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According toFreida High Wasikhongo Tesfagiorgis MFA’71, the Department of Afro-American Studies is an entity “born of struggle.” High would know: she helped to guide it into fruition. And she’s now the Evjue-Bascom Professor Emerita of African and African American Art History and Visual Culture in the Departments of Afro-American Studies, Gender and Women’s Studies, and Art. The department was the first of 13 demands posed by organizers of the Black Student Strike in February 1969. They called for an “autonomous Black Studies department controlled and organized by black [sic] students and faculty, which would enable students to receive a B.A. in Black Studies.” By April of that year, Chancellor Edwin Young PhD’50 had assembled a steering committee chaired by Nolan Penn, a professor in the psychiatry department, comprising students and faculty who would spend the next several months drafting a proposal for the new department. According to High — who served as one of two graduate students on the committee in 1969 — they emphasized the importance of establishing a degree-granting, Afro-American studies department rather than a program. Departments can hire their own faculty and grant or deny tenure; programs do not enjoy the same independence. “[It was about] the necessity to make ourselves visible, to make our knowledge visible, and to get credit for it,” High says. The proposal was approved in November 1969, and the Department of Afro-American Studies held its first courses in the fall of 1970. Since 1978, the department has awarded more than 500 bachelor’s degrees, 150 master’s degrees, 57 doctoral minors, and 69 certificates. Graduates have gone on to work in fields such as medicine, law, education, community organizing, and art — just few of the many futures afforded by a department whose own future was made possible by dedication, determination, and a belief in a better university for all students.

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