The History of Africana and Latino Studies
| SUNY Oneonta’s Africana & Latino Studies [formerly Black and Hispanic Studies] Department owes its existence, as do other Black Studies, Latino Studies, and Ethnic Studies programs on other American campuses, to the activism and struggles of students and faculty in the late1960s. An era of social protest and desire for social change reflected in the civil rights and anti-Vietnam war movements during that period, 1968 -70 in particular, witnessed the creation of the first Black Studies programs (1). Within SUNY, activists’ pressure led to the SUNY Council of Presidents in Fall 1968 to recommend: that every campus add Black Studies to its curriculum, begin majors where appropriate, schedule black artists and cultural activities on campus, and incorporate students into the planning process (2).
In April 1969 a group of students occupied the SUCO President’s office and prepared to stay indefinitely until their eleven demands were met, which included admitting two hundred more black students, a black director of EOP, black counselors in Admissions and EOP, a black cultural center, and many more black professors. By the end of the 1969-70 year SUNY Oneonta faculty approved creation of a Black Studies Program with additional efforts to include Hispanic Studies in the curriculum, and Charles L. James of the English Department became the first director. In1965, there were only twelve black students and no black faculty whereas by 1970 there was approximately two hundred students and a few faculty and staff of color, especially after the creation of the Educational Opportunity Program (EOP) at the decade’s end (3). To further ensure fulfillment of the goals of the students, a B.H.Task Force was created to oversee fulfillment of the goals for the first decade. Due to major anti-war protests and especially a student demonstration, 3000 strong, in response to the Kent State student deaths in spring 1969, classes at Oneonta State were cancelled, the campus closed, and administration suspended final exams.
Born in a time of struggle for multiracial inclusion and an education of relevance to all students, the Black and Hispanic Studies department had to fight for acceptance within the College community, struggle to build working relationships with other departments unhappy to share faculty and courses in order to develop a relevant and rigorous curriculum, and create a space of refuge for students of color who experienced ongoing racism on campus and in the city of Oneonta. These issues have frequently re-surfaced. In 1970 a black cultural center, Karibu, was opened in Morris Hall basement and became the soul of black student life, but closed in 1982 when Morris Hall was renovated (4). This issue of a space on a HWCU (historically white college-university) for students of color continued and resurfaced as a demand after the infamous Oneonta Blacklist of September 1992 (5) which led to the opening of the Center for Multicultural Experiences within Lee Hall in February 1993. Indeed, advocacy on behalf of black and Latino students, on campus and in town, remained a constant of the BHS department which changed its name in 2002 to Africana & Latino Studies, and dropped the requirement that all majors be dual majors. Never a large major, nonetheless, generations of black and Latino students gravitated to BHS/ALS as an intellectual and material space that included them, provided a comfort zone, and recognized their cultural importance. From the department’s inception, institutional support for Hispanic/Latino Studies was limited and inconsistent—no dedicated full time faculty were assigned until 2013, despite repeated external program reviews reporting the need for active administrative support for faculty lines. The department is hopeful of faculty growth, though cognizant that US demographic changes drive this, and we still lack the human resources to meet the growing Latino student population. It’s worth noting that the African American student population on campus is approximately the same size as in 1972, hovering around two hundred students.
Experiential learning and connecting with the local community is one aspect of the Black Studies mission that has remained. After the 1992 Blacklist, a chapter of the NAACP formed in Oneonta and ALS and students of color have worked with its members. Since the early 1980s, BHS/ALS students have interned and volunteered with the Oneonta Jobs Corps. Since 2005-06 the ALS department has offered a program in Ghana which combines study and volunteerism with students helping to build a village library and a clinic. Internships too have been added at schools, television stations, hospitals, orphanages, health NGOs, etc.
Strong leadership at the onset enabled BHS to thrive. Charles L. James, the first director who was recruited by Swarthmore in 1973, was replaced by Dr. Ena Campbell for two years, and then for several years the chair was Dr. Guy C.Z. Mhone, a Malawian development economist, later renowned for his contributions to the field [e.g., The Political Economy of a Dual Labour Market in Africa (1982); The Case for Sustainable Development in Zimbabwe (coauthored, 1992); The Informal Sector in Southern Africa (1997); and Toward a People Driven Development Agenda (2006)] and for whom CODESRIA Institute (Dakar, Senegal) holds regular development conferences in his name to honor his work (6). All BHS/ALS chairpersons have sought to emulate the example of commitment and integrity of the department’s founders.
Now in its fifth decade, SUNY Oneonta’s Africana and Latino Studies Department, similar to other interdisciplines, still struggles for recognition, survival, and growth. Nonetheless, our mission is just as vital as ever. College and university graduates need a broad knowledge of other American cultures within a global context because the persistence and increasing importance of race, ethnicity, class, and gender as social realities affecting everyone on the globe. ALS provides the conceptual tools and cultural competencies required to navigate the complex socio-economic, cultural, and political milieu of the twenty-first century.
- See Ibram H. Rogers, The Black Campus Movement: Black Students and the Racial Reconstitution of Higher Education, 1965-1972 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012) pp. 145-159
- Cary W. Brush, In Honor and Good Faith: Completing the First Century, 1965-1990 (SUNY College at Oneonta Alumni Association, 1997) pp 31-33
- Brush, In Honor and Good Faith, 110-111
- The State Times, 18 March 1982
- OSC’s administration created a list of all black student males which they turned over to all local police agencies investigating a break-in and attempted assault. This ‘racial profiling’ legal case of 13 years duration is now taught at US law schools. One result in the1993-96 period was a major decline in student enrolments.
- http://kemetforum.com/blog1.php/african-to-remmember-late-prof. Accessed, 3 July 2013; http://www.codesria.org/IMG/pdf/2008_Repenser_la_politique_commerciale_et.pdf. Accessed 3 July 2013
History in Photos