WVU's Center for Black Culture and Research celebrates 25 years of progress this Martin Luther King Jr. Day
At a downtown two-story house in the winter of 1990, a group of people gathered to celebrate a long-awaited moment.
It was a sign that for WVU, this change was permanent. For years, individuals had worked behind the scenes to create a supportive network for black students, the most prominent minority at a predominantly white university.
The main characters of these events were part of a chain reaction that continues to this day.
This year, the center is celebrating 25 years—a point between its establishment in E. Moore Hall in 1987 and the dedication of the Spruce Street facility in 1990. The WVU community is celebrating the milestone with the Martin Luther King Jr. Breakfast at 8 a.m. in the Mountainlair Ballrooms on Jan. 20. A display of photos and mementos from the past and present will be on display in the Mountainlair Mountaineer Room. A Silver Anniversary Gala will follow that evening at 7 p.m., also in the Mountainlair Ballrooms.
Students also have an opportunity to serve the state by taking a bus trip to Charleston, as part of a Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service hosted by the Division of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and the Center for Service and Learning. Those who wish to participate can sign up here.
At the center’s dedication ceremony in 1990, West Virginia’s first African-American justice Franklin D. Cleckley called that day’s festivities “the single most important event that’s happened to black students and faculty in this university’s history,” according to the recently published history Aspiring to Greatness: West Virginia University since World War II.
When Cleckley began his university career on the College of Law faculty in 1969, WVU’s black community would have fit in his office, he said then.
Today more than 1,000 black students on the main campus alone call WVU home, and the University has made the creation of a more diverse and inclusive campus a top priority as part of the 2020 Strategic Plan for the Future.
This year is one of celebration, said Marjorie Fuller, the center’s director since 2008. It’s also a year of honoring a succession of efforts that have markedly shaped the campus of West Virginia’s flagship university for the better.
When Neil Bucklew became president of WVU in 1986, the University had already undergone significant change in the area of affirmative action. Over the previous years, plans were put in place to better serve minority populations and supportive groups such as the Council for Women’s Concerns had formed.
Mary Jane Hitt, special assistant to several WVU presidents including Bucklew, said a center for black students was seriously discussed under Interim President Diane Reinhard’s tenure. Bucklew made the decision to go forward with establishing the center and led the move to create a unified University effort toward social justice. Hitt later became the University’s executive officer for social justice.
For Hitt and Bucklew, emphasis on inclusion was morally right, she said.
“Every single person who pays a tuition dollar is entitled to the very best we can offer and every faculty member who makes a decision to come to WVU is owed the same opportunity for professional success,” Hitt said. “I always saw the Center for Black Culture and Research in that context.”
Bucklew said the center was intended to be a place to support the black community at WVU. But it was more than that.
“It wasn’t just a place,” Bucklew said. “We wanted to create an activity. We wanted to create an entity that would each morning wake up to that task and that would have University endorsement and would be part of the University structure.”
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Bucklew pushed for diversity in a variety of contexts. In a move that was acceptable for the time, he created positions in departments for qualified women and black faculty. He also learned the importance of being flexible and sensitive to student needs. When students couldn’t find local hair stylists who had the expertise to work with black students, the University worked with local businesses to better meet these students’ needs.
And when black students came to Bucklew saying they lacked a welcoming social venue on the weekends, the University opened the Mountainlair Ballrooms until the early morning hours and brought in bands the students requested.
Out in front of the administration were people who had worked tirelessly to seek a more supportive campus for black residents.
None are as legendary as Horace and Geraldine Belmear. Mainstays who served a variety of roles at the university from counseling to recruitment to administration, they seemed to always have one goal in mind: to help students belong at WVU.
Both have since passed on, but those at WVU during their time here speak about them as larger than life.
Dana Brooks, now dean of the College of Physical Activity and Sport Sciences, says the couple used an athletic recruitment model as they went to homes throughout the country and assured parents that their children would find a home at WVU.
“I think we can do more to pay tribute to the Belmears as pioneers and leading the black community during a time when you really needed their leadership,” Brooks said.
There were others, of course, who joined them in their mission. Cleckley of the law faculty led the task force that planned the center. Before that Brooks, administrators that included George Taylor, and student Patrice Harris investigated how other centers in the country were organized.
Bucklew said he vividly remembers Horace Belmear entering his office with notebooks filled with photos as he described his recruiting process.
“Horace went to meet the parents and talked to them about what was happening on the campus and pledged to them that their son or daughter was going to have a support system, and the Belmears were going to be part of that,” Bucklew said. “That is so personal.”
He said he and the center’s current director, Fuller, discussed this approach and while recruiting has changed, that is still the same message and the same facts.
In 2011 at the end of a summer program designed for incoming black freshman called Academic STARS, one mother, Tamara Smith of Michigan said she felt better after meeting the people at WVU who would support her son.
“One of the mentors told me, he said, ‘Mom, don’t worry, I’m going to take care of Marlon,” Smith said. “Do you know how rewarding that is for another kid to say, ‘We’re going to take care of your baby?’
