On Thursday, April 6, from 6-7:30 p.m. in room 204 of the Curry Building, UNCG’s Women’s and Gender Studies and African American and African Diaspora Studies department held the third portion of the Black Minds Matter workshop, Origins.
Facilitated by UNCG sophomore, Lucia Sedda, and UNCG Alum, Femi Shittu, the goal of the event, as the WGS website statement reads, was to discuss, “The inherent inaccessibility to The University experienced by non-white people… how access to certain resources are structurally and socially controlled,” as well as, “honor the people who built UNCG and the first black woman to attend as well as the first man once UNCG turned co-ed.”
The event began with making historical mention to the lives and legacies of black people throughout UNCG’s history. Shittu opened with a lecture on the first two African-American women to attend UNCG, JoAnne Smart and Bettye Tillman in 1956, and the first African-American man, Larry McAdoo, in 1964.
“The two [Bettye Tillman and JoAnne Smart] graduated in 1960, and specifically JoAnn Smart, went on later to serve as a member of UNCG’s Board of Trustees. And so Larry McAdoo was an honors student and also a legislator representative for the town student association while at UNCG. Upon receiving his BA in Economics and Business Administration, McAdoo went on to attend Indiana University to receive an MBA and was one of 38 students chosen for a fellowship in Business Management,” said Shittu.
Shittu continued with highlighting the legacies of Odessa Patrick and Ezekiel Robinson.
“Odessa Patrick, a black woman, received her BS in Biology from North Carolina A&T University in 1956. In 1969, she received her MA in Biology from UNCG. In 1958, she was hired as a lab technician at Woman’s College. In her position as lab technician, Patrick was the first African American academic staff member at Woman’s College/UNCG. She continued as a lab technician from 1958-1969, when she became in instructor in the Biology Department; Patrick taught Principles of Biology, Invertebrate Physiology Lab, Invertebrate Zoology Lab and Mammalian Anatomy, she was also vigorously involved in the campus community, serving as an academic advisor, faculty advisor, laboratory coordinator, graduate advisor for the Omicron Alpha chapter of Delta Theta Sigma Sorority and Treasurer of the black faculty staff association.
The last person that I want to uplift and put in the air who was a very prominent and important person in the origins of this university is Zeke, Ezekiel Robinson. And so, when the doors opened at the State Normal and Industrial School, now UNCG, on October 5, 1892, President Charles Duncan McIver had 15 well-qualified faculty members and nearly 200 young female students. While cooks, janitors, handymen and others worked behind the scenes to keep the school running, McIver felt that he needed a single individual the facilities and support staff on the growing campus. He called upon Ezekiel Robinson, an African-American man, who had worked for McIver during his time teaching at Peace Institute in Raleigh. Robinson arrived mere weeks after the campus opening, and basically became supervisor of all the workers,” said Shittu.
Sedda and Shittu then transitioned to Elwood Robinson’s TED Talk, “The History and Importance of the HBCU experience.” The take away from the TED Talk, Shittu said, was that while HBCU’s have worked to push university education towards a system of social justice, there is still work to be done and issues of accessibility that need to be addressed.
As it relates to the university experience for non-white students and inaccessibility, Shittu moved into an activity meant to highlight the ways systematic forms of oppression contribute to this inaccessibility at UNCG and universities broadly.
On the right side of the room in Curry was a chalkboard in which Shittu drew five columns which read: “Racism, Homophobia/Transphobia, Classism, Xenophobia/Islamophobia and ableism” underneath the header, labelled: “Academia.”
Event attendants were then told to fill in the chart with either their first-hand experiences with these oppressions or how they have witnessed the way these oppressions manifest for others in the university system.
After participants filled in the chart, Shittu opened a dialogue with attendants regarding how these oppressions have interacted with university accessibility for them on a personal level. One of the topic discussed, was the difficulty in which poor and impoverished university students have accessing textbooks and classroom materials, and how this disproportionately affects black and brown students.
Many of the topics discussed on the chart intersected and touched upon stories which were personally painful for activity participants. While there was a relatively small group of students who gathered at the event, the intensity of these problems remain, and the event ended on the note that the university system has a lot to change in order to circumvent these issues of inaccessibility, particularly for its black and brown students.