African American Studies trailblazers Smalls, Smith: ‘We need black studies’

Award-winning author, historian and literacy entrepreneur Irene Smalls of Harlem, New York, was one of two trailblazing figures of the 1960s Black Studies movement in higher education who emphasized the importance of black studies programs during a recent visit to Mississippi State University. During a Monday [Jan. 23] presentation in Colvard Student Union Bill R. Foster Ballroom, Smalls was joined by Natchez native Vernon Smith, a former journalism and radio-TV-film production student at San Francisco State University. Smith shared insight regarding his experience as a Black Student Union member and participant in the student-led strike that spurred the founding of the nation’s first Black Studies Department and School of Ethnic Studies. (Photo by Beth Wynn)

Contact: Sasha Steinberg

STARKVILLE, Miss.—Just as they did more than 40 years ago, two trailblazing figures of the 1960s Black Studies movement in higher education emphasized the importance of African American studies programs during their recent visit to Mississippi State University.

“Black studies programs are so important because they provide us a chance to break down, examine and recognize the implicit biases that we all have,” award-winning author, historian and literacy entrepreneur Irene Smalls told a packed crowd in Colvard Student Union’s Bill R. Foster Ballroom. She was joined by Vernon Smith, a former journalism and radio-TV-film production student and Black Student Union member at San Francisco State University.

“By looking at history, scholarship and actual accomplishments, we have the ability to make changes as people,” she added.

A native of Harlem, New York, Smalls holds a bachelor’s in black studies from Cornell University, as well as a master’s in business administration from New York University.

Smalls said that she experienced culture shock after arriving at Cornell, an environment that was drastically different from the fully-faceted New York neighborhood in which she grew up during the 1950s.

“In my classes, the predominant thinking of some of the professors was that black women are promiscuous and have low moral values,” Smalls recalled. “I went ‘Wait, you’re talking about me. You’re talking about my mother.’ Growing up in a community like Harlem that provided support and love, I knew they were talking about the women who made sure I had everything I needed. I was not going to take that.”

Smalls said she decided to enroll in an interesting-sounding myth, ritual and symbol class, which inspired her to challenge the definition of “normal” or “socially acceptable” behavior and advocate for change.

“There was an instance where we had a young, brilliant girl from the south Bronx who was having all of these confrontations with the administration, and they were saying she was crazy and they were going to put her out,” Smalls said.

“I was electrified by that class I took because one of the things the professor said was the function of religion, education and sociology was basically to take folks who were aggressive, original thinkers and mark them so they can be forced out of society and the status quo can be maintained.”

Smalls went on to initiate and direct the first sit-ins and demonstration that led to the takeover of Cornell’s Student Union, Willard Straight Hall. She also became a founding member and first president of Cornell’s Black Alumni Association and its Wari House residence for undergraduate women of color.

“We needed the right to be ourselves,” Smalls said of her fellow black female students. “We needed the right to press our hair if we felt like it, play our music and hear the kinds of cultural aspects that reinforce our psyche and our souls, so I came up with the idea of Wari House, which is still on Cornell’s campus 40 years later.”

Smalls also has penned 15 books for black children and twice has performed her stories by invitation at the White House. Her interest in writing children’s books, she said, developed out of a fascination with the origins of racism.

“Babies see color. It doesn’t mean anything, though,” Smalls said. “I wondered, ‘Where do the attributes of good and bad, inferior and superior begin? I think that’s where racism comes from. We teach it to every generation of children.”

Smalls said while “the killing starts in kindergarten, the healing and helping is at Mississippi State University with your black studies program.”

“We need black studies to continue and flourish for all of our futures and for the country’s well-being because it’s only when we really understand who we really are as a people that we can grow and develop into who we need to be as a people,” she emphasized.

Smith’s presentation “On Strike Shut It Down: The 1960s Call for Black Studies” highlighted his years at San Francisco State University (SFSU), including his role as a participant in the school’s Black Student Union. Joined by thousands of black and white students, the group spearheaded a five-month-long strike, the longest student-led strike in U.S. history that spurred the founding of the nation’s first Black Studies Department and School of Ethnic Studies.

“For many of us (student activists), this period of our lives was one of excitement and exhilaration, a sense of the possibilities not even evident just a few years earlier when merely calling an individual ‘black’ could lead to confrontation,” the Natchez native said.

Years before the SFSU strike, Smith said the negative sense of self that young black people felt everywhere was reinforced by culture. Things suddenly changed, he said, and the catalyst for that change was African-American Muslim minister and human rights activist Malcolm Little, commonly known as Malcolm X.

Additionally, Smith said the outpouring of civil rights leaders all over the country in response to the 1966 shooting of “March Against Fear” participant James Meredith was influential.

“It was during that march that (civil rights activist) Stokely Carmichael first uttered the words ‘black power,’” Smith recalled. “This had a sharp cathartic effect among young black people across the country, especially at San Francisco State, where they began to happily embrace this new positive identity.”

Smith said the slogan “black is beautiful” became a nationwide mantra and inspired Black Student Union (BSU) members to encourage other students, especially first-generation ones, to pursue a college education.

“We started recruiting and suddenly, we had an influx of young black students,” Smith said. “They were eager to learn more about history in the context of the contributions of black people, but we really didn’t have a structured way to do it.”

In an effort to answer the demand and need for black studies at SFSU, Smith said he and other BSU members began to piece together a curriculum that could benefit the awareness of all students, including African Americans. They sought out such experts as renowned writers Sonia Sanchez and Amiri Baraka, who began teaching classes at SFSU in fall of 1967.

“Negotiations with the administration over whether there was going to be an autonomous black studies department went on for most of a year until it reached a stalemate,” Smith said. “The administration was not ready to grant it and we were not ready to back down, so we called for the strike.”

After a five-month-long strike in which more than 700 students were arrested, Smith said BSU members came to the bargaining table and the administration agreed to institute what became the first black studies department on a major college campus.

Following that, the administration agreed to what became the first and only School of Ethnic Studies in the U.S.

Smith said charges later were dropped for all of the students who had been arrested because they had the right to free assembly.

“I’m really proud to have been involved in that (movement) because when I look at the landscape of America today, I see the value in imparting this knowledge to whomsoever will,” he said. “I think it makes us better people to know the full picture of our history because when you have knowledge that is real and all encompassing, you reduce stereotypes and bring people closer together.”

Part of the College of Arts and Sciences, MSU’s African American Studies program offers courses leading to a minor in African American Studies. For more, visit

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