Celebrating the Heritage Behind Black History: PC Extends its Usual MLK Convocation Week to a Whole Month
by Kyle Burgess ’21
The Providence College community is celebrating its fourth annual Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Convocation in February to commemorate Black History Month. Due to the continued restrictions brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, some of this year’s events were held in a virtual format, but the College’s determination to recognize the contributions and sacrifices of Black people to the American dream remained unchanged.
While the addition of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Convocation Month to the school calendar is a novel development in PC history, the origins of Black History Month are over a century old. In 1915, American historian and journalist Carter G. Woodson established the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, now called the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, as he looked to bring attention to the Black migration from the South following the end of the Civil War. Nine years later, Woodson and his fellow members of Omega Psi Phi, a historically African-American fraternity, created Negro History and Literature Week (later shortened to Negro Achievement Week). Woodson would introduce the ASALH to Negro History Week in 1926, and it soon enjoyed success in many schools across the nation.
The impact of Negro History Week on American society was hard-felt. The appearance of Negro history clubs on many school campuses was commonplace, and mayors of predominantly Black cities and towns began making Negro History Week proclamations each year. In 1937, Woodson began the tradition of choosing a unique theme for each year’s celebrations. This tradition continues to this day with the theme for 2021 being “Black Family: Representation, Identity, and Diversity.”
In the decades following the establishment of Negro History Week, many young Black intellectuals began invigorating other Black Americans to take pride in their history, leading to increased popularity of the celebration. This growing interest in the holiday escalated in the wake of the civil rights movement, with President Gerald Ford publicly calling for all Americans to observe a month dedicated to Black history in the United States in 1976. As America celebrated its bicentennial anniversary of independence, Ford reminded Americans that “freedom and the recognition of individual rights are what our revolution was all about…Yet it took many years before these ideals became a reality for Black citizens.” Such a celebration, he argued, would provide the nation with “the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”
Today, the College honors the accomplishments of Black Americans through a variety of talks and social events, such as a cultural paint night with musical entertainment and food, an MLK prayer vigil, and a day of service in the local Providence community. “The commemoration has been a success, since in just a few years, certain events that have impacted the campus community have become anticipated annual occurrences,” explained Quincy Bevely, assistant vice president of institutional diversity. “The success in the celebration lies in the recognition and knowledge that is shared throughout the community. It has been seen in the past through the attendance of students and faculty, the participation of members in our community, as well as the creativity that students bring to life.”
Bevely was also delighted by the turnout for the keynote virtual talk with former NBA star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, noting that his themes of unity and working towards a community of love were in line with the teachings of King and other civil rights activists. Bevely explained that there is potential for future online events, as eliminating the obstacles that travel presents will allow for the College to invite speakers from across the globe.
Ultimately, the best way for students and faculty at PC to participate in commemorating Black History Month, Bevely says, is to just participate. “Come as you are, seek to celebrate, seek to learn, seek to engage. Black history may be honored in one month, but it can be celebrated daily in our choices to continuously educate ourselves and make ourselves available to the celebrations around us. If attending events during Black History Month doesn’t align for you, then seek ways to be present in your residence halls, classrooms, and student spaces. Commemorating Black history is a significant way to honor the past of Black folks as it intertwines with the present-day efforts and changes of Black lives.”
Although Black History Month is quickly drawing to a close, it is never too late for Friars to continue educating themselves on Black history.
“My Greatest Asset is My Mind”: NBA Star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Speaks at MLK Convocation
by Hannah Langley
In honor of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Providence College held its fourth annual MLK Convocation, hosting Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as this year’s honorary guest speaker on Feb. 11.
Throughout his career, Abdul-Jabbar has made a name for himself both on and off the basketball court. Beginning his basketball career at the University of California, Los Angeles, he went on to play 20 years of basketball in the NBA, playing for the Milwaukee Bucks and the Los Angeles Lakers.
Besides being a basketball superstar, Abdul-Jabbar has also spent most of his life as an influential activist, advocating for racial justice and societal change. Among other accomplishments, he established the Skyhook Foundation, an organization working to make science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education more accessible to children in Los Angeles, and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama. He has also written New York Times best-sellers and has produced several films, all proving what he has said: “I can do more than stuff a ball through a hoop. My greatest asset is my mind.”
In previous years, the convocation was held in the Peterson Recreation Center, but because of COVID-19 restrictions, Abdul-Jabbar spoke to the PC community via Zoom Webinar. In many ways, holding the event as a webinar had some benefits, as it allowed for even greater participation beyond the current students, faculty, and staff at PC, giving alumni, parents, former faculty, and others the opportunity to listen to Abdul-Jabbar as well.