“I’m very confident, and I’m so confident because not only is it just him and the University, it’s him with a whole bunch of other friendships—with a family.”
Fuller brought STARS with her from Kent State University when she took the job as director. She also added a spring research study trip that brought students to areas around the country where they could explore their cultural history.
She said the center serves as a resource to help students remain on track academically, provides research support on the African-American experience for faculty and students, and houses artifacts from African and African-American culture.
While the center assists admissions in recruiting students, its primary focus is retaining those students by acting as a support hub and advocating on their behalf. That’s accomplished through programs like STARS, regular gatherings and events as well as relationship building.
“Our goal is to get them here, yes, but if we can’t keep them here, and if we can’t matriculate them to graduation, then we have failed,” she said.
While college students across the nation don’t complete college for many reasons, she doesn’t want a sense of isolation or abandonment to be the reason students leave WVU.
“We do try to make sure that they are comfortable here socially, that they are not alone, that they feel they have a community that they can depend upon,” Fuller said. “They do not have to be black in order to find that community through us. Building understanding between cultures is also very important to us and we do a lot of collaborative programming with other offices.”
As soon as they were accepted they were continually informed about ways they could be involved in the center and in life on campus. He credits Fuller with doing “phenomenal” work at the center especially in terms of bringing STARS, focusing on retention and creating a welcoming atmosphere. He wants to see the center’s work continue in that direction.
“The legacy that the center has in terms of its mission, I think, needs to be maintained,” Gray said. “As you talk about diversity on a college campus, it really is there not only for African-American students but students of color as well and really for all students.”
Langston Bryant, a master’s student in the Industrial Relations/Human Resources program, came to WVU from Towson University sight unseen. Spending a lot of his youth in Silver Springs, Md., he’d been used to an urban environment where most people around him were strangers.
He hasn’t officially had a relationship with the center; he spends most of his time working within his program. But he’s still an embodiment of what the center and WVU want to achieve. He’s now the president of the Industrial Relations Student Association and last year traveled with Bucklew—one of his professors—to visit Towson, Morgan State University and the University of Baltimore to recruit students into his program.
He didn’t explicitly mention diversity in his recruitment talks but instead talked about his experience at WVU.
“I just said that the community here is just really family-like and really welcoming and just a fun place to be,” he said.
Twenty-five years or so ago
The center’s programs and strategies have changed over the years, but each step paved the path to long-term change at WVU.
Fred Hord, the center’s first permanent director—who will be the keynote speaker at the Jan. 20 Martin Luther King Jr. Day breakfast—worked at the center’s original location in E. Moore Hall in 1987. He began the annual Kwanzaa celebration, and with the help of the University’s administration and black leaders he was able to start planning events that invited speakers and added to the social and academic life of the campus. He also had a successful partnership with the libraries to make black studies information more accessible.
Had he not moved to Illinois to care for his father who was ill, Hord would have founded the Association for Black Culture Centers at WVU and not Knox College where he now works.
About that time the center started a black studies certificate program, now known as Africana Studies, and later for a time the center hosted the “The Afrocentric scholar: The Journal of the National Council for Black Studies.”
“The best part about it was, one, the support that I got from the top and, two, as I learned from the students and they became involved,” Hord said.
Patrice Harris was an undergraduate at WVU starting in 1978 and graduated with her medical degree in 1992. Now a WVU Distinguished Alumnus nationally recognized for her expertise in child psychiatry, Harris was involved with a psychology study performed at WVU called “Black, White and Blue” that examined the experience of blacks at a predominantly white university.
Focus groups were created and eventually the study led to the Personal Academic Support Service or PASSkey mentoring program that served African-American students. Progress from that analysis to the center’s formation was gradual and not easy, she said.
The University’s emphasis on inclusion, in part by establishing the center, showed her that WVU understood the important issues facing minorities there.
Harris said she would rank the importance of establishing the center, on a scale of one to 10, as a 10. A native of Bluefield, W.Va., said she loves her state and her alma mater and they are both made stronger by embracing diversity. She pointed to the prevailing wisdom gleaned from research studies that show this.
“Appreciation of diversity makes an organization stronger,” she said. “On the micro level, it is about supporting students so they can succeed at the University.”
In the bigger picture, the state and society as a whole benefits. That’s something another West Virginia native believes is absolutely crucial.
Bucklew, who grew up in Morgantown, recalls how vital he felt a multicultural experience would be to WVU’s current and future students.
“For many of the students who came from in-state at that time particularly, they did not have much experience with people who were black, disabled and international,” Bucklew said. “They’re better prepared for their lives and their careers when the University has provided them experiences that represent the diversity of our country and the diversity of this global economy that they’re going to be asked to function in.
“I also believe strongly that the University has a responsibility to be an example for the state in so many arenas. I think we needed to be a bellwether; we needed to be an example. It helped other organizations accept that responsibility to become more diverse—to be more open on a wide range of issues.
“I think it’s one of those challenges for the University. It’s made great progress but it really can’t let its hand off that throttle.”
By Diana Mazzella
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