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Africana Studies at UAlbany: Celebrating 40 Years of Academic Excellence, Creating Opportunities 

September 22, 2009

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A classroom photo taken in the early days of Africana studies.

The initiative to create a program in Afro-American Studies came from students. (Photo, courtesy of Geoffrey Williams, University Libraries) 

The University at Albany's Department of Africana Studies celebrates its 40th anniversary in 2009 with a proud legacy and strong alumni ties.

Its alumni include professors and lawyers, a special agent for the FBI, the head of the Brooklyn Public Library, a member of the New York State Board of Regents, and the New York State Deputy Comptroller.

Among the department’s other points of pride are its recent ranking as No. 1 in the nation in graduate degree conferrals and No. 10 on the undergraduate level. The department reaches around the globe to attract students from as far away as Africa, Croatia, and Russia, said Marcia Sutherland, associate professor and chair.

The program’s history and successes are being highlighted at an anniversary celebration and alumni reunion Sept. 24-26 at UAlbany. The celebration features Grammy Award-winning jazz trumpeter Wallace Roney on Friday, Sept. 25, and Frank Pogue Jr. as keynote speaker on Saturday, Sept. 26. Pogue chaired the department from 1973-1983 and was UAlbany's vice president for Student Affairs from 1983-1986. He is president emeritus of Chicago State University and Edinboro University of Pennsylvania.

Looking back to the program’s creation, the lens of history paints a picture of a much different University campus, where social activism dealt with the Vietnam War, the fight for civil rights and the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy.

Members of UAlbany’s Black Student Alliance helped see through the expansion in fall 1968 of the university’s college opportunities program (COP) from a handful of undergraduates the previous year to 134 minority students. (The program was renamed the Educational Opportunities Program, and celebrated its 40th anniversary last year). 

In November of that same year, BSA students went to UAlbany administrators, hoping to garner support for an African American history course which could be taken by all students – not just upperclassmen with the required prerequisites. When there appeared to be no action, a handful of students, in January 1969, took their case directly to then-President Evan Revere Collins.

At the time, President Collins was preparing for his final semester of the institution he had led for 20 years. When Collins began his tenure in 1949, the University was still the New York State College for Teachers with some 1,800 students. Now UAlbany was home to 10,000 students on Edward Durell Stone’s newly-designed uptown campus, and the voices of civil activism and engagement filled the academic podium. For the BSA, a glance around the podium revealed a significant lack of diversity on campus, and they set out to change the campus culture at UAlbany.

On Friday, January 10th, members of the BSA met with Collins. “At that meeting it became apparent for the first time to the students and to me that the course had not been submitted through the usual channels – that the department head hadn’t seen it, that it had not been to the curriculum committee, and so on,” said Collins in an address before the University Senate on January 20th. “The students were upset; I believe they were justifiably upset. This looked to them like a breach of faith, and it was easy for this group of students to feel that the breach of faith was deliberate.”

The following Monday, BSA leaders presented a formal list of requirements to Collins, while more than 100 other supporters rallied outside the University’s administration building. What started out as a peaceful yet provocative demonstration – students had apparently chained the doors to the administration building insisting their voices be heard -- ended with the forging of an agreement between Collins and the group. Not only would Collins present their case to the University Senate for the course, but he would seek the creation of a Department of Afro-American Studies by the fall of 1969, as well as expansion of the Educational Opportunities Program to provide 300 disadvantaged students with the chance to earn a degree from the university.

"After much discussion, the students emerged with a written response to create the department,” recalled Joseph Bowman, Jr., B.A. ’72, who had a double major in Afro-American studies and sociology. “We were nervous, probably scared, but determined to get the quality education that all students deserved." Bowman went on to earn a doctorate from Columbia University, and currently serves as an associate professor in the School of Education, and as a member of the NYS Board of Regents.

Seth Spellman, later named a Distinguished Service Professor, served as the first interim chair of the department. Nathan Wright was the first permanent chair. The department was renamed African and Afro-American Studies in 1974, and evolved into the Africana Studies department in 1990.  The department was the first in the SUNY system to offer a master’s degree in Africana Studies.

Frank Pogue Jr. with students during an earlier visit to the UAlbany campus.

The keynote speaker is Frank Pogue Jr., who chaired the department for a decade. Pogue, now president emeritus of Chicago State University and Edinboro University of Pennsylvania, is shown on an earlier visit to UAlbany. (Photo Mark Schmidt) 

Today the faculty roster includes Collins Fellows Allen Ballard and Leonard A. Slade, Jr., while Kwadwo Sarfoh won the Chancellor's Award for Excellence in Academic Service this year.

Slade, professor of Africana Studies and Academic Citizen Laureate and former department chair said, "Our department is family. We love one another, we nurture one another, we value intellectualism, and we are accessible to our students to teach them in our offices, as well as in the classroom."

Lynn Gilmore Canton, B.A. '71, Deputy Comptroller, responsible for NYS government accountability, was among the founding students.

"The degree was an important foundation for my academic future and career," said Canton. "It came at a confusing time in life and helped me to learn what I wasn't taught in school about myself and community and provided roots."

Ron Simmons, B.A. '72, and M.A. (African history) '78, was not thinking about careers when he chose to major in Afro-American Studies.

"Black history was the only thing that interested me at that time," said Simmons, who earned a doctorate and taught at Howard University. Today he is a national leader in AIDS education.

"My attitude then was that life was too short to waste on studying something you didn't love. The possibility of being drafted to Vietnam was real and life was not guaranteed," he said.

Omoye Cooper, B.A. '72, founded the Burundi African Dancers and Drummers at UAlbany. She switched out of a major where she was the only student of color in the room.

"After taking my first class in African American history with Professor [Bassey] Edoho, I knew I had found my perfect niche," said Cooper, director of the Division of Equal Opportunity Development for the New York State Department of Labor.

Tracy-ann Suleiman, M.A. 1995, who worked for the Smithsonian Institution for several years, credits Sarfoh with pushing her to strive for that elusive "A."

"Dr. Sarfoh is a second father to me," said Suleiman. "In fact he has become a part of my family, and my children consider him a grandfather." Sarfoh inspired her to go to Ghana, where she met her husband. "It was Dr. Sarfoh who met my husband-to-be at the time before any other members of my family, and reported back to my parents his opinion of him. His opinion quieted my family's concerns."

Dina Refki, interim director of the Center for Women in Government and Civil Society is an alumna (M.A. '88), as is Dionne Mack-Harvin (M.A. '95), executive director of the Brooklyn Public Library. Mack-Harvin said her professors taught her to "think critically, creatively, and globally."  Her mentor, Dr. Sutherland, taught her life lessons that "have given me the confidence to stand tall and take risks, especially in my career as a library executive."

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