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SLU Creates African American Studies Department After Nearly 50 Years Of Student, Faculty Calls

St. Louis University's African American Studies program Spring 2019 graduates pose with faculty members during their capstone celebration.
St. Louis University African American Studies Program
St. Louis University's African American Studies program spring 2019 graduates pose with faculty members during their capstone celebration.

St. Louis University is transforming its African American Studies program into a full department this fall.

This change follows demands by students in October that SLU create a Black studies department, disarm campus police and pay maintenance, custodial and food service workers better. However, faculty and students have championed the effort since the program began in the early 1970s.

Higher education should value and recognize the African diaspora, said Christopher Tinson, incoming chair of SLU’s African American Studies department.

“I think right now it's even more important than perhaps it's ever been to just be exposed to and then be able to speak with confidence about African American experience in this country,” said Tinson, an associate professor of history.

SLU began offering courses in African American Studies in 1973 after a Black veterans student sit-in. The students demanded an academic program that reflected the Black experience. The program started as an institute, which offered a certificate program in which students could develop their own major. In 2010, African American Studies became a major.

“Any time we got support, resources, approval, I mean, anything from new furniture to a bigger space, that said to me, this is important,” said Karla Scott, former director of the program.

Scott, who headed the program in 2000-13 and 2016-18, said the transition to a department marks an important moment for the program, one that comes as many institutions are dismantling ethnic studies programs and departments.

Tinson has been making the case to create an African American Studies department since he became director of the program in 2018. However, he said the nationwide wave of protests last summer after a Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd accelerated the institution’s approval of the program’s department status.

The movement prompted university administrators to answer important questions: How do we talk to our Black constituents? What do they want from us? How can we be responsive to this moment?

Now that the program is a full department, it can hire and tenure faculty. It will implement graduate studies and study abroad programs. The department will introduce courses concerning Black women in the Midwest, Afrofuturism, the history of reparations and the anti-prison movement.

Tinson also envisions the department creating an African American Studies center where conferences could be held and students and faculty could conduct research.

Ryan Staples, a freshman political science and African American Studies major, is looking forward to taking new courses and interacting with faculty members within the new department. He picked African American Studies as a major last October because he felt he needed to know more about the Black plight in order to continue to fight for racial equity.

“The more I learn about African American studies, the better I am equipped to handle situations in the future, because as a leader on campus having knowledge is the first thing people will respect you for,” Staples said.

He helped create the list of demands for the administration to seek racial and economic equity for Black students, faculty and staff.

Staples, who is Black, said he has been searching for a community at the university and hopes the new department will create that for him and other Black students.

"I'm definitely excited about the department because it means more resources, so more community-sponsored events for people with minority-based ethnicities and identities,” Staples said.

Graduate student Ashlee Lambert spearheaded the students' protests last fall. She wanted to take up African American studies as a graduate program, but it was not offered. Although Lambert is completing a master’s degree in communication, she said she hopes the department becomes an incubator to develop students for careers with interest in Black studies.

“It opens up a lot more opportunities because now, since it's a department, there is more access to resources,” Lambert said. “And then it just kind of legitimizes it, even though to us it's already legitimate.”

Follow Andrea on Twitter: @drebjournalist

Andrea covers race, identity & culture at St. Louis Public Radio.