February 27, 2009

C.U. Panel Explores African-American History

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“We tend to forget those who came before us, those who created the legacy of black students here at Cornell,” said Ernie Jolly ‘09, historian for Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Incorporated, the first intercollegiate African-American fraternity in the country, which was founded at Cornell in 1906. “We deem it our responsibility to carry on that legacy.”
Last night, Alpha Phi Alpha hosted a panel discussion entitled “Part and Apart: Early Black Cornellians,” in honor of Black History Month. The panel featured Prof. Robert L. Harris, Jr., National Historian of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity; Prof. Carol Kammen, Cornell University historian; and Jessica Harris grad. The discussion was moderated by Eric Acree, director of the John Henrik Clarke Africana Library.
Jolly emphasized the importance of celebrating not only black history, but also the unique history of black Cornellians.
Kammen began the discussion with a reflection of the struggles faced by black students at Cornell in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Despite the racially charged climate at the time of Cornell’s founding, Kammen emphasized that the young University’s motto of “Any person … any study” made it uniquely welcoming. The earliest black students at Cornell, Kammen noted, were enrolled as early as the 1870s.
According to University Archivist Elaine Engst, Charles Chauveau Cook came to Cornell in 1886 with his cousin, Jane Datcher. Both students were among the earliest black Cornellians and graduated with bachelor’s degrees in 1890.
Jessica Harris spoke about the situation of black college students in the early 20th century and their role in organizing and creating social networks on campus. She also focused on the circumstances surrounding black female students and their struggle for equality in university systems.
“The university clubs and organizations created by black students were critical means of support, meeting not only the social needs but also the direct personal needs of African Americans,” she said.
Jessica Harris noted in particular that housing and employment networks established within these university organizations helped black students across all campuses.
Kammen’s overview of black student attendance at Cornell prefaced his examination of the establishment of Alpha Phi Alpha. Tracing the evolution of black student organizing on campus, Kammen began with the founding of the fraternity in 1904 and followed it to the opening of a Cornell National Association for the Advancement of Colored People chapter in 1915, and the eventual creation of a Booker T. Washington Club in 1936.
Robert Harris examined the circumstances that culminated in the creation of the fraternity, which had initially been a social study club that aimed to help black students remain at Cornell. He also cited the advent of the Niagara Movement — a civil rights organization founded one year prior to the birth of Alpha Phi Alpha — as a key influence on the organizing of black Cornellians.
A question and answer session was held following the discussion.
Prof. Margaret Washington, history, considered the panel discussion a productive gathering.
“All of us [in the audience] certainly learned a lot, not only about the fraternity and its founding, but certainly also about the circumstances behind it,” she said. “Despite what it was like at the time, Cornell emphasized its openness to any person — regardless of gender or race.”