MU’s Black History Month events aim to celebrate, challenge

Black History Month events are sponsored by schools and departments within the university while others are the result of partnerships with student and community organizations.
Participants join hands at a Black History Month event in 1987 held at the Missouri School of Journalism. Courtesy of the University Archives

Deep within the State Historical Society archives rest several original songs written by civil rights activist John Handcox.

Handcox was a tenant farmer and union advocate born in Kansas. During the Great Depression, he traveled across the Midwest, including Missouri, organizing sharecropper unions in an effort to protect sharecroppers against infringement from plantation owners.

Handcox found that songs were the best way to tell his story, and his compositions are popular folk songs still sung today, said Michael Honey, professor of humanities and American history at the University of Washington-Tacoma.

Honey is making it his duty to bring Handcox’s voice back to Missouri in an event for Black History Month this February.

Honey’s presentation, A Sharecropper’s Troubadour, will include songs, photographs and a lecture. He strives to preserve the oral tradition that was so important in Handcox’s work.

“It’s important to learn about people like him who were everyday folk and put up a good fight to try to change terrible conditions,” Honey said. “He always said, ‘Anything I can do to make this a better world, I plan to do it.’ His music was that. His music was about trying to create a better world.”

American, not just Black, history

Darnesha Tabor, assistant student coordinator at the Multicultural Center, said she sees Black History Month as a time to celebrate the lesser-known figures in African American history, like Handcox.

Tabor said she thinks it’s important to remember that black history isn’t just a month-long celebration, and plays a prominent role in all history.

“I hate how it’s separated (into) black history and American history, like black people aren’t a part of America,” she said. “It should be American history because I’m an African-American.”

Stephanie Hernandez Rivera, coordinator of the MCC, said Black History Month celebrations provide an opportunity for reflection and direction within (all) communities.

“Even if it’s a history that you don’t claim as your own specifically, it is one that is a part of our U.S. history and global history, so it’s important to know where we’ve been in order to set up where we’re going to go next,” she said.

Students should acknowledge and attend the events hosted on campus year-round, Hernandez Rivera added.

“Education doesn’t stop when February ends,” she said. “It can continue if people are motivated to learn about history; history that maybe they don’t understand.”

Missouri Students Association President Payton Head said he hopes students will take the chance to discuss histories they may not understand.

The “Am I Still Black If…?” discussion sponsored by the Gaines/Oldham Black Culture Center stands out to Head. It will discuss the existing stereotypes within the black community and challenge how they affect identity, he said.

“Black people are more than just black,” Head said. “We come from small towns, we come from big towns, we’re gay, we’re straight, we’re everything just like any other person. I hope that people get a chance to truly reflect on that.”

Head asks of MU education: “What are we giving (students) now that they can take out into the future and into the community outside of Mizzou?”

A slow start

Before 1950, when the first black students were finally allowed to enroll at MU, the university saw the “separate but equal” education doctrine challenged on several occasions.

In 1936, Lloyd Lionel Gaines became the first African American to apply to the University of Missouri School of Law. However, he was denied admission.

Gaines filed suit against the university in 1938. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in his favor, holding to separate but equal education, and required Missouri to admit him or set up a separate law school for African American students.

The latter was selected. A former cosmetology school in St. Louis was converted into the Lincoln University School of Law. In March of 1939, Gaines disappeared one night in Chicago when he left the fraternity house where he was staying to buy stamps.

The same year, Lucile Bluford, an African American journalist, applied to graduate school. She was denied the ability to register because she was black.

She sued the university, and the Missouri Supreme Court ruled in her favor in 1941. However, the Missouri School of Journalism closed its graduate program due to low student and faculty numbers during World War II.

MU’s Black legacy

The Legion of Black Collegians was established in 1968 to give African-American students a voice in student government. Only 19 years after accepting the first black students did MU hire its first African American professor, Arvarh Strickland.

Part of Strickland’s legacy was the establishment of one of the country’s first Black Studies minor programs. Today, the department has branched into its own department including both major and minor programs.

Some faculty from the Black Studies Department are members of the Black History Month Committee, the group responsible for organizing the Black History Month events throughout February.

The committee, chaired by black studies professor Wilma King, works throughout the year to draft a diverse calendar of events that celebrate black culture and achievements. The committee includes faculty, staff and student members from departments and organizations across campus and isn’t directly related to the black studies department.

Some events are sponsored by schools and departments within the university while others are the result of partnerships with student and community organizations.

’We Are Somebody’

A large component of the committee’s job is to develop a theme that fits with MU.

This year’s theme, “We Are Somebody: Reclaiming Human and Civil Rights,” was inspired by a 1973 film titled Wattstax. The documentary recounts the story of a group of African-American artists who came together to remember the Watts Riots in Los Angeles.

Stephanie Shonekan, associate professor of ethnomusicology and black studies who is serving her fourth year on the committee, said the theme comes from a popular mantra of the riots: “I am somebody.”

“It was a way of reasserting our value,” she said. “(It’s) the idea that black identity is valuable and as equal as anybody else.”

The MU theme also serves as a reminder that the month doesn’t focus exclusively on African American history, committee member Niki Stanley said.

“The national theme (A Century of Black Life, History and Culture) is very U.S.-centered, and we customized ours because there are many people on campus who study issues that are international issues or issues in other areas of the African diaspora,” she said.

Shonekan said the committee wanted it to be a little more expansive.

“We always try … to acknowledge the experience of being black not only in the United States, but everywhere in the world,” Shonekan said.

The Black History Month Committee started with a core of events and called out to local businesses and organizations for suggestions. Students were able to apply for funding to support new ideas.

“It’s a chance to express how far we’ve come and how far we have yet to go,” Shonekan said.

A relevant history

For Tabor, honoring civil rights activists like Marcus Garvey and Handcox feels particularly relevant today.

“A lot of stuff went down in 2014,” she said. “That is very disappointing, to say the least.”

The junior loosely compared her experiences to the 1960s Civil Rights Movement.

“I can never compare what those people went through (to now but) it’s definitely heartbreaking to be a black person in America and see these sorts of things kind of happening still,” Tabor said.

Shonekan said she hopes students will come together for positive discussion.

“Every film, every lecture, every piece that’s on that calendar is … an opportunity to evaluate not only the society around us, but also our place in that society and to really think about what needs to be done,” she said.

She highlighted the facilitated discussions hosted throughout the month as a positive space to address contemporary issues.

“(After) the tragedies that happened in 2014, I think that this idea is particularly important for the community to think about these issues of race and identity,” Shonekan said.

Head agreed that open discussion is a vital step in making the MU campus a more welcoming place but that for success, diversity is key.

“That’s ultimately what’s going to be what makes Mizzou an inclusive campus, is everybody reaching across the aisle, stepping out of your own comfort zone to learn something about somebody else,” he said.

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