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Celebrating 50 Years of African American & African Studies through Teach-ins

January 6, 2020

Portrait of Professor Rose Brewer.

Portrait of Professor Rose Brewer.
Photo by Gavin Schuster, CLAgency student

In 1969, 70 Black students staged a protest in Morrill Hall, the University of Minnesota’s administration building. For 24 hours, the students demanded an education that reflected who they were, full scholarships for Black students, and the hiring of Black faculty and staff.

The “Morrill Hall Takeover” led to the creation of the University’s Department of African American & African Studies (AAAS). This year, the department is celebrating its 50th anniversary with a year-long program of events, anchored by a series of teach-ins.

Why Teach-ins?

Each teach-in was a day of informal lectures and discussions meant to give students—who may not otherwise be exposed to the department—a sense of what African American & African Studies is about by exploring Black history and identity.

The idea of planning teach-ins was spearheaded by Rose Brewer, a Morse-Alumni Distinguished Teaching Professor, who has also received the African American Learning Resources Center Award for Teaching Excellence and numerous other awards, including her 1999 induction into the National Academy of Distinguished Teachers. Brewer explains that the teach-ins were planned around historical and contemporary issues relevant to the department and important to students and faculty across the University, as well as the broader community. While the teach-ins were free and open to the public, their primary audience was current and incoming students.

In addition to UMN students, the department invited high school students enrolled in College in the Schools classes through the AA&AS department to attend. “We want students to learn something. That's what the teach-ins are about: to share, to open up the minds, to ensure that as many students as possible get a taste of and access to the work we're doing,” Brewer explains.

Kicking Off AFRO 50

The department began its anniversary festivities in February with Teach-in 101: Understanding Our Legacy, Black Studies and Protest at the University of Minnesota and Beyond, featuring a keynote address from Dr. Horace Huntley (BA, ‘70), a retired University of Alabama professor, historian of African American Studies, and one of the student leaders of the Morrill Hall Takeover.

The day allowed students to explore the legacy of the takeover as well as the impact of Black studies and student activism on university and college campuses across the country. In his lecture, Huntley discussed the demands of the students who took part in the Morrill Hall Takeover. As he put it: “We demanded an education that prepared us in the development of skills that taught us how to think from a Black perspective, and to put that thought into action.”

Continuing the Celebration

AAAS hosted Teach-In 202: Critical Black Feminisms, Black Lives, Black Studies in Resistance in April and invited Dr. Barbara Ransby, a noted scholar, activist, and historian, to be the featured guest speaker. In her lecture, Ransby discussed the Black radical tradition, which is a commitment to deep social change in the US and globally for the liberation of Black people.

The third and final teach-in of the series was held in November. Teach-In 303: Deep Change in Black Studies: A Strategic Gathering kicked off with a new generation of students sharing their scholarship and research and closed with a community panel discussion about the trajectory of where the department and discipline of Black Studies is headed. “We wanted to close out with some visioning about what we're calling ‘Afro infinity,’ presuming that it will be an infinite presence on the campus,” Brewer explains. She believes building community connections with students and the departments over time is key as it was certainly the vision of the student activists during the Morrill Hall Takeover. “We need to talk about where we’ve been as well as where we’re going,” Brewer says. As AAAS embarks on its next 50 years, the department intends to honor its present and future possibilities with programs featuring current students, faculty, and community partners. 

The anniversary celebrations will officially come to a close with a gala in April. The ultimate goal for the gala is to fundraise for AA&AS student scholarships and engagement programming. These three funds include: the Rosemary Freeman Massey  fund, which is in honor of one of the leaders of the Morrill Hall Takeover and connects the AA&AS department to the larger community; the John S. Wright Scholarship for Study Abroad, which supports AA&AS majors and minors; and the John S. Wright Luminaries Fund in Africana Studies, which brings prominent writers, speakers, activists and scholars from the fields of African American and African studies to campus to deliver public lectures and engage with classrooms, student groups, and outside community members. The inaugural John S. Wright Luminaries lecture took place on November 14 with a talk by Dr. Christopher Lehman of St. Cloud State University, author of Slavery’s Reach: Southern Slaveholders in the North Star State. It was followed by a post-lecture roundtable discussion, which featured Professor Emeritus John S. Wright, along with other professors and historians from the University.

A Lasting Impact 

“The visionary students of the Morrill Hall Takeover knew that you're never going to really understand the nature of this country if you don't understand the complexity of all of the experiences that have shaped it,” says Brewer.

During the late 1960s, Black students across the country were engaged in struggles for relevant education. The Morrill Hall Takeover is one example of how Black students advocated for equal opportunities within education. The creation of Black and African studies on campuses throughout the US served the interests of students and continues to fulfill that purpose today.