Bettie Thompson ’71 had been corresponding with her soon-to-be Syracuse University roommate on a regular basis the summer before her freshman year at SU. It wasn’t until Thompson met her roommate, a fellow New Jersey native, in person that race became an issue.
“Her family walked into Walnut Cottage where we lived, and she said, “My God, you’re a nigger,’” Thompson said.
Acts of subtle and more obvious discrimination along with protests surrounding the Vietnam War and strong sentiments about the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. made things on campus particularly tense, Thompson said.
“Along with the Student Government Association, the Class of ’71 was a virtual thorn in the side of the University,” Thompson said. “We were the largest number of African American students to be brought onto campus at one time. We’d lead high profile demonstrations, interrupt classes, and distribute pamphlets to make our voices heard”
There were only150 black students in their entire sophomore class, but by the time Thompson and her colleagues graduated, they had helped to develop the academic program that would later become the African American Studies Department (AAS).
Joseph Clore ’74 remembers Latino and white students and faculty supporting black students in the fight for more recognition on campus, with one student organization I particular taking the lead.
“Student African American Society was the voice of black students on campus,” Clore said. “I can remember one protest turning into an all out riot on Marshall Street in September of 1970. We were a force to be reckoned with.”
Four decades later, the program has blossomed into an undergraduate and graduate department within the College of Arts and Sciences that includes a library, the Community Folk Art Center, and the Paul Robeson Performing Arts Center.
Dr. Kheli Willetts, assistant professor and executive director of the Community Folk Art Center, has witnessed the department’s growth first hand since her days as an undergraduate more than a decade ago.
“As much as African Americans really begin to understand their place in the African world diaspora, so have the courses,” she said. “It’s really a reflection of African diasporan culture—all the things that we find important.”
Student activism, on the other hand, has regressed, Willetts said.
“I can’t really figure it out,” she said. “It seems like this generation in particular needs something really dramatic to happen in order for people to rally around. And even then, it doesn’t seem sustainable.”
Besides a lack of interest from students, senior African American Studies major Durriyyah Rose said the department could also use more attention from the university in general.
“The staircase in Sims is horrible, only one student can walk up or down at a time,” Rose said. “I think the size of the staircase and the physical size of the department in general shows that its not as valued as other departments.”
Rose said its up to the students to restore the department to its glory days.
“I would like to see the department thriving,” she said. “I want to see the students taking a more active role and getting excited about taking AAS classes and what the AAS department has to offer.”