Teaching Our History
THE DAY MARTIN LUTHER KING WAS ASSASSINATED was terrible for people all over the country. There was shock and mourning throughout the nation—including Minneapolis. Dr. King, who worked so hard to end violence, had died in such a violent manner and there was confusion everywhere. In North Minneapolis, tears were rampant and cries of “They killed our King, they killed our King” were heard throughout the community. Emotions were already high due to an incident during which police had attacked a young Black woman at the Aquatennial Parade several weeks before. I think Dr. King’s assassination sent the community over the edge. Unable to think of rational ways to express their grief, young people began throwing bricks and setting businesses on fire. The police and fire departments were unable to quell this disturbance and the National Guard was called in.
Chuck and I, with our daughters, rushed to Plymouth Avenue. Once there, we saw children in the streets who seemed lost and confused. We gathered them up and took them to The Way, where we knew they would be safe. Concerned about our safety, our friends discouraged our involvement. But community engagement was so ingrained in us that safety concerns were simply not an issue. Being of assistance in the effort to strengthen the North Side community far overrode those concerns.
The people I was involved with—my friends at The Way, as well as Mayor Naftalin and others who were deeply involved in civil rights—wanted very much to connect with people in the South. We wanted them to know that we here in Minnesota were mourning our tragic loss as much as people in the South and in the larger cities in the North. We began organizing community meetings, reflecting some of the same strategies and sharing outcomes with friends we knew in other communities who were outstanding, well-known activists. We shared what we had learned from strategists such as Anna Hedgeman, a Minnesotan who had helped to organize the March on Washington along with A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin. Her approach balanced extreme protest methods with more moderate approaches that could be then embraced to bring success.
Around the time of Dr. King’s assassination, Black students had been demanding better conditions at colleges and universities around the country, including at the University of Minnesota. U of M students reported that in addition to African American history being left out of the curriculum, they endured constant insults and other indignities that left them feeling like outcasts rather than legitimate students seeking education. They couldn’t live in dormitories, campus social life was closed to them, and there wasn’t anything in the curriculum that reflected their experience or our history. Dr. John Wright, a proud young scholar I knew well and a fourth-generation Minnesotan, was a student at the time. He became so frustrated that talented Black students elected to attend historically Black colleges and universities in the South rather than the University of Minnesota that in the mid-1960s he decided to take it upon himself to recruit students door to door in Minneapolis’s black neighborhoods. However, the university wasn’t offering any incentives for Blacks to enroll or pursue a degree, causing John to join with other students to form the Afro-American Action Committee in 1967.
The group drafted a list of demands and met with University President Malcolm Moos and other officials, but it didn’t take long for the students to feel that the talks weren’t going to go anywhere. They issued a twenty-four-hour deadline, and when the deadline passed with no response from university administration, on January 14, 1969, seven of the students walked into the student records office in Morrill Hall, the university’s administration building, and refused to leave.
That action caught the attention of both university officials and the community. I joined in with my dear friend Mahmoud El-Kati who had been a resource for the students and community to support those students’ efforts. Thankfully, President Moos took the students’ demands for African American courses seriously and made a conscious decision to create an environment of acceptance and support among university administrators, department chairs, faculty, and the Board of Regents. From this effort, a committee of African American educators developed the African American Studies Program in record time, and by the fall of 1969, course offerings were available to students. Vice President Paul Cashman and Assistant Vice President Fred E. Lukermann were particularly helpful in making this happen.
The history and struggle of major academic institutions accepting African American studies as both a curriculum and a department in the late 1960s and early 1970s met with mixed results. After Dr. King’s assassination there were protests by students on many campuses, including some historically Black colleges and universities, that included efforts toward the creation of such academic programs. For instance, students at Howard University held a sit-in and rally to protest the Vietnam War and ROTC recruitment, in addition to demanding an African American studies program. At the same time, members of the Afro-American Student Union at the University of California, Berkeley, proposed the creation of a four-year interdisciplinary degree program. Students at Berkeley submitted their proposal to the school’s chancellor, who then created a new administrative post and appointed the well-known Black sociologist Dr. Andrew Billingsley to assist the students in developing their plan. Their first courses were offered in 1970. I was also successful in getting the University of Minnesota to award academic credits to the inmates at Stillwater Prison for taking the courses we taught through The Way.
