Celebrations around most parts of the country revolve around the same figures–Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks–year after year. However, WSU students and faculty believe there is more to the African-American culture and experience than is being shown.
JaLisa Lee, president of WSU’s Black Scholars United, is from South Salt Lake, but has lived in Florida and Virginia.
In Florida, Lee said Black History Month was filled with marches, celebration and parties; in Virginia, the entire month was filled with events, and schools made it a point to remember African Americans that rarely were highlighted.
According to Time, Carter G. Woodson set the foundation for what would become Black History Month. In 1915, Woodson and Jesse E. Moorland founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, an organization promoting the study of black history and celebration of accomplishments within the African-American community.
In Utah, events are scarce, according to Lee, and it is up to diversity clubs to put in the effort to host these events.
“I don’t think [WSU] is doing enough. We don’t really talk about black history,” Lee said. “I feel like more can be done here to make sure that the African American students feel involved.”
African American students make up less than two percent of Weber State’s student body in the 2019 school year, according to WSU Institutional Research Reports and Publications.
WSU Chief Diversity Officer Adrienne Andrews said the institution is doing a lot for Black History Month, but can always do more. Andrews believes more can be done for not just African Americans, but all minority groups.
Dr. Forrest Crawford, professor and early member of BSU, graduated from then Weber State College and has worked at WSU since 1977. He believes the institution is doing what it can.
“I think Weber State has done a pretty good job of providing the necessary resources that allow students to celebrate their heritage,” Crawford said.
When African American students host events during Black History Month, they are doing so to educate the campus, Crawford said. Non-African American students might not have another opportunity in their community to interact or learn about different cultures.
In 1972, Crawford was attending Northeastern Oklahoma Junior College when his coach was offered a job at Weber State College. Crawford was asked to join the Weber football team.
Crawford’s first thought when receiving the offer was, “Ain’t no black people in Ogden, Utah.”
Crawford said his sentiments came from not knowing enough about Utah at the time. He now believes Utah has a “small, but very rich black community.”
When Utahans see Lee, she thinks they see someone exotic. She attributes this to her belief that Utah is not diverse. Lee said Utahans do not take the time to learn about other’s experiences and backgrounds.
Andrews grew up in Davis county. She has a Bachelors of Arts and Masters in political science and women’s studies. She is currently working towards another degree.
Andrews said she grew up in an environment where she saw bias and prejudice solely based on a person’s skin color. Education was not something Andrews could opt out of in her household.
“My parents did not say ‘will you go to college?’; it’s ‘which college will you go to?’ It’s not ‘will you get a graduate degree?’; it’s ‘what will your graduate degree be in?’,” Andrews said. “Because the data tells us a minority person with a lot of education can still make less than a Caucasian with a high school degree.”
Lee does not feel represented in WSU. Stepping into classrooms, Lee does not see professors who look like her. Crawford is hopeful that WSU will expand its searches to hire diverse faculty and staff, but admits the institution has not been successful.
“I don’t think we’ve done a good job of recruiting African-American teachers,” Crawford said. “I still think we have some challenges to overcome there. We’ve hired very few tenure-tracked African-American faculty.”
While the football team consists of students she identifies with, Lee does not see the same representation given to “regular students” as she sees with football players.
“I only feel represented in my club, but not a lot of students know about Black Scholars,” Lee said. “The club helps me represent my culture.”
Lee said she often has to act a part and feels like a representative for the African-American culture, especially in certain classes when Black History Month, slavery or race is brought up.
Once, a fellow classmate asked the professor why “people get hot when they wear black, but black people don’t get hot when they’re exposed to the sun?” Lee referred to the instance as ignorance due to lack of proper education.
Lee is put in the position of speaking up for an entire community, a task she feels uncomfortable with.
“My experience from being an African-American living in Utah is not the same experience as someone living in Texas,” Lee said. “But I do feel as if I’m seen as the mouthpiece, especially because I’m the president of Black Scholars.”
Despite a lack in events, WSU students and faculty will celebrate overlooked members of history throughout February.
Lee looks up to the Black Panther Party. Having met party co-founders Robert Seale and Angela Davis, Lee said she admired that this group of people knew their actions would come with consequences, but they acted regardless.
Andrews celebrates trailblazers like Sojourner Truth and W.E.B. Du Bois and personal heroes in her life like Crawford–a longtime family friend–and family members like her grandfather James Gillespie Sr.
Crawford thinks the WSU community should know about figures like Congresswoman Barbara Jordan, Shirley Chisholm and Cornel West.
Jordan was the first African-American congresswoman from the deep south and the first woman elected to the Texas Senate, according to History.
Crawford campaigned for Chisholm when he was in junior college. Chisholm was the first African American to run for a major political party’s nomination for President of the United States, according to the Smithsonian.
West, who came to WSU in 2018, is a scholar of religion, philosophy and African-American studies, according to PBS.
With an exhaustive list of African American leaders and scholars, Crawford believes there is room to celebrate their achievements.
“I believe that there is critical mass now of African-American leaders and scholars who I think we should highlight,” Crawford said. “We should never forget our historical past of those men and women who contributed.”