UMass Amherst Launches Black Presence Initiative

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AMHERST, Mass. – The University of Massachusetts Amherst has launched a new Black Presence Initiative. The Initiative, spearheaded by the Office of Equity and Inclusion, is coordinating a series of actions designed to document and honor the contributions of Black students, faculty and staff to the campus.

One of the more visible actions of the Initiative will be the renaming of the Fine Arts Center for former Chancellor Randolph Bromery. The renaming received Board of Trustees approval in April 2020 thanks to the efforts of a Black Presence Steering Committee, which played a lead role in shaping the Black Presence Initiative. A formal ribbon cutting and celebration will take place once social distancing restrictions are lifted.

The initiative has also funded portions of the 50th anniversary celebration of the W.E.B Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies and engaged Professor Whitney Battle-Baptiste as a Chancellor’s Leadership Fellow for the 2020-2021 academic year.

As was announced during this year’s Homecoming activities, the Black Presence Initiative has also created a graduate scholarship in honor of Professor John H. Bracey. The campus is currently fundraising to endow this scholarship.

“Professor Bracey, a preeminent scholar of Black history and the Black arts movement and a founder of the campus’s W.E.B. Du Bois Afro-American Studies Department, played a leading role in creating the Black Presence Initiative,” said Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy. “He has led the efforts to record and archive the many impressive and enduring contributions of Black members to our UMass community. It is only fitting that the campus create a permanent acknowledgement of the transformative role he has played on our campus.”

This summer, the Initiative will launch a living history website that will serve as a virtual home for the project while also showcasing much of Bracey’s Black Presence archival work. Bracey and graduate student Erika Slocumb have been working with undergraduate students in public history and Afro-American Studies to conduct dozens of interviews with Black alumni. The interviews feature prominent alumni reflecting on their time at UMass Amherst.

“It was important that our website give space for members of the Black community to tell their own stories about UMass,” said Nefertiti Walker, vice chancellor for the Office of Equity and Inclusion. “We want to document the authentic lived and living experiences of Black community members, as well as create a space for celebrating our campus history.”

In addition to the interviews, much of the campus history will be told through a new virtual guided tour, which is under development by Battle-Baptiste as part of her Chancellor’s Leadership Fellowship. The tour will explore buildings, landscapes and spaces that defined Black life at UMass Amherst to facilitate understanding by the larger campus community. This tour will serve as a teaching tool and a method to know the variety of ways people past and present have experienced the UMass campus.

The Office of Equity and Inclusion plans to roll out a series of “presence initiatives” in the coming years. “We hope that the Black Presence Initiative will spark important conversations about the contributions of Black people to our current campus success,” Walker said. “Our goal is to use the Black Presence Initiative as a catalyst and model for how we can continue to acknowledge, celebrate, and archive the diversity of our campus community.”