Monday, February 26, 2018

The Black Arts Forum and Black History Month Celebrations at UNCG, 1969-1985

In its first full year of recognition and funding from the Student Government Association, the Neo-Black Society focused much of its programming on the sponsorship of black cultural events and speakers on the UNCG campus. The 1969-1970 academic year saw the launch of the annual Black Arts Forum, featuring a performance by "The Believers" (a "musical-drama group"), the Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre, and an exhibit in Elliott Hall of art by African American students at schools throughout the Piedmont region. Typically, this celebration took place in February (nationally, Black History Week was first proposed in 1926; it was expanded to Black History Month in February 1970).

In the early 1980s, the Black Arts Forum transitioned into a broader campus-wide observance of Black History Month. The Neo-Black Society remained a primary coordinator of the Black History Month celebration, but the Student Government Association and other campus departments and students groups also participated in planning and coordinating the events. 

NBS Dance Troupe performs during the 1984 Black History Month celebration
In 1984, UNCG's Black History Month celebration kicked off on January 31 with a speech by Julian Bond. At the time, Bond was a Georgia state senator, but he had previously served as one of the co-founders of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (he later served as chairman of the NAACP from 1998-2010 and as the first president of the Southern Poverty Law Center). The event featuring Bond was held at UNCG's Aycock Auditorium, but was organized and featured student performers and speakers from across Greensboro. In addition to UNCG students, others from North Carolina A&T University, Guilford College, Bennett Colleve, Guilford Tech, and Greensboro College participated in the program. Immediately prior to Bond's speech, which was titled "What Next?," the audience was entertained by a performance featured the combined voices of North Carolina A&T's United Christian Fellowship Choir and UNCG's Neo-Black Society Choir. 

In 1985, the Black History Month celebration had a large focus on the work of African American playwright and writer Lorraine Hansberry. The year marked the 25th anniversary of the first production of drama A Raisin in the Sun, and UNCG organized a four-day Lorraine Hansberry Seminar series centered around the work. Dr. Linda Brown Bragg, who taught creative writing and African American literature in UNCG's Residential College, delivered the opening lecture titled "Lorraine Hansberry: American Writer--International Consciousness." The following evening, UNCG history professor Dr. Loren Schweninger discussed A Raisin the Sun from a historical perspective. Dr. Femi Richards, who was serving as a distinguished visiting professor in the UNCG School of Home Economics, followed the next night with a lecture on "The African Aesthetic and Design Components in A Raisin in the Sun." The series was concluded with a lecture by Lorraine Hansberry scholar Deborah J. Wood, who spoke on "Lorraine Hanserry's Chicago Realism."

NBS Gospel Choir members in 1985
1985 also saw a Black Alumni Reunion weekend from February 22-24. The featured event of the weekend was a lecture by Dr. Mary Frances Berry, a civil rights leader who had been the first woman to serve as chancellor of a major research university. She served on the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, and in 1984 co-founded the Free South Africa Movement. Additional events that weekend included a banquet featuring a speech by Joanna Smart Drane, one of the first African Americans admitted to Woman's College (now UNCG), and a showing of the Prince movie Purple Rain

Monday, February 19, 2018

Restoration of Neo-Black Society Funding and the Ensuing Challenges, 1973

In the last two Spartan Stories, we looked at the founding of UNCG's Neo-Black Society (NBS) and the Spring 1973 Student Government Association (SGA) challenge to the organization's funding. At the end of last week's Spartan Stories post, UNCG Chancellor James Ferguson formed a faculty committee to investigate the Student Student Senate's March 1973 decision to revoke the Neo-Black Society's funding. Based on the committee's findings, he invalidated the Student Senate's decision.

But before the faculty committee's report was even released, a number of Student Government Association members (including those who filed the original petition against the NBS) hired attorney Michael K. Curtis to represent them. In a March 30, 1973, letter to Chancellor Ferguson and Dr. Kendon Smith, chair of the faculty committee investigating the ruling, Curtis wrote that his "clients are seriously disturbed by the recent action of the University establishing a faculty advisory committee to consider and possibly recommend reversal of the Student Senate's decision to terminate the funding of the Neo-Black Society."

Leon Chestnut, NBS coordinator
But, as we learned last week, the committee did indeed recommend that the NBS funding be restored, and Chancellor Ferguson agreed. Student Government Association vice president Jacqueline Coleman, one of the students represented by Curtis, responded to Ferguson's decision with a letter stating her intent to appeal his ruling to the UNCG Board of Trustees. Additionally, on April 3, the Student Senate passed a resolution asserting that the Chancellor's decision served to suspend "the grant of power to the Student Government Association."

