The history of the University of Georgia consists of enduring triumphs and continuing challenges. The history of black students, faculty and staff at the university is a living example of such triumphs. The courage, vision and commitment of individuals such as Charlayne Hunter, Hamilton Holmes, Mary Frances Early and numerous others is a testament to how challenges can be overcome.
Today, students, faculty, staff and alumni carry forward the legacy formed by these individuals by achieving excellence and building community.
“I remind students that people before them endured hardship and accomplished great things,” said Victor Wilson, vice president for student affairs.
Sharing his own experience as a UGA student in the late 1970s, Wilson said he was called a hateful term during his first week of classes.
“I called my mom and wanted to come home,” said Wilson. “She told me to stay and be unapologetically black.”
Wilson shares his mother’s lessons with current students and adds his own advice: be resilient and engage in the campus community.
The Division of Student Affairs is home to Multicultural Services and Programs. Several black affinity student organizations, including the UGA student chapter of the NAACP and the Black Theatrical Ensemble, are advised out of MSP.
“These student organizations carry their missions forward in terms of bringing forth their culture and their unique perspectives on the University of Georgia campus,” said Wilson.
The mission of UGA’s NAACP chapter is to eliminate race-based discrimination and promote political, educational, economic and social equality for all people, said Kaela Yamini, the organization’s current president.
“Black history empowers me more than it motivates me,” said Yamini. “It reminds me why I do what I do, why I joined the NAACP, why I have so much love for my people and my culture.”
Yamini said her leadership role as president of the UGA NAACP showed her the power of her voice.
“Most recently, we have been trying to look beyond the scope of our organization and partner with those who are seemingly opposite of us,” said Yamini.
She said one of the biggest and most successful programs was a debate-like discussion with another student group about gun policy.
“A powerful moment was standing in front of a room and seeing both sides of an issue come together respectfully to talk,” said Yamini. “It brought tears to my eyes because it turned out way better than what I could have ever imagined.”
Michelle Cook, vice provost for diversity and inclusion and strategic university initiatives and the chief diversity officer, explained how students from all different backgrounds and organizations are bridging ideologies to engage in conversation.
Cook said that even when students agree to disagree about issues, they are actively working to engage with others in the community.
“It is a complex community of varying ideas, but they are reaching across the aisle to talk,” said Cook. “Students stand on the shoulders of the incredible people before them, and it is great to see their work today.”
National Pan-Hellenic Council
The National Pan-Hellenic Council, advised out of Greek Life, is the governing body of historically black sororities and fraternities. The NPHC also exhibits a strong sense of community.
“NPHC organizations have historically produced some of our greatest leaders, such as Dr. King and W.E.B. Du Bois,” said Montrez Greene, assistant director and advisor to UGA NPHC and the Multicultural Greek Council. “This is still happening today.”
Greene described the leadership of UGA’s NPHC organizations in the way they join together to solve community issues.
“We have leaders across many different student organizations on campus, which energizes members when they come together,” said Greene. “I encourage them to find solutions to issues they want to address.”
A major focus of many NPHC organizations is registering members of the UGA and Athens communities to vote, he said.
By working together, UGA NPHC organizations strategically ensure they are maximizing their service to the community.
“When we needed a large number of volunteers to unload food trucks for the food bank, the organizations came together to get the job done,” said Greene. “You impact more people by working together, and I am proud of the way our members use the resources around them to accomplish goals that better the community.”
Black Theatrical Ensemble
The Black Theatrical Ensemble, founded at UGA in 1976 and advised out of MSP, preserves the legacy of Afro-centric theater and offers perspectives on the black experience to the community through the arts.
“BTE was founded when black people did not have the opportunity to be a part of theatrical shows, so they used it as an outlet for expression,” said Kimarah Laurent, president of BTE.
Today, students in the group come from all backgrounds to step into characters developed by black playwrights to both experience and promote cultural enrichment, she said.
When Laurent first became involved in BTE, she applied to be the treasurer. Soon after she applied, she was asked to be the president instead. After accepting the role, she researched BTE’s history at UGA.
“I found a letter from the founder written for BTE’s 30th anniversary,” she said.
The letter detailed the founder’s personal experiences in the group along with how the first performance was held in the UGA Chapel with only a $500 budget.
Laurent said she became president when many of the involved students graduated that December, leaving her with few members for spring semester. The letter served as encouragement for her to push forward.
“I was on the verge of thinking BTE was going to fizzle out from low membership, and I could not let that happen,” said Laurent.
She encouraged her two closest friends and another dedicated member to join the board, and together, they learned the ins-and-outs of theater production because none of them was a theater major at the time.
“I wanted to uphold the history and continue to produce high quality shows,” she said. “BTE is known for nothing less than perfection, and we had to make do with what we had to carry the history forward.”
She partnered with a local theater to produce the fall 2017 show, For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf. To advertise the show, she spoke at local churches and ran radio advertisements.
While not the main focus of the show, the production touched on HIV issues. After the show, audience members were offered free HIV testing.
The show was a huge success, and it connected BTE back to the community, she said.
