UW Afro-American Studies Department celebrates 40 years
Inspiration for Generations
By Jonathan Gramling
Part 1 of 2
It was Frederick Douglass, the great abolitionist agitator, who said, “If there is no
struggle, there is no progress.” In 1969, the Black students on the UW-Madison
campus went on strike demanding for the creation of an academic department
that focused on African Americans. Two years later, through the efforts of a
student-faculty steering committee, the Afro-American Studies Department was
Over the next 40 years, the department grew in size and became one of the most
successful Afro-American studies departments in the country. And it inspired
several generations of students on the UW-Madison campus to go on to greater
heights of leadership and excellence.
The direction of the lives of Candace McDowell (l) and
Jacqueline DeWalt were influenced by taking courses in the
Afro-American Studies Program.
On April 15-16, the department celebrated its 40 year anniversary by holding the symposium “Ancestors, Elders and the Next Generation: 40
Years of Afro-American Studies at UW-Madison. Through speeches and seminars, a myriad of people spoke about the department and the era
when it was founded.
During the department’s early years, a young community activist from Milwaukee — who had been kicked out of two of her high school history
classes for asking why Blacks were not represented in the history texts — was present on campus.
“This campus was punctuated by protest marches, sit-ins, walk-outs, bra-burnings, hippie flower-child love-ins, tear gas bombs, National Guard
and much, much more,” said Jacqueline DeWalt, now the director of the UW PEOPLE Program. “It was precisely within the midst of all of this
chaos, through the leadership and activism of Black students on this campus and throughout the nation that the Afro-Am Department was born.
We were all really, really excited.”
Although many of the texts that were used during the department’s early years had a negative point view of the Black condition, DeWalt found the
department’s offerings nourishing.
“The knowledge and academic support provided by the Afro-Am Department set me on the path of assisting the community in various ways
including working in the area of unemployment, health, affirmative action and I eventually became the director of the Afro-American Museum of
History and Culture in California,” DeWalt said.
Eventually DeWalt came back to the department when she was obtaining her master’s degree.
“I had the opportunity to see first hand just how far the Afro-Am Department had come,” DeWalt said. “I TA’d for Professor William Van DeBurg in
the introduction to Afro-American History class. I was taught by Dr. Ralston, Dr. Werner, and many, many more. And while I was always in
absolute awe of the genius that was Dr. Nellie McKay, there was one professor that took my knowledge to a whole different level and that was Dr.
Stanlie James. Stanlie illuminated Black history by teaching not only his history, but also her history. She engaged students in critical thinking
and dialogue regarding differences between feminism and womanism. And she was also instrumental in teaching and encouraging women to
take their rightful place as leaders. And as such, I subsequently had the opportunity to take what I had learned in Afro-Am about Black history and
culture and put it to good use as a TA in the educational policy studies department as well as the women’s studies department here on this
campus. My interactions with these great professors in Afro-Am also led me to a commitment to work once again on behalf of our youth.”
Another future leader whose life was impacted by the Afro-American Studies Department was Candace McDowell.
“As a second semester freshman on the Madison campus some 42 years ago, I did participate in the Black student strike that resulted in the
establishment of the Afro-American Studies Department,” McDowell said. “So I stand here very proudly celebrating the 40th year anniversary. As
an undergraduate, I did take a variety of Afro-American Studies courses that resulted in my receiving a bachelor’s of arts degree in Afro-American
Studies. Courses of this nature were not afforded in the high school in Milwaukee that I attended during that time. So the courses that I took here
at UW certainly did open up my mind and my eyes to the extraordinary history and background and culture of my people and especially prepared
me for my position as the director of the Multicultural Student Center.”
One of the demands of the Black student strikers was the establishment of a Black center where Black students could congregate and offer
mutual support. But as the Afro-American Studies Department was getting under way, the “Black House” was closed. It wasn’t until the 1980s that
the university saw once again that students of color needed their own niches on the predominantly Euro-American campus.
“There were several high-profile racial incidents that occurred that involved a number of fraternities on the campus,” McDowell said. “And as a
result of these concerns, then Chancellor Donna Shalala created the Madison Plan in February 1988, which included the creation of a
multicultural center on the campus. She assigned the then dean of students, Mary Rouse, with the charge of overseeing the establishment of the
center on the campus in 1988. Mary Rouse hired me at that time in the summer of 1988 to open the center in the fall of 1988. Initially, I only had a
small number of student staff and we were in a temporary location in the Memorial Union on the second floor until a permanent location could be
realized. So it took 10 years until a permanent location could be secured. And we then moved into the Red Gym. Over the years, our staffing did
increase to what it is now to about seven permanent staff, 10 student organizations and 10 student staff who work with the center.
“The staff and I over the years were able to develop some strategic partnerships across the campus, providing staff support, in-kind support,
financial support and co-sponsorship of a number of programs across the campus, certainly including in those that we coordinated with, the Afro-
American Studies Department. Throughout the years, the center became a comfort zone, a home away from home, for students of color on this
predominantly White campus. Throughout my career, I did amass a wealth of experience and knowledge in the areas of multiculturalism, higher
education administration, student affairs and social justice education. And my time working at the MSC was very rewarding and satisfying as I
had the opportunity to meet, interact with and develop some professional relationships with a number of students throughout my 22 year career
with the center. And I continue to remain in contact with those students to this day. The times and events during those times were very
challenging because in my position, my role was to be both an advocate for the students of color on campus while also serving the
administration and at the pleasure of the administration. But I did feel called to the position, to be in that opportunity to provide the services that
we had to offer.”
timing of the Black center and the creation of the department wasn’t lost on Donte Hilliard, the interim director of the Multicultural Student Center.
“‘What happens when radical ideas become institutionalized,’” Hilliard rhetorically asked. “What did that mean then? What does that mean now?
And how do we need to understand that and unpack that reality of taking and giving as we seek to move forward into the second decade of the