Before the next Board of Trustees meeting, however, five individual students who had hired Curtis as their attorney filed suit in U.S. District Court in April. Many other UNCG students signed petitions making it clear that these individual students did not represent the opinion of the student body at large. The suit specifically named Chancellor Ferguson, members of the Board of Trustees, and two officers of the Neo-Black Society as defendants. One of the two was NBS coordinator Leon Chestnut.

At their June 4, 1973 meeting, the Board of Trustees found "that the action of the Chancellor in invalidating the action of the Student Senate of March 26-27, 1973 in reclassifying the Neo-Black Society was appropriate and correct, based upon the evidence presented to him." But the Board also concluded "in view of the contradictory nature of the evidence presented at the hearing on the appeal before the board on June 4, 1973, that the matter be remanded to the Student Senate for a hearing de novo on the classification of the Neo-Black Society, such hearing to be held within thirty days after the beginning of the Fall Semester, 1973."

Text of the Board of Trustees' June 4, 1973 decision
The University followed by filing a motion to dismiss the case in District Court. After fighting the dismissal, the students filing suit dropped their suit in November 1973. A consent order filed in January 1974 outlined the agreements reached by the court, the plaintiffs, and the defendants. The one stipulation outlined in the consent agreement refers specifically to a change to the Neo-Black constitution. The original NBS constitution stated "the aims of the Neo-Black Society are to promote understanding and a sense of unity among black students." In the consent order, the NBS agreed to change its constitution "in order to dispel any appearance of engaging in discriminatory practices." The new constitution clearly states that "the Neo-Black Society shall be open to and shall welcome all undergraduate students without regard to race, religion, color, creed, national origin, or sex." With that one revision, the lawsuit concluded and all parties agreed that NBS would receive full funding as "an official activity of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro."

The following Fall, on September 19, 1974, Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs James H. Allen, who had worked with NBS leadership throughout the funding challenge, wrote a memo to the NBS membership as they planned their annual banquet. He wrote "the contributions of the Neo-Black Society to racial understanding and an appreciation of the contribution of the Black culture and heritage are important to the educational mission of the University. I look forward with you to a significant year of achievement for the Society and offer my support to you in whatever ways necessary in accomplishing your goals for the year."

Monday, February 12, 2018

NBS at Risk: The 1973 Challenge of Neo-Black Society's Funding

In last week's Spartan Stories post, we looked at the 1967 Black Power Forum and its impact on the founding of UNCG's Neo-Black Society (NBS) in 1968. The founding of the NBS, however, did not come without controversy. Some students accused the NBS of "reverse racism," claiming that they refused to admit white students to the organization.

In February 1973, six white UNCG students filed a complaint with the Student Government Association's Committee on Classification of Organizations, calling for the revocation of NBS's standing as a financially-supported student organization. At the time, NBS had a membership of approximately 145 students. This petition cited two major complaints from those students regarding NBS membership and activities. At least four of the six petitioners were current Student Government Association (SGA) senators.

Two students in the NBS Lounge, 1973
The bulk of the petition focused on a claim that NBS was in violation of SGA bylaws due to "a direct link between NBS and YOBU -- a Black Separatist, anti-White group." YOBU (the Youth Organization for Black Unity, previously the Student Organization for Black Unity) was a Greensboro-based group that formed in 1969, growing out of the Black Power Movement. The petitioners claimed that YOBU "is limited to Black persons only," and, due to their alleged affiliation, NBS would limit its membership too. The petitioners noted that this violated SGA bylaws requiring organizations to "be open to any and all undergraduates." It also claims that UNCG's support of the NBS "placed both UNC-G and NBS very possibly in violation of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, given NBS's association with YOBU."

On Sunday, February 25, 1973, a hearing was held by the SGA Committee on Classification of Organizations to investigate the claims made in the petition. The Committee determined that the petitioners statements did not meet the burden for reclassifying NBS and revoking its funding. Specifically in regards to affiliation with YOBU, the Committee stated that "no direct link has been proven to exist between the NBS and YOBU for the 1972-1973 school year," noting that the only evidence that the petitioners brought forth in support of this claim was that an NBS member "had her way paid to a YOBU open state conference with funds provided for her by NBS."

The Committee also found that additional claims of membership limitations based on race did not violate SGA bylaws. The Committee did suggest a small wording change for the NBS constitution to clarify the organization's intent, noting that the current wording of the NBS constitution "might induce misapprehension in the minds of those uninitiated in the intricacies of constitutional legality." Specifically, the Committee recommended replacing the sentence "Members and their invited guests may attend" to "Meetings must be open to the entire student body unless business pertinent only to NBS membership is being considered." You can read the full decision by the Committee here.

