As the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s Department of Black Studies celebrates 50 years, there’s recognition this academic unit not only grew out of agitation, but is sustained by it.
In 1969 students delivered their demands for, among other things, Black history courses to the then-UNO president. Dissatisfied with his response, the protesters staged a sit-in. Police were called. The students taken into custody got dubbed the Omaha 54. A consortium of community organizations bailed them out. The group’s action, rooted in the civil rights movement and campus activism, compelled university officials to negotiate. After much wrangling, the interdisciplinary department launched in 1971.
Charting Our Path events commemorating UNO Black Studies are happening this year into 2022 as part of a university-wide equality initiative. The department’s history is being archived by UNO Libraries and showcased in a Criss Library exhibition. A touring exhibit with the Great Plains Black History Museum is slated next spring.
Omaha 54 members and family were feted at a July 28 UNO event. In the works are webinars that “define and defend the discipline of Black Stories” and focus on aspects of Black culture and history, said chair Dr. Cynthia Robinson. The road the department has taken to get here has personal meaning for the Omaha native and UNO grad, who chose the school for its Black Studies track 30 years ago. She became chair in 2015.
The mere fact Black Studies has existed at a predominantly white Midwestern university for half a century is historic in itself.
“This department of Black Studies is one of the oldest Black Studies in the country,” Robinson shared at the July 28 event. “And it is one of the only departments that is still a department.”
Black Studies has remained a department despite pressure from various segments, she said, to make it a program and fold it into Ethnic Studies. The embattled place it navigates at UNO is not unique, she said, “as the issue comes down to how Black Studies is viewed,” adding, “It just goes back to the value you place on Black and Blackness – there’s a connection there.” Too often, she said, “there’s an under-valuing of what Black is.”
“It’s undervaluing Africa, that’s really what it is. But if we’re being honest, we can’t talk about world history without talking about Black history.”
But the idea of making Black Studies part of a hodgepodge is unacceptable in her mind. “The Black experience is separate from any other experience. It’s all the way different.” Retaining department status means autonomy, something UNO Black Studies has been able to maintain.
Omaha 54 veteran Michael Maroney noted at the July 28 event, “Even though there’s been some challenges over the years, it is a testament not only to the university but to the faculty and staff being engaged that the department’s still around.”
Robinson said just as students, faculty and staff stood fast for Black Studies, “the community stood for the department – the community has always supported Black Studies.” Even though the unit “holds its own,” she said, “it’s a constant fight – and if we didn’t have that fight then we could have a stronger Black Studies department.”
She notes that historically advisers steer students away from Black Studies.
“It’s still being done, and of course that impacts how many students we get, that impacts our majors, that impacts our minors. I keep telling leadership at this university to put out there – ‘Don’t play around with Black Studies, and if you do there’s going to be a problem.’”
“The intrinsic value of Black Studies,” she said,” is that when you know your history, you know your greatness. That has been intentionally kept from Black people.”
“This is a valuable, viable discipline that changes how you look at the world,” she said. “If you take Black Studies, you’re going to get turned on” to African and African American achievements and to systemic forces that attempt to suppress or destroy those things.
Typical responses by students in class, she said, are, “Oh, my God, I didn’t know. I had no idea. Why wasn’t I taught this? Wait, you mean, that happened?’”
Friend of the department, Vickey Parks, said at the July 28 event, “The struggle continues to have Black contributions to civilization, to humanity and the dignity of our race (recognized).”
Robinson is sure she speaks for others when she says, “The most important thing the discipline of Black Studies did for me is to help me navigate institutional racism. You can’t lie to me about white supremacy. That right there is why the discipline of Black Studies is worth fighting for.”
Besides, it provides a fuller, truer reckoning than the watered down or skewed history students learn in school. “We don’t tell lies in Black Studies. We don’t teach hate in Black Studies.”
She agrees with chancellor Joanne Li, who said its introduction at UNO “paved the way” for other affinity academic units, such as the Goodrich Scholarship Program, the Office of Latino and Latin American Studies and Women’s Studies.
“Black Studies is that rising tide that lifts all boats,” Robinson said. “That’s what that is. When Black people get to go, everybody gets to go.”
Though there’s a long way to go, she said the department is “more stable and way more respected” than it has been in the past. “It’s a whole lot of things it should have been 20, 30 years ago.”
Some overdue changes have improved things. “We rewrote the major – made it more cohesive – and we changed from a bachelor of arts to a bachelor of science (degree). We’ve done a massive curriculum overhaul. We have been far more collaborative on campus.” The department is on pace to add a graduate degree.
Her recent predecessors struggled to win allies and build consensus, she believes, because they were outsiders. “They were not connected to the community like that. They were not from here. They were not graduates of UNO. You need to have your feet on the ground here for a while.”
High turnover in chairs and full-time faculty didn’t help matters.
As a tenured professor in the UNO College of Communication, Fine Arts and Media, Robinson has borrowed lessons from that award-winning unit and applied them to the Black Studies department.
She believes expressed support by current UNO leadership is “more authentic and real and what it should be.”
Despite progress, she said, “The (whole) university has yet to understand the importance of Black Studies.” Getting it the respect it deserves on campus, she said, is why she considers her position as chair “the most important thing I’ve even done in my entire life.”
More resources would solidify things, enhance offerings and propel the department to the national and international platform she envisions.
“Resources support the department in being able to keep good faculty and to increase our majors. My goal is academic excellence from the student, faculty, department perspective. Resources would help pay for adjuncts who have been the glue to hold the department together. Resources increase scholarship monies and our ability to host events.”
The Omaha 54’s legacy may live not only in an archive but in bronze if she finds support for commissioning a sculpture honoring them.