’Canes in the Capital

By Meredith Camel

’Canes in the Capital

By Meredith Camel
UM’s First Black Graduates Project committee visits an iconic D.C. museum for inspiration to create a Coral Gables campus mural honoring history and inclusion.

It’s 7:30 a.m. on Tuesday, the day after Martin Luther King Jr. Day 2018, and a group of University of Miami alumni have the entire National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) in Washington, D.C., to themselves.

Their tour guide is fellow alumnus Derek Ross, deputy director of the construction division for the Smithsonian Institution, who narrates the group’s ascent from the depths of the 15th-century slave trade (60 percent of the museum is underground) through the march of time, each subsequent level gathering natural light in the 400,000-square-foot marvel of architecture, artistry, and emotional engagement.

“It’s one thing to pull all this stuff together, and the Smithsonian archives were certainly big enough to pull from,” Ross says, “but you also have to tell the story. This is not an African American history museum. This is a museum of American history through the lens of the African American experience.”

Back in Coral Gables, a two-story wall near the Cosford Cinema at the Memorial Classroom Building has been earmarked to be a lens through which the University of Miami community will view and honor its African American history—a history that, until recently, had been buried in the archives of the University of Miami Libraries.

Denise Mincey-Mills, Antonio Junior, and Phyllis Tyler—all 1979 graduates and members of the UM Black Alumni Society—spent years unearthing the stories and struggles of black students in the first two decades following the University’s 1961 desegregation. The effort evolved into the First Black Graduates Project, a committee that brought hundreds of black alumni back to campus in February 2017 for the first-ever UTrailblazers weekend, a celebration of their role in shaping the U of today.

________________________________________________________________

Read about the UTrailblazers 2017 weekend celebration.

________________________________________________________________

The First Black Graduates Project has since grown, both in membership and mission. The Memorial Building tribute wall is, as Mincey-Mills calls it, the “next branch in the tree,” and the group’s visit to the NMAAHC was for inspiration on how it can blossom—particularly in the imagination of three-time UM alumnus and renowned Cuban-American artist Xavier Cortada.

Cortada, whose public art installments often focus on social justice and the environment, has contributed numerous works across the Coral Gables campus, including the vivid “Flight of the Ibis” tapestry in the Shalala Student Center. He will be creating a mural on the tribute wall that is both beautiful and provocative enough to prompt passersby into the kinds of conversations that need to happen on a university campus.

“We need to celebrate the successes [of the first black graduates] and honor the shoulders on which we all now stand—but also acknowledge the problem that we as humans have not been able to get rid of,” Cortada told the group at a planning session in D.C. prior to the museum tour. “We’re creating a platform for all these interactions to take place, to have honest conversations about race in society today and what it means.”

To do that, Cortada said, the mural must encourage its viewers to recognize that reality encompasses multiple perspectives.

“If you are on the outside looking in, you see both the outside and the inside,” said John King, a 1978 alumnus who was on the museum tour. “But if you are on the inside, you might not give any thought to the outside.”

King described what it was like to be a kid from Philadelphia with aspirations of becoming “the black Jacques Cousteau.” He set his sights on the marine program at UM, and as an undergraduate biology major, he was one of only two black students in the department. It tickles him to remember raising his fist above his head and saying “Right on!” to his classmates, only to have them reply, “Right arm!” because they didn’t understand the lingo.

As a student, King teamed up with Antonio Junior to cofound the UM chapter of the Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity—a chapter that has given the U a spotlight at the NMAAHC. Among the memorabilia of black fraternities and sororities in the museum sits a 1995 photo of three University of Miami Kappa Alpha Psi brothers performing a step show.

“I had a clear idea of what white folks’ life was like because to be good enough to get into the University of Miami, I had to navigate that terrain,” he explained. “But nobody at the U had to navigate my terrain. They had to open up their doors to understand.”

The chance to open financial doors is another important branch in the First Black Graduate Program’s dream tree. A fundraising effort, chaired by UM trustee and 1989 alumnus Johnny Taylor Jr., will establish the First Black Graduates Endowed Scholarship Fund.

“The way to have more black graduates is to solve the financial obstacles that prevent them from attending,” said Taylor, former president and CEO of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund who is now president and CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management.

A first-generation college student, Taylor was a recipient of the University’s Isaac Bashevis Singer Scholarship. Without it, the high school valedictorian would have been easily wooed by another school.

“Once you become more selective,” he said, “it becomes harder to be more diverse. There’s a small universe of black students who qualify, and everyone is competing for them.”

The First Black Graduates Project seeks to raise money for the scholarship fund and construction of the mural by a projected February 2019 unveiling. The artwork will be accompanied by a historical timeline and interactive component that will challenge viewers to consider how they can be the shoulders upon which future generations will stand.

Assisting in the timeline effort is Dorothy Jenkins Fields, founder of the Black Archives History and Research Foundation of South Florida and a member of the University of Miami Libraries Visiting Committee. She attended the museum tour, along with 1979 graduate and former president of United Black Students Larry Robertson.

Though the concrete details of the mural and surrounding area are still being determined, the First Black Graduates Project members envision a dedicated place at the U where new traditions can root and commitments to equality and inclusion can deepen.