Fifty years of African American Studies at The College of New Jersey

A celebration and commemoration

About the AAS 50th Anniversary Project

In 2022, the African American Studies department is home to faculty with publications in top-tier journals, solid reputations as teachers, and graduates who have distinguished themselves in every walk of life. It offers a B.A. degree, minors in African-American Studies  and Social Justice, and an Interdisciplinary Concentration. The department’s impact was underscored in 2021 when alumni Keith and Kenny Lucas disclosed that they got the idea for their Oscar-nominated film, Judas and the Black Messiah, while taking an African American Studies class with Prof. Christopher Fisher. 

Yet, the journey to the Department’s current record of accomplishment was neither sure nor certain. There is a story to be told about the evolution of a department and discipline rooted in an intellectual tradition dating back to at least the 17th century, but catalyzed by the activism and scholarship of the Civil Rights and Black Power eras. Our story of African American presence at what is now The College of New Jersey begins in the first years after the founding of the State Normal School in 1855. However, most of  our focus is largely on events that took place between 1968 and 1973, a time of social upheaval and tragic violence around the world, throughout the United States, and on TCNJ’s campus. It was also a time of creative possibility as young people around the world sought ways of combating racism, militarism, and economic exploitation. During these years a small but pivotal group of individuals joined the campus community and laid a foundation that would influence the department and the campus for years to come. The stories presented here reflect both the agitation and the creative ferment of those times, and their enduring legacy.

The stories presented here are necessarily partial and limited. In part, this reflects the limitations of archives. People and institutions make judgments about what needs to be preserved from the past, and that preservation requires resources, especially in the days before digitization. There is much more to be collected and to be learned. As the Department moves forward, the effort to document its past is just beginning.

Multiple groups of students, alumni and current and former faculty and staff have contributed  to what you find on this website. A Spring, 2021 Design Perspectives class led by Prof. Teresa Marrin Nakra, applied the principles of user-centered design to the task of creating a prototype of a commemorative website with a timeline, photo gallery and other media. Among other things, they are responsible for the videos at the top of this post. In addition to the student and faculty interviews, the videos  feature music composed by noted jazz pianist Orrin Evans in honor of his father, AAS founding faculty member Donald T. Evans.  The second, a Spring, 2022 class on “Race, Gender and the News” taught by Prof. Kim Pearson, took a systems thinking and community-centered journalism approach to covering the anniversary that included extensive archival research and interviews.In the fall of 2022, students working under the guidance of Prof. Bentrice Jusu  developed prototypes for an interactive art piece that draws upon the archival materials that have been collected. 

In May of 2022, the TCNJ Wind Ensemble, directed by Prof. Eric Laprade, premiered Terence Odonkor 22’s original composition celebrating the department’s 50th anniversary, “New Beginnings.”  You can listen to the composition below. 

Our 50th anniversary gala: A time to remember, a time to celebrate

“I remember a time when we were [not] allowed to live on campus, whenever fire alarms went off in the buildings, only the rooms of the Black students would be searched.” [There have been some successes.] But we need to do more, and that’s why Black Alumni must come back.”

Alfred W. Bridges ’69, former Vice President for College Advancement, speaking at the first gathering of TSC/TCNJ alumni in 1988, as reported in Utimme Umana/La Voz Oculta

 Click on the image below (or the gala menu link) for details and tickets.