Black History Month: A Kent State legacy

Students gather on campus to listen to university administration in 1970.

Lyric Aquino

How the nationally recognized celebration began on campus

Edmund Timothy Moore sat far up in the stands of his high school’s gymnasium, his body sweaty from the lack of circulation in the overcrowded room. Sounds of footsteps and hundreds of conversations boomed from every corner of the gymnasium, making it nearly impossible to hear himself think. Just a boy then, Moore was unaware he was going to be part of a group that made history, nor was he aware he would hold the memories of who he once thought was a random guest speaker close to his heart.

In an overcrowded gymnasium meant for only 700 people, nearly 1,000 gathered to hear the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. speak at Glenville High School on April 26, 1967. Parents, students, faculty and staff huddled together like canned sardines to bare witness to the man who led the civil rights movement. Looking back, Moore, a Kent State alumnus and emeritus professor, agreed King’s speech foreshadowed great changes he was going to see in his lifetime.

“He said, ‘We have the capacity for creative protests,’ and that is a key word because we can come up with new ways to protest creatively that won’t lead to any kind of violence but can bring about real change,” Moore said.

In 1969, Kent State, like most of the country, was in the midst of racial tensions. With the Vietnam War raging on, many members of the black community felt it was an attack on the poor— as well as the black community. As racial tensions were building, African-American students were able to find solace in the student organization— Black United Students or BUS. The organization had a designated house located near campus for black cultural programming called the Kuumba House. Students often found comfort within its walls during troubling times, a place where they didn’t have to worry about being black.

“It was a cultural center where we could just be ourselves, listen to music, and just hang out on a predominately white campus,” Moore said.

BUS’ goal was, and still is, to educate the public, as well as celebrate the rich culture of its black community while providing a space for black students to be themselves. One of the organization’s most notable achievements is the creation of Black History Month. From parties and  forums,to dance celebrations and cultural classes, the month-long celebration as we know it is owed to Kent State’s BUS members of 1969.                                                                                                                                           

Before Black History Month, there was Negro History Week. In 1926, Carter G. Woodson, journalist, scholar and the founder of the Association for the Study of African-American Life and History, initiated Negro History Week. It was strategically celebrated during the second week of February to mark the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass.

Although BUS took part in celebrating Negro History Week, the group strongly believed black history couldn’t and shouldn’t be contained to a single week. In February 1969, student leaders of the Black United Students (now alumni) Carl Gregory (Saiti Dihati) and Dwayne White (Brother Fargo/Ibrahim Al-khafiz), along with support from faculty from the Institute for African-American Affairs (later the Department of Pan-African Studies) and black community, suggested turning Negro History Week into a month-long celebration of black people and their culture. Now deceased, both members left a legacy not only for future BUS members or Kent State, but they left their mark on the world.

After proposing the extension of Negro History Week into a full month to Milton Wilson, the dean of student affairs at the time, BUS continued to celebrate the month without an official ruling. Students began celebrating on Jan 3.until Feb. 28. They held talks, parties, dinners and educational programs in honor of both Negro History Week and the proposal of Black History Month.

Moore, a freshman at the time, was unaware of the rapid changes happening throughout BUS and the development of Black History Month. While balancing classes for his graphic design degree and rushing his fraternity, Omega Psi Phi, Moore tried his best to be an active member of BUS. However, oftentimes he found himself missing out on events and new developments due to his other commitments. Although Moore was engaged in multiple activities and duties, he distinctly remembers a cultural shift within the black community when the idea for Black History Month arose.

“All of us were for the first time caught up in what they term as the black consciousness movement,” Moore said. “Because, when I grew up, people were calling themselves Negro and colored and now we were embracing the ‘black-is-beautiful’ concept.”

The following year, the first observation of the nationally known month celebrating the culture, history and contributions of African-Americans was held at Kent State. The Kent Stater reported in 1985 that Wilson said the University traditionally celebrated “Black History Week” until 1970, when Milton made Black History Month part of the official university calendar.

“Dr. Wilson was an administrator, Carl Gregory and Dwayne White were students,” Moore said. “All of them converged and pushed for this to happen and organized all of those phenomenal speakers that were part of that first program in 1970 throughout the entire month.”

Black History Month has become an integral part of the United States. Classrooms across the nation spend the month of February learning about black history and engaging with students about topics many seem to think go unnoticed. According to national records, six years later in 1976, President Ford recognized Black History Month during the United States Bicentennial.

In a dimly lit room in the lower level of Oscar Ritchie Hall, Dartalia Alati, a senior journalism major, pan-African studies minor and president of BUS, lit a single pink candle. It’s February 2019 and Black History Month is at its peak. She leaned back, clothing hanging loosely on her body and her styled hair framing her face, slightly swaying like flowers in the wind. With bright eyes and a wide smile, Alati reflected on Black History Month with fondness and pride.

“I might want to do my hair a little special, a little extra. I put a little pep in my step,” Alati said. “It’s a time to celebrate my culture, to be who I am.

Although Alati encourages BUS members and the black community to celebrate Black History Month, she also believes it’s a time to remember their history. It’s not a secret that the black population have faced countless trials, tribulations and horrors. Alati’s eyes glistened when she talked about her ancestors. Perhaps it was sorrow, or maybe it was an overwhelming sense of pride.

“We’re our ancestors’ wildest dreams,” Alati said. “We’re the descendants of the ones who made it.”

Lyric Aquino is the features editor. Contact her at [email protected].