throughout our country, in our state, and on our campus. When these incidents occur at Berkeley, they reinforce the experience among members of our Black community that they are not respected or valued.

As a campus, we have work to do to transform our institution into a place where everyone experiences a true sense of belonging. For over 50 years, Black student activists have led the fight for equal rights and protection for all, and today, undergraduate and graduate students, faculty, and staff continue that work.

While many deep challenges remain for which we must be held accountable, there is also a lot to celebrate. We wish to share some highlights of our  Black campus community and lift the multiple contributions of Black Americans that have made and are making lasting contributions toward change at the university. As expressed at the Othering & Belonging Institute Symposia focused on reflections on the 400th year of enslaved Africans, it is important to not only consider the harm that has come to African Americans but also their courage, resilience, and triumph in the face of incredible adversity.

We pay homage to two of the first nine Black students at UC Berkeley. Ida Louise Jackson started the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority chapter, the first Black sorority on the Berkeley campus and in the Western United States. She experienced discrimination at the hands of then-Chancellor Barrows who would not include her sorority photo in the Blue & Gold magazine. Despite this, in 1925, she became California’s first Black teacher and ended her career in education as principal of McClymonds High School in the Oakland Unified School District. 

We celebrate Lionel Wilson, an Oakland native, who entered Berkeley in 1932 as an economics major. Like Ida, he experienced racism and discrimination; when completing his graduate program course, he was told by his professor that he would not be placed in job opportunities that were offered to his fellow white students. Despite this, Lionel graduated from Berkeley in 1938, received his law degree and became Alameda County’s first Black judge and Oakland’s first Black mayor elected for three consecutive terms. 

Today, we celebrate the second cohort of twelve talented African American Initiative (AAI) Scholarship recipients whom we welcomed to campus this past fall. These new scholars joined the inaugural group of 26 AAI scholars. Through a $2 million donation provided this year from the Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund, we are implementing plans that will make our campus a more attractive and welcoming place for Black students.  The gift is aimed at providing scholarships, building community, and improving Black students’ campus experience through programming and services offered through the Fannie Lou Hamer Black Resource Center, the African American Student Development Office, and a host of community and campus partners.

We celebrate the leadership of the Black Staff & Faculty Organization, who with the Coalition of Ethnic Staff Organizations, has partnered with Chancellor Christ and new senior administrator, Eugene Whitlock, Assistant Vice Chancellor for Human Resources/Chief People & Culture Officer, to bring forth recommendations that will improve the work environment for all. Such as the acknowledgment and modified policy that endorses release time as a part of the workday to support and move forward campus initiatives of diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging. 

We celebrate Black staff in the dining halls and the Golden Bear Café, administrative assistants, student advisors, coaches, staff members—both in student-facing and non-student-facing roles--who play key roles in encouraging, advocating, and ensuring that all of our students are welcomed and supported.

We celebrate David Blackwell, the first Black tenured professor at UC Berkeley. Blackwell Hall, located on the corner of Bancroft Way & Dana Street is named in the honor of this great scholar and change maker. In 1978, Barbara Christian was the first African American woman granted tenure and the same year she was elected chair of the Department of African American Studies. We celebrate the history and the legacy of the many Black faculty members who have come after Dr. Blackwell and Dr. Christian—like Professor Linda M. Burton who began her term as dean of Berkeley Social Welfare in September 2019.  They continue the legacy of generating new knowledge, teaching the next generation of leaders, and guiding the university toward a better future.

We celebrate the work and contributions of the U.C. Berkeley Black alumni associations, which continue to partner with and hold the campus accountable for making needed changes to transform the Black experience on campus. We celebrate prominent alumni Warren Widener, a 1967 Berkeley Law graduate and director of the Berkeley branch of the NAACP who tackled issues of discrimination and advocated for minorities as the City of Berkeley’s first Black mayor, and Barbara Lee, a 1975 graduate who is the first Black woman from Northern California to be elected to state Senate, and the first woman to be elected to serve California’s 13th (formerly 9th) district.

We celebrate what is believed to be the largest private collection of African American quilts that was left to the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA) by the late collector and art scholar Eli Leon. The first quilt exhibit highlighting Bay Area native Rosie Lee Tompkins’ work will be on exhibit at BAMPFA from February 19 – July 19, 2020.

We celebrate the campus commitment to changing the landscape of UC Berkeley by reimagining ways to signal belonging and uplifting the multiple contributions that the Black community has made to the university despite the limits.

Black History Month should not be the only time of year that we celebrate the lives and accomplishments of Black Americans. There are several meaningful ways to pay homage to the sacrifices and contributions of Black Americans. Here are a few ways to put words into action:

  • Be proactive and educate yourself about the struggles and achievements of Black Americans;
  • Visit local and national museums like the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee or the National African American Museum in Washington, D.C;
  • Combat and speak out against all forms of injustice and racism;
  • Participate in community events that educate, celebrate, and advance Black causes;
  • Acknowledge the horrific nature of slavery and its lasting impacts to the Black community;
  • Reflect on your own benefits and privileges on the backs of Black Americans

We encourage you to deepen your knowledge and be inspired to action through events hosted this month by campus organizations including the African American Student Development, the Department of African American Studies, the Othering & Belonging InstituteBlack Staff & Faculty Organization, the Black Recruitment & Retention Center, the Black Student Union, and other Black organizations.

 

Best regards,

Oscar Dubón
Vice Chancellor for Equity & Inclusion