A full meeting of the Student Senate was held on March 20 to discuss the Neo-Black Society. Additionally, "open" and "executive" Senate sessions took place on March 26 and 27. In these sessions, SGA "heard appeals, rebuttals, and counter-rebuttals from delegations representing both the Neo-Black Society and the Senate." A Senate vote was taken over the NBS funding, and, acting counter to the findings of the Committee on Classifications of Organizations, the Senate voted to reclassify the NBS, removing its funding and rights to use university facilities.

A scuffle ensued in the Senate chambers after the decision was handed down. At least one student received treatment at a hospital after the incident. One Neo-Black Society member was later found guilty of assault by the Greensboro District Court. On the night of March 27, hundreds of students gathered at the Mossman Building for a sit-in demonstration to protest the Student Senate's decision. Estimates of student participation on that first night of demonstration are as high as 750 (including both black and white students).

Letter from Ferguson to NBS Coordinator Leon Chestnut
stating his decision to invalidate the SGA decision, Mach 31, 1973
Chancellor James Ferguson immediately convened a faculty committee to investigate the Senate's actions. An official report from the committee was filed with Chancellor Ferguson on March 31, advising "that the reclassification of the Neo-Black Society by the Student Senate was not justified. The Committee finds that the evidence presented did not establish the validity of the substantive charges. Furthermore, the Senate's procedure in dealing with the charges against the Neo-Black Society involved such serious improprieties as to limit the rights of the Society under rules of due process and fairness." Specifically, the report found that "new evidence of a substantial nature was introduced during the executive session, beyond the scrutiny of the NBS representative." It also reported that the Senate questionably chose to exclude NBS and Senate member Donna Benson from voting on the issue, while allowing four other Senators who had been original petitioners to vote.

This, however, did not end the question of funding and status for the Neo-Black Society at UNCG. Check back next week to learn more about the SGA reactions to Ferguson's faculty committee report and the ensuing legal procedures.

Monday, February 5, 2018

The Founding Years of UNCG's Neo-Black Society, 1968-1973

In November 1967, UNCG hosted a Black Power Forum, organized in large part by the UNCG Student Government Association to "inform students and faculty members of this movement and its actions and to give us a chance to discuss Black Power, its history, its political and social implications for us and the nation." The forum was organized around three topics: "Black Power past and present," "the ghetto," and "Black Power and the self-image of the Negro." Speakers from across the country were brought in for presentations and discussions held in Cone Ballroom.

This event on UNCG's campus took place in the midst of major national protests, riots, and changes. African American students at UNCG began discussing the need for a formally-recognized student organization to represent their needs and issues. As Marie Darr Scott (class of 1970) noted in her 2011 oral history interview, "this Black Power Forum was just—I mean, it just opened up a whole new thought and mind for the black students at UNCG ... Not everyone got involved but almost all of the black students were interested in forming a black student organization on campus."

At the start of the 1968-1969 academic year, students officially petitioned for and received university recognition for the Neo-Black Society (NBS). The NBS stated three major goals of the organization: "1) to help in voter registration drives, 2) to work with the Greensboro United Tutorial Service (a community group aimed at connecting college students with community educational efforts), and 3) to try to help establish an Afro-American history course on this campus." An October 18, 1968, editorial article in The Carolinian student newspaper reported that the organization was "a group of students who are willing to work within the framework of our society to bring about constructive and much-needed change."

From the outset, there were tensions; some students accused the NBS of "reverse racism." But the NBS continued pushing towards its stated goals and mission of working for change. In 1968, the NBS was recognized by UNCG's Student Government Association (SGA), meaning it was able to acquire funding from the university to support its work and events.

In 1971, the NBS received lounge space in Elliott Hall following a petition drive which garnered 106 signatures. The petition itself stated that "the lounge can serve the following three basic functions: a) the lounge will provide an atmosphere conducive for a united effort towards educating ourselves in respect to those elements of our culture that are beyond the traditional realms of the university curriculum, b) it will develop a cultural awareness of those artistic accomplishments of Black people that should be used to further the cultural enrichment of this campus, and c) it will provide a positive atmosphere that will enable Black students to enter into meaningful relationships which we believe will alleviate the following problems of Black students on this campus: 1) the lack of social activities that are appealing to Black students, 2) the lack of appeal to prospective and incoming Black students, and 3) the lack of an atmosphere that is beneficial in alleviating the tensions and the apprehensions caused by our position as a minority group on this campus."

Two students in the NBS lounge in late 1971

By 1973, however, the allocation of student funds to NBS was questioned by several white students who claimed that the organization was in violation of the SGA constitution and by-laws because it "discouraged white membership" and was allegedly affiliated with a "national militant organization." In next week's Spartan Stories blog post, we will explore this challenge to the NBS's funding.