The event began with Sean Reid, provost and senior vice president for academic affairs, and College President Father Kenneth Sicard, O.P., who welcomed and thanked Abdul-Jabbar for speaking. Fr. Sicard noted that having Abdul-Jabbar come speak was a great opportunity for the PC community to continue its work towards becoming a beloved community.
This year’s convocation was held in a question and answer format, which allowed participants of the webinar to submit questions ahead of time for Abdul-Jabbar to answer during the event. These questions were read by Julia Murphy ’21 and David Duke ’22, both student athletes at the College.
The first question asked was in regards to Abdul-Jabbar’s past, as he once met Martin Luther King, Jr. while leading a civil rights mentorship program in Harlem, NY during the summer of 1964. Abdul-Jabbar recalled his time as a member of the Harlem Youth Action Project (HARYOU), saying he received a press pass to attend one of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speeches as a journalist.
Abdul-Jabbar spoke about how as a young teenager, he was more inspired by the work of Malcolm X than of Martin Luther King, Jr., as Malcom X was a more militant, stronger voice that gave people like the young Adbul-Jabbar comfort in the idea of fighting back during the civil rights movement.
He said, however, “Dr. King’s example showed me long-term change would come through peace, reason, and discourse.” Abdul-Jabbar has taken that with him throughout his career and life, especially advocating for these types of actions in today’s world of racial injustice.
“This is the same civil rights movement,” said Abdul-Jabbar. “You won’t see a difference between what we’re doing now and what we did with Dr. King.”
When asked if he thinks we will see equal treatment of people of color in our lifetime, Abdul-Jabbar made a point about the subjectivity of the concept “lifetime.” He noted that the change he will see in his lifetime will not be the same as what his granddaughter will see, pointing out the need to focus more on what actions make sense right now that can ultimately help make progress and change.
When discussing the actions many NBA players have taken this year in standing up for racial injustice, Abdul-Jabbar noted how he thinks the NBA has done a great job of allowing each of the players to make their own decisions and to take their own approaches when speaking out, while also allowing some players who feel less comfortable doing so to publicly remain more silent. He also recognized the great work done by some WNBA players this year in working for justice and social reform.
Nick Sailor ’17, ’19G, director of training and education for diversity, equity, and inclusion and former PC soccer player, asked how this new wave of student athletes should utilize their voices. Abdul-Jabbar stressed the idea of remaining patient and peaceful, not responding with anger. “Anger turns people off,” he stated. “We will encounter a lot of things that make us angry, [but] we can’t let anger get in the way of communicating.”
He advised the attendees, especially students, to appeal to others’ logic and common sense and to think critically. “Critical thinking is the only thing that will help us find the truth,” Abdul-Jabbar said.
He also encouraged those who might be more hesitant to have uncomfortable conversations , especially white people, to learn and grow in awareness and to accept the truth of America’s downfalls. Once everyone can accept the truth, he said, there will be real progress.
When asked what advice he would give his younger self, Abdul-Jabbar laughed, saying, “Don’t listen to the 73-year-old,” but he would tell himself to make good decisions and to take things where he wants to take them.
Abdul-Jabbar also reminisced on his college and professional basketball career, discussing how he knew PC players like Ernie DiGregorio, Jimmy Walker, and others. He talked about how the advice of his college basketball coach, John Wooden of the UCLA Bruins, inspired him to be the man he is today.
“He taught us to be good citizens, good fathers, good husbands,” said Abdul-Jabbar about coach Wooden. “He talked it like he walked it and walked it like he talked it.”
Abdul-Jabbar also talked about how coach Wooden would always say, “Failing to prepare is preparing to fail,” which is also a famous quote from Benjamin Franklin. He has carried this quote with him throughout his life, saying, “Without preparation, I’m not going to get as far as I can get. I want to see things happen the right way.”
To close, Dr. Reid thanked Abdul-Jabbar for speaking with the PC community, noting how there is still work to be done to create a beloved community at PC, but how the College is ready and committed to working towards that change.
Honoring MLK Not Just One Day, but Every Day: PC Celebrates Fourth Annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Convocation
by Sydney Olinger ’23
As we enter the beginning of Black History Month, it is important that we reflect on the works of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and all of the people who have made a difference in the fight for racial equality.
While the MLK Convocation at Providence College typically takes place over the span of five days, starting on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, this year will be a little different. Just as many other events on campus are now being held virtually, so, too, will this year’s MLK Convocation.
As the Convocation committee began the planning process for this year’s events, they recognized the need to hold everything virtually. Because of this, they decided to extend the celebration throughout the month of February, as it is also Black History Month. The committee felt this would be a great way to not only take advantage of the new virtual platform, but to also continuously remind the PC community of what Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stood for throughout his life.
