Forty-Five years ago social activists on the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s campus convinced the university it needed a black studies department.
Fifty-four students had a sit-in on Nov. 10, 1969 at the UNO president’s office to protest the lack of opportunities for black students on campus, according to “Coloring History, A Long, Hard Road for UNO Black Studies” by Leo Adam Biga.
UNO only had one black history course, and students demanded that a full program be developed.
Police stopped the sit-in and told protesters to leave. The protesters
responded by singing “We Shall Overcome” and raising their fists as they walked away.
Protesters were afraid the sit-in failed. However, a few weeks after the sit-in, student-faculty committees were formed to discuss the prospects of developing the department, which was created during the 1971-72 school year.
Now, the department has become solidified in the community, according to Assistant Professor of Black Studies Jennifer Harbour.
Harbour said the basic goal of the department is to teach the black diaspora. All people originated in Africa, so it is one of the most extensive fields of history.
“It’s the history of humanity,” Harbour said. “It makes you a better human being to study other people because it makes you empathize with their situations.”
Harbour said students in the black studies department develop excellent critical thinking skills because the topics and issues taught in black studies are complex.
“We teach these topics to make them better thinkers and better citizens of the world,” Harbour said.
Cynthia Robinson, the chair of the black studies department, started at UNO as a student. She double majored in black studies and communication as an undergraduate. Black studies inspired Robinson to continue learning.
“The discipline of black studies inspired me to continue my education,” Robinson said. “I was amazed by what I didn’t know. I couldn’t understand why the things I was learning in black studies weren’t taught to me in history class.”
Robinson said black students who major or minor in black studies get intrinsic value from the program because they learn what contributions their ancestors made to the world.
Students also expand their worldview and are motivated to continue their education. Many of Robinson’s classes focus on teaching race and how it functions in society.
“We live in a world that devalues black life,” Robinson said. “Learning black history helped me hold my head up high in trying to navigate institutional racism, even on campus. I graduated not just with my degree, but an understanding of the world.”
Robinson said black studies is not just for black students. She explained white students are just as shocked as black students when they hear about the treatment of black people throughout history. Students are shocked to hear about black contributions to society that they were not taught in history class.
“We need white people to talk to white people about racism. We need white people to be in that struggle,” Robinson said. “That’s how we get rid of institutional racism. If black people really knew black history, we would respect each other more. If white people really knew black history, they would respect black people more. That’s what I want the department of black studies to be.”