Discovering black history on Locust Walk

Seminar delves into the African-American experience at Penn

· February 24, 2014, 7:05 pm   ·  Updated February 25, 2014, 1:30 am

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One class at Penn celebrates Black History Month every month.

An undergraduate course entitled “The History of Women and Men of African Descent at the University of Pennsylvania” seeks to educate students about scholars and black leaders who have shaped the University and the world. About 25 students attend the class in DuBois College House each Monday.

“You can take notes if you feel the need, but it’s very much just a conversation,” said College senior Tanisha Hospedale, a student in the course. “The location is symbolic in itself because of the history of Du Bois. The walls of Du Bois are almost like us being surrounded by our history.”

Du Bois College House was opened in 1972 in response to discrimination concerns raised by Penn’s black students.

Informally dubbed “Blacks at Penn” by students in the class, the course delves into the contemporary African-American experience, touching upon topics such as Greek life, athletics and classroom environments. The seminar is taught by its co-founders, University Chaplain Charles Howard and Makuu Director Brian Peterson, as well as Associate Director of Makuu Marlena Reese, all of whom seek to spark conversation about the African-American experience in a comfortable setting.

“It’s a profound experience to have not only the classmates look like you, but to have the professors look like you too and to have the subject matter you study look like you and resemble you,” Howard said.

Guest speakers both from Penn and beyond are common visitors to the class. Recent ones have included Vice Provost for University Life Valarie Swain-Cade McCoullum, Associate Vice Provost for Equity and Access William Gipson and head coach of the men’s basketball team Jerome Allen. One class text, a book entitled “Black Students in the Ivory Tower,” is Penn alumnus Wayne Glasker’s account of his and his peers’ experiences at Penn.

Students in the class also maintain a blog, which highlights prominent black leaders and thinkers. Started several years ago as a project for Black History Month, the blog seeks to archive valuable stories about the African impact at Penn and beyond.

Students and professors agree that the class is unlike any other at Penn.

“It’s a very typical seminar course, in that it is driven by insightful student dialogue. What differentiates it is the proximity; Du Bois College House, College Hall, Africana Studies, Onyx Senior Honor Society, Locust Walk are all elements still very much a part of the Penn experience today, and this course covers their historical context in some rich and moving ways,” Peterson said in an email.

The bonds forged within the mosaicked walls of the Du Bois multipurpose room extend beyond the hours of eleven to two every Monday. The students form a community, with alumni frequently sitting in to relive their own experience in the course and share their thoughts.

“We’re comfortable with crying in front of each other,” Hospedale said.

Students in the class are currently beginning work on a wide array of unique projects, ranging from blog writing to resurrecting a black newspaper. One project will examine the modern perception of black male athletes, demonstrating the breadth of topics examined in the course.

“Well, the black experience is broad,” Howard said.

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