Like UC Berkeley, the University of Minnesota didn’t put up any barriers, and we were able to create a strong program that was accessible to our students. I was appointed to teach two courses, Black Families in White America and African Americans in the Welfare System. Having met Dr. Billingsley at an Urban League conference in 1968, and being very impressed with his work leading to his groundbreaking book Black Families in White America, I invited him to Minneapolis to help me develop the department’s Black Families curriculum. He graciously agreed.
It is important to note that we have a long history of courses taught in many colleges and universities on the history, culture, and politics of our people. Scholars such as W. E. B. Du Bois, Charles S. Johnson, John Hope Franklin, E. Franklin Frazier, Carter G. Woodson, Herbert Aptheker, C. L. R. James, Vincent Harding, Nathan Hare, Geneva Smitherman, and Melissa Harris-Perry were among those who created and refined systematic ways of studying and teaching African American contributions and experiences in America, such as the Black Arts Movement, Black Power movements, the identification of our heritage, as well as other ways of understanding and appreciating African culture and the experience of Africans in America. But the work of those scholars was not being taught widely in the 1960s and 1970s. Black students at the University of Minnesota demanded a role in both studying and offering that rich scholarship in the form of an academic discipline available to all students.
The African American Studies Department planners were very cognizant of the battle for Black and urban history to be taught both in the academy and in schools. Aware of the shifting back and forth of efforts to integrate, and to teach Black children their history as well as to have it included in higher education curricula, the idea of town versus gown became an important concept and objective as discussions among students, community activists, administrators, and academics developed around curriculum, scholarship, and the philosophy of the African American Studies Department at the University of Minnesota. Belief in the value of “bringing the town”—incorporating community experiences into the academy—had a strong following while the department was being organized. Scholars, activists, researchers, graduate students, and individuals from the broader community were encouraged to submit applications to teach in the department. Many of us engaged in the process had high hopes that this approach would produce scholars who would be knowledgeable about African American people. There needed to be acknowledgment by universities that African American studies was legitimate and parallel to any other department of study these institutions already supported.
We began a search for a department chair, and I was able to persuade Lillian Anthony, director of the Minneapolis Civil Rights Department, to serve as acting chair until we could hire a permanent person. In the meantime, we drafted the founding documents for the department. Mahmoud El-Kati was one of the founding participants in this development and believed strongly that the basis for the department should be driven by morality rather than politics; it was important, he felt, to search for a leader who was idealistic and selfless—a scholar who was committed to the education of our students rather than someone who was motivated by money or politics.
After the creation of the African American Studies Department in 1971, I was elected to the University of Minnesota’s Board of Regents, becoming the first Black person to hold this position. I was a candidate for one of the three at-large positions that were available at the time. I would learn from a newspaper announcement, however, that a lot of politicking took place in the committees during the selection process. Representative Martin Olav Sabo managed the process that led to my being elected.
Looking back, I am sure that my long-standing work with the DFL leadership along with my participation in political activities, discussions, and strategies made me a desirable candidate to become the first Black regent. I had worked with Senator Donald Fraser during the passage of Fair Housing legislation, and I knew Representative Sabo who ran for Fraser’s seat in the House of Representatives when he stepped down to run for his state senate position. Representative Robert (Bob) Latz and Senator John (Jack) Davies were also among the state senators that I knew.
I also knew State Senator and Lieutenant Governor Sandy Keith, who served under Governor Karl Rolvaag. Sandy decided to run against Governor Rolvaag as the DFL candidate for governor in 1966 and asked me to be on his team in some capacity. He suggested state auditor. Chuck and I shared a good laugh at that suggestion because, as Chuck pointed out, I had a hard enough time managing our family finances. Besides, we both agreed that our children were too young for me to consider the level of involvement it would take to serve on a governor’s cabinet.
I was honored to have been invited to sit on this august board, but it soon became apparent that there would be problems with the new chair of the African American Studies Department, with regard to my appointment. I had been a faculty member of the African American Studies Department since its inception and had resigned upon my election to the Board of Regents. During my first few months as a regent, I observed cronyism and other problems in the department. The chair was not hiring enough high-quality teachers to staff the department within the time frame required by the university and was not fulfilling the demands of the student protestors. We had worked so hard—and the students had sacrificed so much to get the department approved—that I felt an obligation to visit with the chair and express my concerns.
