Forty years of black history

Penn in the early 1960s was a lonely place for African-American students. There were only about a dozen black students on campus, few, if any, courses on the African-American experience and just one or two black faculty members.

John Edgar Wideman

University Archives and Record Center

During Homecoming Weekend, the Center for Africana Studies will commemorate “40 Years of Black History at Penn.” The Nov. 5 celebration will include receptions, a panel discussion and film screenings in College Hall and Claudia Cohen Hall.

John Edgar Wideman (pictured, seated at the front of the classroom), who is now a professor of Africana studies and literary arts at Brown University, was one of the dozen or so black students at Penn in the early ‘60s. A star on the Quaker basketball team, he recalls a “strangeness” to being one of the few black faces on campus. He says it was an experience that left him feeling like the University “was a foreign place for someone of my background.”

In 1967, after graduating from Oxford University as the second African-American Rhodes Scholar, Wideman returned to Penn as a faculty member. He soon became an integral part of the coordinated effort to establish an Afro-American Studies Program, now known as the Center for Africana Studies. He also served as the program’s first director.

During Homecoming Weekend, the Center for Africana Studies will commemorate “40 Years of Black History at Penn.” The Nov. 5 celebration will include receptions, a panel discussion and film screenings in College Hall and Claudia Cohen Hall.

Black studies at Penn grew out of the national Civil Rights/Black Power movements of the 1960s. Wideman says the program’s founders—“conscious” and “enlightened” faculty and students—didn’t want to simply increase the black presence on campus at one level, such as hiring more black faculty, but sought a “coordinated structure and overall approach” that would bring change to the University “rather than just put a little dab of color here and there.”

Penn students, like their likeminded counterparts around the country, occupied buildings to compel the administration to add a black studies program, but Wideman says the occupation was not violent or lengthy.

“There were rallies,” he says. “There was an occupation of a building. There were crises. There were meetings with the president.”

Early black studies courses covered African-American literature and history and were taught by faculty members with an interest in black studies, whether they were African American or not.

“I recall that [the courses] were popular and we had some very good teachers,” Wideman says.

Theodore Hershberg, who had been teaching the History Department’s first course in African-American history, “The Negro in America,” since 1968, taught in the black studies program.

Today, the Center for Africana Studies features scores of courses and faculty from nearly all 12 schools, including experts in history, English, religious studies, sociology, political science, physics, music, romance languages, business, nursing and the law.

Camille Zubrinsky Charles, director of the center, says the program was renamed from its original Afro-American Studies in order to incorporate the global black experience.

“We think about a diaspora that includes the forced migration of Africans to the U.S., to South America and to the Caribbean,” she says, “but it also includes the voluntary migration, hundreds of years later, of people from Africa to Europe and other parts of the world.”

Charles says the mission of Africana studies is to restore the full humanity of people of African descent by reinserting their history and contributions into mainstream intellectual thought and discourse. People of African descent, she says, are the only persons in American history who were legally defined as less than human beings.

“That signals, I think, the way that people of African descent have been thought of in many parts of the world, but certainly in the United States,” she says. “We haven’t fully erased that kind of notion, given that we do not fully incorporate the experiences and contributions and scholarship of people of African descent, historically, into our mainstream discipline.”

Originally published on October 13, 2011