February 26, 2009

Historians Celebrate Black Presence in Ithaca and NYC

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In celebration of Black History Month, Cornell faculty, students and administrators gathered at a panel discussion called “A Brief History of Black Education in America: Ithaca and beyond” yesterday to look back on the cultural impact of black education in America.
Moderated by Eric Acree, director of the John Henrik Clarke Africana Library, the discussion began with a reflection upon African American education in historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in the mid to early 19th century.
At that time, African Americans were restricted in their opportunities for higher learning. The HBCUs tried to fill the gap by providing “a rich set of educational programs,” said Ira Revels, senior associate librarian at Olin Library.
Revels, who is also the project manager of the HBCU Digital Collection at Cornell, enhanced her presentation with a display of images from the collection’s online archives.
21 HBCUs and Cornell University Library compiled the the HBCU Digital Collection together to enable the public to obtain access to primary resources about the history of African-American higher education.
Prof. N’Dri Assié-Lumumba, Africana studies, commented upon this collection: “This was a wonderful, informative program providing primary data through different mediums. Using these archives provides people, particularly students, a great opportunity for research.”
Revels presented a collection of historical photographs, which featured black students in their respective HBCUs. The photographs highlighted the commemoration of Black History Month.
While Revels mainly talked about higher education, Prof. Margaret Washington, history, largely focused on the struggles of African Americans in antebellum America in receiving any education.
“There’s not a lot on this [subject] in secondary literature. This is a story that is crying to be told,” Washington said.
With public education opportunities unavailable for African Americans during the 19th century, the only means of creating a school for blacks was through private funding, according to Washington. An example of such a school was the African Free School in New York City. Supported by the New York Manumission Society — comprised of all white and affluent members in favor of the abolitionist movement — the African Free School flourished.
The school produced prominent alumni, including James McCune Smith, Ira Aldridge and Theodore Wright.
The final presenter of the afternoon was Sean Eversley-Bradwell, assistant professor at the Center for the Study of Culture, Race and Ethnicity at Ithaca College. Eversley-Bradwell spoke of the topic of his dissertation research, which highlighted the history of black students in Ithaca and revealed how “race impacts and structures local communities.”
“Ithaca is known around the world as an educational center,” Eversley-Bradwell said.
With nearly 10 percent of each graduating class of Ithaca High School attending Cornell and approximately 30 percent attending Ivy League institutions, Ithaca High School is known to produce results, according to Eversley-Bradwell.
However, the minority representation in this trend of success in Ithaca was a topic of interest during this discussion. Eversley-Bradwell said that many researchers in his field had observed an “achievement gap” in the context of academic performance of African Americans, particularly in rural and urban areas.
Eversley-Bradwell, however, discredited the term “achievement gap” as “assumptive language.”
“It’s not that [African Americans] are not learning; they’re not being taught,” he said.
Some believed that African Americans have become underrepresented in the Ithaca community because they are discouraged by this “assumptive language.” But Eversley-Bradwell also said African Americans do have a presence in the Ithaca community. They are also a part of Ithaca High School history, having had a black student graduating in its first ever class.
Ben Ortiz, a coordinator of K through 12 Outreach at the Cornell Public Service Center and an attendee of the discussion, thought that the discussion helped to shatter some common misconceptions.
“Many assume that the African American community is not an integral part of Ithaca. This presentation shattered this myth,” he said.