On February 28, at the close of Black History Month, students, faculty and staff gathered at the University of Miami’s Cesarano Plaza for a Mardi Gras-like festival to celebrate the debut of the Center for Global Black Studies. Dancers dressed in colorful costumes and dazzling headdresses swayed in sync with the sounds of junkanoo drums and a trombone.
It was a joyful opening, with the University of Miami President Julio Frenk, Chancellors Jeffrey Duerk and Donald Spivey in attendance. And one on the move, too. The center has come to represent a long-awaited racial reckoning on the part of the university. Dr. Jafari Allen, one of the center’s co-founders and co-directors, had tears in his eyes.
“Black students and Black faculty have been asking for something like this for a long time,” explains Nadege Green, the center’s inaugural Community Fellow in Residence. “This center means something profound.”
With just one semester in the rearview mirror, the center is already serving as a platform for students and the community to address structural racism and inequality, providing opportunities for scholarship, research on Black history, and academic relationships between Black students and faculty.
“We had a great, exciting and hopeful opening,” says Dr. Donette Francis, the center’s other co-founder. New Times. “This is about celebrating global blackness throughout Miami, celebrating diversity to move the needle, amplify, enhance and broaden our community.”
In addition to highlighting the work of African-American faculty, the center will expand its reach by highlighting efforts underway at other institutions. It is designed to act as a network that expands beyond the school’s African Studies programs, hosting conferences and presentations that can serve to help students with their studies.
“It’s a center for black intellectual life at the University of Miami,” Francis sums up. “We do it through programming, we do it through tutoring, we do it by creating a network between students and teachers.”
Center offices are located on the third floor of the Solomon G. Merrick Building, the oldest building on campus. During the Black Lives Matter protests across the country during the summer of 2020, many called for the removal of Confederate statues and flags and the names of racial segregationists on buildings, and while investigating UM race relations, a group on campus requested that Merrick’s name be removed from the building after it emerged that Solomon G. Merrick worked with government officials to create racially segregated housing in Miami-Dade County and limit the black community to a certain section of the city at the beginning of the 20th century.
Merrick’s son, George Merrick, widely celebrated as one of the founders of the university and the city of Coral Gables, had a past similarly marred by racism.
“He asked for black people to be removed from the city limits,” says Green. “That’s why the UM students were protesting, because they know we have to be open and honest about our history, where we come from and where we are today.”
The University of Miami, which was founded in 1925, was segregated until 1961. But integration by itself was not enough to guarantee equal rights and equal representation.
“In 1968, there was a sit-in at the University of Miami led by the United Negro Student Association on campus. Their demands were specifically to have more black faculty and more visiting black scholars on campus,” recalls Green. “They wanted UM to have a broader, more friendly and supportive atmosphere.”
Solomon G. Merrick’s name has not been removed. But UM has celebrated the naming of the Student Services Building in honor of Harold Long Jr. and HT Smith, two black alumni. Long was one of the United Black Student Association protesters, while Smith is a longtime Miami civil rights attorney.
“The same student who was threatened with arrest and asked for black teachers and recognition in the curriculum now, 40 years later, has a building named after him,” says Green, referring to Long. “He Comes to the starting point.” Students taking African Studies classes as a freshman or sophomore can now take the Miami Black Studies class, which will teach not only the long and fraught racial history of the region, but that of the university as well.
“Black Miami Studies is an entry-level course where we introduce different professors who come from the medical school, the law school, the education school, and the music school,” explains Francis. “What that class does is give students the opportunity to meet various black professors from all the campuses and faculties of the University of Miami.”
This fall, Nadege Green will begin teaching the Black Miami course. And Francis and Allen are gearing up to offer internships and study abroad opportunities, among other academic endeavors.