Following what I thought was a clarifying and honest conversation, the department chair wrote a letter to President Moos accusing me of interfering with the department and not resigning from the department correctly, suggesting that such action was causing budget problems. President Moos shared the chair’s letter with me and offered a resolution to the charges—for me to write my resignation letter from the department. I did, and it was dated and worded to dispute the chair’s allegations.
To the relief of those of us who designed the African American Studies Department, George King left the university in 1974 and was replaced by Dr. Geneva Southall, who had joined the department in 1970 as a professor of Black music studies. Also, as a music scholar she taught graduate courses in the Department of Music and wrote three books on Thomas “Blind Tom” Wiggins, the famed slave pianist and composer of the 1800s.
Two other scholars I want to recognize are Earl Craig, who taught political science in the department from 1970–72 and at the School of Public Affairs from 1972–1973; and, of course, I was thrilled when Dr. John S. Wright, who was one of the major forces in the student movement, began teaching in the department. He would later become chair of the department and a nationally recognized scholar among whose many accomplishments is principal scholar of the prestigious Archie Givens Sr. Collection of African American Literature that is housed at the University of Minnesota. The collection contains more than ten thousand books, magazines, and pamphlets by or about African Americans.
Because we were both new to the board, Regent Loanne Thrane and I became a traveling team, visiting the university’s campuses throughout the state to listen to students, faculty, and staff. I was particularly sensitive to the minority composition and population on each campus we visited. I was also very interested in knowing about all departments and special programs under the responsibility of the president and the Board of Regents, and I chose to serve on several committees during my tenure on the board: the Faculty, Staff, and Student Affairs Committee; the Health Sciences Committee; and the Budget and Executive committees.
The Faculty, Staff, and Student Affairs Committee oversaw personnel and programs involving faculty, staff, and students at the university. I thought that service on that committee would help me understand the university’s system relating to those units. I also chaired the Student Concerns Committee.
The Health Sciences Committee had supervision over the policies, programs, and planning in the health sciences. I was chair of that committee with the assistance of Paul H. Cashman, Vice President for Student Affairs, one of the men who had been so helpful in getting the African American Studies Department up and running. My service on that committee was during the early stages of the development of magnetic imaging (MRI) technology. My discussions centered on the wisdom of having that very expensive equipment in all hospitals, including the U of M hospital. I remember suggesting that the equipment could be shared with regional hospitals, saving money and sharing resources.
When I became a regent, the Morris campus was experimenting with an excellent recruitment program for Black students under the direction of Dr. William B. Steward, an MIT-trained electrical engineer. The program he led was patterned after a program established in Chicago that was very successful in recruiting, retaining, and graduating minority students. I continued to support his work and participated in many events on the Morris campus and was commencement speaker during one of the years that I was a regent.
Being the only African American on the Board of Regents was interesting. I learned quickly that my suggestions and observations were not immediately heard or acknowledged. However, if a white male member repeated what I had said, the words were heard. I have heard many other Blacks and women express that same sentiment in their professional experiences. Not only that, but the board was surprised that my interests were broader than only minority issues and concerns. I wanted to know about fish and wildlife, and I was interested in agriculture and all other fields of study, but the members seemed to only ask and listen when I talked about diversity issues. This was very disappointing—so much so that I began to question my communication skills. Later, when I went to the University of Massachusetts to complete my graduate studies, I took a course in communications skills and learned from my classmates that my skills were well developed. It wasn’t that I wasn’t communicating well with my colleagues on the Board of Regents: rather, I believe it was their inability or refusal to listen to an African American whose thinking was broader than what they were willing to accept.
However, that didn’t stop the progressive work I wanted to do. One of many things I remain very proud of is that during my tenure on the board we encouraged student engagement in regents’ meetings. Eventually, students were elected as student regents. In addition, meetings became more open to the public, and space for public observance of board meetings was enlarged.
My service on the Board of Regents ended in 1974 when Chuck was transferred to Denver. The board was disappointed that I was leaving, but before I left, the chair, Governor Elmer Andersen, and the board kindly honored me with regent emeritus status. My title became Emeritus/Emeriti Regent Josie R. Johnson, and I was given the full benefits of a completed six-year term. I was also encouraged to put forth names of individuals who might replace me. I submitted a few names, and the governor selected Wenda Moore.