University Libraries documenting the Black student alumni experience

July 21, 2021

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — In spring 2020, while working on a final research paper for a class on Penn State’s history, Maia Hill, a Penn State history, political science, Spanish, and African Studies student — since graduated in 2020 — realized she wanted to learn more about the experiences of Black students at the University. This initial thought grew into The Black Student Alumni Oral History Project, a year-long undertaking initiated and led by Hill and supported by colleagues in the Eberly Family Special Collections Library to record oral histories with 13 Black alumni who attended Penn State between 1969-1971.

Oral histories are audio or video interviews that document the stories of people whose personal experiences can deepen our understanding of historical and contemporary events and time periods. They can be a powerful tool for documenting history and making sure that individual voices are preserved and amplified. As Hill explains, the Black alumni she interviewed, “share how they felt, lived, and survived as a group amongst only a few hundred Black students compared with tens of thousands of white students. The combined narratives present a deeper story of how community and legacy prevail for generations as well as being a testimony to the continual struggles faced by Black Americans.” The sense of community and friendship is especially evident in the group interview that Hill conducted.

Group shot of Black Student Alumni Oral History Project participants

Members of the group interview Maia Hill conducted: Front Row (L-R): Carol Merrill-Bright, Maia Hill, Beverly Rouse. Back Row (L-R): Yosette Jones Johnson, Cynthia (Cotten) Torres Bayette, Yolanda Phillips, Traxsene Martinez, Meryl Lynn Brown, William Collins, and Martin Johnson Allen

IMAGE: courtesy of Maia Hill

Supported by professors Martha Few and Michael Milligan at Penn State's Department of History, with inspiration from a class requirement to visit Penn State’s Special Collections Library, which holds the University Archives and aims to preserve the history of the University and document student experiences, Hill knew she wanted to tell the story of Penn State from an African-American student perspective during the late 1960s.  With the help of Angel Diaz, the former University Archivist and an adviser for the project, Hill researched and consulted primary source materials such as photographs, printed documents, and historically Black sorority and fraternity materials held by Special Collections. In exploring more about Black student experiences, she found that the materials were limited for the time period she wanted to focus on, the years from 1969-1971. As a result, she found herself piecing together a research paper largely without first-hand accounts of the experiences. After discussing this lack of Black student experience with Diaz, they came up with an initial plan for the Black Student Alumni Oral History Project.

Through her membership in the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Maia was able to meet Carol Merrill-Bright, who was the central connection to all the participants in the project. Merrill-Bright ended up being not only one of the first interviewees for the oral histories but also made an important donation of materials to the archives that detail not only her own efforts to protest injustice in her classes, particularly in English literature, but also document the efforts of the Black Student Union (formerly the Frederick E. Douglass Association) and major civil rights events on campus, including clips from the Daily Collegian and newsletters from student organizations.

“Reflecting back on the 50-plus years since we left Penn State has helped to clarify the importance of that time for us, our families, and students after us. We set a foundation for future student activism. The struggle did not start nor end with us, but we were a template for what student organization and activism could look like and could be.” 

-- Carol Merrill-Bright

Carol Merrill and Beverly Rouse, black and white photo

Carol Merrill and Beverly Rouse

IMAGE: From the Carol Merrill-Bright papers, Eberly Family Special Collections Library

The project team also worked with the CommAgency, Penn State’s student-run media production agency in the Bellisario College of Communications, to produce a short film titled "The Struggle Continues: The Black Student Alumni Oral History Project." Supported by funds from the Kimlyn J. and John M. Patishnock Sr. Student Media Production Endowment in Special Collections, the student filmmakers used clips from the oral histories as well as photographs, documents, newspaper clippings, archival films, and yearbooks from Special Collections to bring the stories and project to life.

“The vision we aspire to, in the Special Collections Library, is for our collections to reflect the diversity of our communities and society at large and to offer opportunities for everybody to find their history and tell their story,” explained Jennifer Meehan, head of Eberly Family Special Collections. “We strive to realize this vision by uncovering hidden collections in our holdings and proactively building collections and documentation, such as oral histories, that reflect the diversity of the Penn State community and society at large. Maia’s project embodies the spirit of this vision, while also providing an inspiring model for future students to find, create, and tell their own stories about the Penn State experience with the support of the Special Collections Library. We are committed and eager to build upon Maia’s creative project to ensure a more complete historical record of Penn State.”

The hope of the project is that it will be a resource for both past, current, and future Black students and the entire Penn State community to learn more about the Black student experience at Penn State during the late 1960s and early 1970s and the long journey for recognition and representation at the University. As Hill says in the film, “the legacy continues. If you build that bridge, you are a part of that bridge that needs to be built to continue to endure the struggle and continue to fight on and remain hopeful. I hope that the Penn State community can see that these [stories] are a valuable piece of history that is Penn State’s history.”

For more information about the Black Student Alumni Oral History Project, contact Clara Drummond, curator and exhibitions coordinator, at cjd86@psu.edu. For information and questions regarding the Eberly Family Special Collections Library and its exhibitions, contact spcollections@psu.edu.

 

Last Updated July 23, 2021