Campus News

A legacy of resilience: The growth of African American Studies at Syracuse University

The growth of African American Studies at SU

Highlighting the student-led movement and other efforts that led to the development of Department of African American Studies in 1979.

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The Syracuse University Department of African American Studies in Sims Hall.

At Sims Hall at Syracuse University, Martin Luther King Jr. delivered a speech in 1965. In 1969, dedicated students fought to establish the Department of African American Studies (AAS).

This year is the 45th anniversary of the department’s fruition. Today, it functions as an interdisciplinary academic unit offering a B.A. in African American Studies, an M.A. degree in Pan-African Studies and a minor in African American Studies

The department’s hallways are adorned with history, from the achievements of black inventors and scientists to a timeline of the department’s past put together by professor Herbert G. Ruffin II.

In 1969, over 100 Black students and representatives from six Black student organizations led a peaceful protest in front of the university’s administration building. The Student African American Society had 10 demands, among them was improving the experience of the Black student on campus, establishing an African American studies department, annual funding from the university and a Black cultural center.

This pivotal protest led to the development of the African American studies program, the accredited Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library and the Community Folk Gallery (now the Community Folk Arts Center). By 1979, a decade after the protest, the African American studies program would be established a department in the College of Arts and Sciences. 

The decision to make African American studies into a department faced opposing views within faculty, creating complications after its start-up, Ruffin said.

“The big question, in the 1970s, was do we actually want to dedicate our careers to being in the Black studies department when we don’t know how this is going to work out, the value of it or how the academy looks at this,” Ruffin said. “What does it look like because you’re in a position of creating something out of nothing?”

Agyei Tyehimba, from the class of 1991, served as the Student African American Society president for two years, where he planned and led a myriad of protests throughout campus. The problems he described within the department in 1988 include disintegrating infrastructure, meager course catalogs and inadequate support and funding from the university. 

The activist said the Student African American Society pushed for change by following the appropriate procedures, including submitting letters to the Daily Orange and meeting with the chancellors and the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. They did this deliberately so that when their request was denied, the campus community would be aware of their efforts to educate and inform decision-makers.

“If you throw your hardest punch too early and don’t knock them out, you’re in trouble,” Tyehima said. “So what we did, we started small, we built up gradually.”

With the Student African American Society, Tyehima wrote a list of complaints about the university and how it mistreated and neglected the African American Studies department on posters hung around campus.

While the department’s condition languished, a $54 million Science & Tech Center was built across the street. The Student African American Society interrupted the ribbon-cutting ceremony in 1989. After their year-long activism, the student organization’s efforts would lead to “a physical overhaul of the African American Studies Department,” Tyehimba said. 

To improve the lack of new faculty hires, faculty postdoctoral positions and no teaching assistants, the 13-Point Document was created in 1989 with the help of faculty and students. The document includes specific arrangements for various departmental needs. These arrangements helped the department grow and strengthen faculty size. 

When Ruffin became department chair in 2016, he again noticed poor conditions in Sims Hall. 

“All of this was really dim-lit. It looked very dead,” Ruffin said. “I noticed we had couches with three legs on them, and I’m like, ‘This is a liability.” 

Today, the department’s hallways are lined with orange and blue graphics that share the story and answer questions about AAS.

Some two decades after his student activism helped build a new department, Tyehima revisited campus. 

“That was the first time I got to appreciate that,” Tyehimba said. “This is what our work accomplished. All that work, controversy and hard times, but this is what it produced.”