“My life changed as we brought voices to life,” said Laurent. “I realized how important it is to bring expression to the community.”
As part of Black History Month this year, the group hosted the Chris James play Dear Black People, which they saw in Atlanta last year, on Feb. 1 at the Chapel.
“We like doing things full circle, so now we are bringing this play to campus,” Laurent said.
BTE hosted its first black playwright festival, AMPLIFY, last April. Laurent said the idea for the festival came from a non-black colleague involved in BTE.
“It is not only black people wanting to give black people voices,” said Laurent.
AMPLIFY will return this April with a series of lectures, workshops and on-stage readings.
In the classroom
The opportunities available through student organizations and alumni open avenues for growth. This growth also happens in the classroom for both students and university employees.
The Institute for African American Studies provides students with disciplinary perspectives from which to examine black America, said Diane Batts Morrow, associate professor in the history department of the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences.
“I hope to expose students to important examples of the substantial scholarship constituting the discipline of African American history,” said Morrow.
Educating students about the racial past of the U.S. helps forge a more equitable present and future for racial justice, explained Morrow.
Faculty and staff members have access to diversity education through the Certificate in Diversity and Inclusion, a free program offered by the Office of Institutional Diversity.
“The purpose is to equip faculty and staff at the university with resources and knowledge to further goals of inclusion at work,” said Cook.
The courses are taught by university members volunteering their time and knowledge to share with others, said Cook.
“The course instructors are not paid consultants coming in to give a program and leave; they are part of the culture here,” Cook said. “If a participant has a question later on in the year, they will be able to reach their instructor locally.”
More than 1,400 faculty and staff have taken at least one of the courses, and participants have come from positions across campus.
“From financial aid staff to police officers, these courses bring all different parts of campus together to further inclusion goals,” said Cook.
Black Alumni Affinity Group
The Black Alumni Affinity Group, led by their Leadership Council, sponsors community gatherings and fosters support for the university community as a whole.
“It is important to continue the legacy of Holmes and Hunter, who were the catalysts in integrating the university, along with Mary Frances Early, the first African American to graduate from the university, laying the groundwork for black scholarship at UGA,” said T.J. Snowden, UGA BALC president.
After groups met informally for a number of years, the Alumni Association created affinity groups, like UGA Black Alumni, to facilitate and support initiatives meaningful to them.
“Having an affinity group in an official capacity shows a commitment to diversity by the administration and how important it is for everybody to have a seat at the table,” said Snowden.
He said these efforts provided a space for students and alumni to express positive experiences and areas of concern to improve the student experience.
Cook said recent graduates actively connect with older alumni.
“We want them to understand that they are not forgotten,” said Cook. “We recognize that they may have had difficult experiences, but we are reaping the benefits of that process.”
BALC members focus on recruiting, retaining and engaging black students, faculty, staff and alumni, while also inspiring a philanthropic commitment to the university through fundraising and service.
On Jan. 9, 2018, they founded The 1961 Club. Named for the year of desegregation at the University of Georgia, The 1961 Club is a special group of donors who share a passion for ensuring undergraduate student success. Members support the Black Alumni Scholarship Fund with a gift of $19.61, $196.10, or $1,961 to remove barriers to education and keep the doors open for students to attain a quality education.
“We work to create an environment where students of color want to matriculate to the university and have opportunities that were not available less than 60 years ago,” Snowden said.
He emphasized the importance of sharing personal experiences regarding campus involvement when recruiting future applicants. Each year, the UGA Black Alumni Affinity Group hosts the Minority Admitted Students Reception to celebrate undergraduate students who have been accepted to the university.
“Alumni attend the event and engage with the newly admitted students,” he said. “They network, give advice and share how to navigate the university space.”
Snowden said service and financial support are central to BALC’s mission. One of the ways in which BALC members serve students in economic crisis by participating in the Office of Institutional Diversity Cares program, which provides toiletries for students.
“By making toiletry bags, they engage in an issue that does not have a race or ethnicity, and they step up for the community as a whole,” said Cook.
As a former UGA financial aid counselor, Snowden said financial insecurity in students is something about which he is passionate.
Snowden knows first-hand that the financial aid application process can be complicated, so he meets with students at alumni events to explain how it works.
“Our gatherings with students are important because we can offer advice navigating the onboarding and matriculation process even if we graduated a number of years ago,” he said. “This type of networking could even open up a job or internship opportunity.”
On the social front, more than
2,000 alumni supporters and friends of the university gather at the annual Homecoming Tailgate hosted by the UGA Black Alumni Group on Myers Quad.
“It is an open space for people to come enjoy and exercise our social networks,” said Snowden.
These goals are part of the vision to continue building strong community at the university.
“Community building is an ongoing process because there is no end point,” said Cook.
The core constituency changes every year as students matriculate and graduate, making it important to be adaptable, she said.
“We strive to be ready for whatever the students bring in to maximize their experience here,” said Cook. “We aim to stay engaged in dialogue with our students, faculty, staff and alumni— we will not rest on our laurels.”