Honoring Black History Month: Memorable Moments of the USA African-American Studies Program

Posted on February 26, 2019
Joy Washington

Dr. Kern Jackson is an assistant professor of English and the director of USA's African-American Studies Program.  data-lightbox='featured'
Dr. Kern Jackson is an assistant professor of English and the director of USA's African-American Studies Program.

In honor of Black History Month, the University of South Alabama remembers some of the memorable moments in the history of the African-American Studies Program in the College of Arts and Sciences. Information included in this list has been provided by Dr. Nathaniel Abston, adjunct faculty member in psychology who taught the first Afro-American Studies course as a graduate student and was the first African-American to graduate with a master’s degree in psychology at South; Dr. Jean McIver, retired professor emeritus of English and former director of the African-American Studies Program; and Dr. Kern Jackson, assistant professor of English and current director of African-American Studies.

Here are nine memorable moments in the history of South’s African-American Studies Program.

  • “The Black Experience” was considered the program’s flagship course, taught once a year. It was created in the early 1970s by instructors in the psychology department. There were several other Black Experience classes that were created in the history and geography departments. Abston was a graduate student at the time working in psychology.
  • In the early ’80s, the late Dr. Glenn Sebastian, professor emeritus of geography, assisted in teaching the Black Experience course that grew into a program for a minor in Afro-American Studies. Under the leadership of McIver, in 1985 the Afro-American Studies Program was housed in the English department in the College of Arts and Sciences.
  • In 1985, South Alabama partnered with the city of Prichard to create a workshop to educate the community on the history and culture of the west African country of Benin, the country of origin for the slaves illegally brought to Mobile on the Clotilda in 1860. The Benin president was welcomed to the Gulf Coast and visited Prichard and Mobile. This was the first of several special events directed by McIver as head of Afro-American Studies at South.
  • In 1990, Maya Angelou, the internationally acclaimed writer, poet, storyteller, singer, dancer, actress and civil rights activist, spoke at South Alabama in an evening program. The event was “Spend an Evening with Maya Angelou.” Angelou passed away in 2014 at the age of 86.
  • Dr. Kenneth Olden, who was the first African-American to become director of one of the National Institutes of Health institutes as director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the National Toxicology Program, spoke at USA in 2000 about “The Roles of Genes and the Environment in the Development of Diseases.” A few years later, Olden became the founding dean of the School of Public Health at the City University of New York.
  • In 2002, the renowned novelist, essayist, jazz historian and cultural critic Albert Murray was invited by McIver to speak at South Alabama. Murray discussed his semi-autobiographical novels, “The Spyglass Tree” and “Train Whistle Guitar.” Murray, a native of Nokomis in rural Escambia County, Ala., grew up in the Magazine Point community just north of Mobile. He died in Harlem in 2013 at the age of 97.
  • In 2003, Civil Rights pioneer Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth spoke at South Alabama about “Civil and Human Rights, Today and Tomorrow.” Shuttlesworth worked closely with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and organized a group of Birmingham’s African-American ministers. The group, the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights, launched a series of demonstrations and economic boycotts that led to the desegregation of Birmingham schools, stores and restaurants. Today, the Birmingham airport bears his name. He passed away in 2011 at the age of 89.
  • Nikki Giovanni, a world-renowned poet, writer, commentator, and activist, was invited by Jackson to speak at South Alabama’s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. birthday observance in 2007. Known as one of the most widely-read American poets, Giovanni was a pioneer in the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s. Through her writing, she has committed herself to fight for civil rights and equality. Giovanni today is a University Distinguished Professor at Virginia Tech, where she delivered a memorable chant-poem at a memorial for the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting victims.
  • Dr. Michael Eric Dyson, Georgetown University sociology professor, New York Times contributing opinion writer, and contributing editor of The New Republic, was invited by Jackson to speak at USA on “The Sweetness of Struggle” at the 2013 commemorative event of the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
  • In 2016, seven South Alabama students commemorated Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day by organizing and presenting an on-campus teach-in on the “Exploration of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality.” More than 40 students, faculty, staff and community members participated in the presentation-style forum that included breakout sessions and a wrap-up session.

Abston and Jackson noted the African-American Studies Program grew under the leadership of McIver. She said, “The purpose of the program has been and remains a way to expose the diversity and unity of the African-American culture as well as the similarities and differences among the cultures of Africa.”

Jackson is pleased the African-American Studies Program continues to grow with the additions of Dr. Laura Vrana, assistant professor of African-American literature and poetry, and Dr. Matthew Pettway, assistant professor of Spanish, specializing in Latin American literature and African-Cuban Studies.

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