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R-MC Black Studies Department Celebrates 20 Years

Emma White '22

News Editor

Dr. Alva Hughes (left), the former head of the Black Studies program, and Dr. Alphine Jefferson (right), the current head of the program. Photo courtesy of rmc.edu

This month, the Black Studies program at Randolph-Macon College is celebrating 20 years. In celebration, the college held two gatherings in mid-October that were open to the public. Faculty and students involved with the program are excited to acknowledge this achievement.

Black Studies is a multifaceted discipline, drawing upon art, history, literature, music, religion, psychology, and sociology to explore the stories of peoples of African descent and their interaction with other cultures throughout history. Because of the variety of knowledge the Black Studies minor offers, doors are opened to a wide range of professions.

Graduates with a degree in this area find jobs as diversity and inclusion coordinators, social workers, politicians, educators, and activists.

The first black studies program in the country was conceived by Professor Nathan Hare at San Francisco State University in 1968, near the end of the American civil rights movement. A prominent activist throughout his time teaching, Hare took part in a number of protests and rallies. At San Francisco State, he and his students participated in a five-month strike demanding the establishment of a Black Studies department at the university.

Hare’s wish was fulfilled, and he was appointed chairman of the newly founded department. The concept of this type of department began to spread, and in 1971, the first Black Studies program in the American south was founded by Professor Delores Aldridge at Emory University. Aldridge was the first African-American faculty member at the university, and currently has an excellence award named in her honor.

The creation of the Black Studies minor at R-MC was a response to the needs of the student body during the late 1990s and early 2000s. The number of African American students was much lower then, and they struggled to find a voice on campus. The minor was designed to fit the needs of individual students, with focuses on Africa, the Diaspora, and the African American experience, and gave the option to delve into other courses of their interest as well.

Dr. Alva Hughes, a current professor of psychology at R-MC and head of the Black Studies department when it began, finds it “hard to believe” that 20 years have already gone by. She added that “Black Studies as a discipline is important for many reasons. It can help African American students to find a place in the curriculum that feels relevant, and it can help students of other ethnicities understand and celebrate diversity.”

Dr. Alphine Jefferson, the current head of our Black Studies department, is also involved in many organizations in the Ashland area. His positions include president of the Hanover County Black Heritage Society and a member of the board of directors of both the Hanover Tavern Foundation and the Ashland Museum. Professor Jefferson is very excited about the department’s 20th anniversary, and thinks “this is a very enlightened student body. I am very happy to be teaching at a place like Randolph-Macon, where the student body is sensitive to the reality of the race, class, and gender dynamic, something we all need to understand in both an academic and personal way.”

R-MC currently only offers a minor in Black Studies, but Professor Jefferson has high hopes for the creation of a major soon. Jefferson has said he is “working on a major and plan[s] to submit the proposal to the curriculum committee before the end of the semester. If approved, the major will be in the catalog and start in the fall of 2020.” The minor is popular among students, with 23 current students in the program and 8 graduates from the class of 2019 who listed Black Studies on their degrees.

Individual classes within the program are popular as well. Professor Jefferson teaches Intro to Black Studies in the fall and spring and said that he has “25 students who sign up [each semester], and even more who want to be in the class.”

Jasmine Harrison, an R-MC senior and student in the Black Studies program believes that every student, including non-minors, should at least take a class in the field. Harrison feels that “it encourages people to learn how to have these discussions not focused on emotion, but focused more on understanding.

It gives us the opportunity to have discussions that, without these classes, we wouldn't be having, and all in a safe space.” Harrison plans to pursue a career in diversity training after graduation, stating “It is something I would love to do, and I feel like it is really necessary.”

The Black Studies Department has taken students on a variety of trips abroad to countries such as Brazil, Cuba, Guatemala, and Ghana, and almost 30 students will be traveling to Kenya during January term of 2020. These opportunities abroad offer insight into the domestic racial dynamic in the international sphere, where people often deal with the same circumstances we see here in the United States.

The 20th anniversary of the Black Studies program is a substantial achievement for the college, faculty, and students, especially since this discipline is an integral component of a well-rounded liberal arts education. We must all strive for a greater understanding of different cultures in order to strengthen the bonds between people and promote acceptance of the great diversity we see in our world.

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