The MLK Convocation Week at PC was founded in 2018 by Ralph Tavares, former director of multicultural student success and assistant dean of undergraduate and graduate studies. As a PC student, Tavares was an MLK scholar, and once he began working at the College, he decided he wanted to do something special for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day to show appreciation for the scholarship the school offers and in remembrance of the 50th anniversary of the assasination of MLK, Jr.
According to Dr. Wanda Ingram, senior associate dean of undergraduate studies, Tavares’ nickname was “the mayor of Providence College,” due to the fact that he knew everyone on campus. This popularity worked to his benefit as he created a large and strong committee within three months and was able to successfully organize the first MLK Convocation Week in 2018. “I have to say, I’ve worked on a lot of committees in higher education, but I have never had so much fun and enjoyed working as I have with this Convocation committee,” said Ingram.
This year, all events will be virtual with the exception of the prayer vigil, which will be in-person and will take place in St. Dominic Chapel. The vigil celebrates and remembers the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. and is the most solemn event of Convocation Week.
Nancy Kelley, senior executive assistant to the president, believes that though next year may be a different story in terms of COVID-19 guidelines, the virtual events may continue as a way of making the events more accessible to the greater community.
Since the College instituted the MLK Convocation, it has been fortunate enough to host notable keynote speakers each year. The first year saw Bernice King, renowned orator and daughter of Martin Luther King, Jr., followed by Nontombi Naomi Tutu, daughter of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and Ndaba Mandela, grandson of Nelson Mandela. This year, with the help of committee members Tara Baxter and Deirdre Driscoll-Lemoine ’98G, the keynote speaker will be the NBA’s all-time leading scorer, basketball legend, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Aside from his countless awards, his award-winning documentary, Kareem: Minority of One, displays his passion for racial equality and how he was able to overcome challenges as a Black man in his career.
Along with a keynote speaker, each year, an MLK Vision Award is awarded to a person whom the committee recognizes “as embodying all of the characteristics, meanings, values, and purposes of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.,” said Kelley.
There is a period of time before Convocation when people can nominate others who they believe deserve and qualify for the award. The interesting part about this award is that it is unlike most academic awards. The MLK Vision Award has been awarded to many people over the last four years, including faculty members, students, alumni, student organizations, and even people outside of the PC community.
The Convocation committee recognizes that there are numerous people who embody the role that Martin Luther King, Jr. played in our society, and believes the Vision Award should go to any and all who deserve it.
Every person that is a part of the Convocation committee, as well as all those in our Friar Family, plays an important role in making this month a time to remember one of the most influential historical figures and to reflect on the incredibly positive transformations he made in our society and the changes people continue to make in his memory.
For more information on the 2021 MLK Convocation Month and virtual events, visit https://college-events.providence.edu/mlk-convocation/.
PC Celebrates Black History Month
by Will Devaney ’23
Every February, the country commemorates the struggles and achievements of African Americans in their pursuit of equality and justice in the United States. Most students know at least some aspects of black history, but few know of the historical impact that African Americans have had right here in Rhode Island.
The Black History Exhibition in The Center at Moore Hall gave the Providence College community an opportunity to explore the rich African American heritage right in our own backyard.
The exhibit chronicled black history in Rhode Island from African culture before the slave trade to 20th century political struggles to gain equality. Some of the artifacts included tribal masks and figures from West African countries, 19th century African American literature, and a large collection of historical photographs of African American families in Rhode Island.
Displays from the Rhode Island State Archives were also feautred that explained the African American influence in various periods of American history. In the years after the American Revolution, Rhode Island controlled roughly 60 percent to 90 percent of all the slave trade in the U.S.
The artifacts in the exhibit focused on black history in Rhode Island, specifically. There were political pamphlets that called for reform from the Gilded Age, a barrel from an 18th century rum distillery in Newport, and even images of the 1652 Rhode Island decree that abolished slavery, a law that would become largely unenforced in later centuries.
The exhibit serves to educate PC students and faculty during a month where we look back at the rich history and culture of the African American community. The location of the exhibit was chosen so that “it would be convenient for everyone, especially students coming right out of class,” said Nick Sailor ‘17, the director of Education and Training for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. He added, “The exhibit offers the opportunity to learn more about black history, particularly as it relates to our own local history.”
With racial inequality and injustice still prevalent in contemporary society, the celebration of Black History Month has never been more important. As much as the exhibit is about the past, it is ultimately tied to the present. “All of these pieces provide specific details for the conversations happening today about black history,” said Sailor.
The Black History Exhibition is an effective and unique way to showcase an important side of local history that is often overlooked. To wrap up Black History Month, the Board of Programmers (BOP) will be hosting an event titled “Black Expo: We Are One” to celebrate African American achievements, Pan-Africanism, and the unity of the African Diaspora. It will be held in Moore 125 Lounge on Thursday, February 27.