Allegedly, in honor of the first day of Black History Month, a member of the newly elected administration tweeted an acknowledgement about Abraham Lincoln’s decision to submit the 13th Amendment, thus ending slavery. While there are many historical inaccuracies within this particular elected official’s attempt to pander black support, this tweet teaches us the importance of writing our own narratives.
Just last week, Black Student Alliance celebrated the opening of our new space in the Busch Student Center. Quickly, some went to thank members of the SLU administration. While I understand this move and appreciate the funding provided by university officials, we must not forget our history. BSA once had a space in the BSC, where the current Student Government Association office is, but was moved, along with other cultural organizations, to a closet in the Center for Global Citizenship. Only through years of resistance and an occupation of the University, did we regain our space.
Similarly, some this Black History Month may be quick to call out the name of Father Heithaus, whom the university presents as the integrator of SLU, but how many know the names of the black students who demanded to be educated on Saint Louis University’s campus in 1944? I would venture to guess very few because we have been conditioned to remember the names of white men with vague feelings of compassion towards black people, but we do not bother to learn the names and stories of those who actually experienced discrimination at the hands of our university.
As we celebrate Black History Month, we must understand that Occupy SLU was not the first time the campus was occupied. In 1969, The Association of Black Collegiates, which would later become BSA, occupied President Reinert’s office demanding a Black Studies department and many of the same demands we would later see during the 2014 occupation.
As we acknowledge our university’s checkered past, we must resist the urge to first credit the University for any progress black folks have made. The establishment of BSA, the addition of seats on SGA for BSA senators, the space we now have and the black house we used to have, all came from the dedicated resistance and efforts of young black scholars simply looking to get an education and feel supported by our university. We must not forget the names of Brittany Kendrick, Alisha Sonnier, Henry Schmandt, Felicia Stevens Alexander, Shirley Smith, Monica Frazer, Romona Taylor-Williams, Jonathan Pulphus, Etefia Umana, Stefan Bradley, Talal Ahmad and many other black students and community members who changed the fabric of this university.
This Black History Month we must acknowledge that black people first appeared on Saint Louis University’s campus as enslaved people and still are overwhelmingly represented in food services and janitorial services. We thank Miss Mae, Miss D in the CGC Café and Calvin in Fusz, and we must ask why black students are still asking for fair pay of these individuals, rectification of questionable firing practices like that in the case of former worker Steve Wong and better representation of black people on this campus as a whole. This Black History Month we must question how a SLU student can complete their entire undergraduate career and never read a black author. We must ask these questions and many more this Black History Month, and if we do not, we may end up believing fictional accounts of black history on SLU’s campus that position a non-existent white savior at the forefront. I am grateful for all who have helped me, for all who learn our true history on this campus. One such opportunity is the viewing of Etefia Umana’s keynote address, available on YouTube, from the Race, Faith, and Justice Conference. I hope, as we all pay homage to the sacrifices and achievements of black individuals this month, we lean into our discomfort and discover the black hidden figures of our history hiding in plain sight.