Turning 50: Black Studies overcomes
Author: John Kirkland
Posted: September 24, 2019

Through years of struggle, PSU’s Black Studies Department remains unique in the Northwest.

FIFTY years ago, following one of the greatest decades of change for African Americans since the Civil War, Portland State became the first college in the Pacific Northwest to offer a program in Black studies.

Over the years, it went from being an experimental program to a full-fledged department. Now, after a half-century, it remains unique in the region. While other universities in the Northwest offer courses in ethnic studies or African American studies, PSU is the only one with a full degree-granting department with the word “black” in its name.

“At the time of our founding, ‘black’ was a very powerful and political term,” says recent department chair Shirley A. Jackson. “It was a way of throwing off the older ways of referencing people who had black skin.”

An influential assortment of students and faculty pushed the idea of starting the program in 1968 and 1969 as part of a wave of other universities around the country doing the same. Portland State—which had just gained university status—approved it as an “experiment” on August 22, 1969.

“It was deemed experimental because it was so new—there was no guarantee that this would actually be something that would continue to exist,” Jackson says.
In fact, according to former department chair Darrell Millner, who came to PSU as a history instructor in 1975, Portland State essentially put up roadblocks to undermine the success of Black Studies, making the launch of the program tenuous indeed.

“Portland State did not invite Black Studies to come to campus. In many ways it was hostile to the concept of Black Studies—as much of the higher education structure in the country was in the late ‘60s,” he says. These programs were created essentially because of pressure from students and the black community. Universities—and I would include Portland State—looked at Black Studies with great disfavor, even hostility, and didn’t consider it to be a legitimate academic discipline.”

For example, Millner says the program originally required 60 hours of coursework for a student to earn a certificate—not a degree—in Black Studies. And courses taken in Black Studies were not accepted to satisfy normal degree requirements. So, a student majoring in history could take a history class through Black Studies, but it wouldn’t count toward the student’s major.

“No doubt about it, that was one of the ways Black Studies was made unattractive and unavailable to students. You had to be highly motivated to decide to be part of the Black Studies program. That was not accidental. That was part of the tradeoff in getting Black Studies approved,” he says.

CHARLOTTE Rutherford, a former civil rights attorney with the NAACP Legal and Educational Fund who donated a vast collection of her mother’s black memorabilia to the PSU Library, earned her certificate in the program in 1976. She says she took classes from the program—and continues to support it—through her desire to learn “about our history as black people both in Oregon and in the history of the U.S.”

“The public school system then and probably now does little to teach race history and the true story of how black people (and other people of color) have contributed to and been treated in this country,” she says. “I always knew there had to be more information than I had been given in school but I had no idea so much information had been suppressed.”

 INITIALLY, PSU's program focused on the African American experience, based on what was happening around the country at the time. The few years before its founding saw marches on Washington, D.C., and in the American South, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the assassinations of both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., the founding of the Black Panthers in 1966, numerous race-fueled riots in American cities, and the emergence of the Black Power movement.

The program also had the mission of providing assistance and support to Portland’s black community.

“At that time the majority of Portland's black residents resided in an area known as Albina,” recalls Phil McLaurin, the first director of what was then called the Black Studies Center. “Black Studies offered courses to Albina-area residents at a PSU-funded facility known as Albina Presence, and was actively involved in all issues impacting the community residents.”

The program survived its rocky start, and stabilized over time, although Millner says it was almost always struggling for money. PSU created a Black Studies minor in the 1980s, which opened the way for more enrollment. It created a major in the 2000s.

Its mission broadened to include courses on the black experience in Europe, the Caribbean and Latin America. It added travel opportunities, and in December 2019 it will offer study in Cuba. There are plans to develop a study trip to New York City—probably the most diverse black population in the United States.

The curriculum is multidisciplinary, covering history, sociology, cultural anthropology, literature, film and other fields. Although many believe that only black students take courses in Black Studies, Jackson says it’s really for everybody. In fact, she says, most of the students in Black Studies courses are white.

“This is a degree that really helps students prepare for working with people in diverse communities, and not just the black community,” she says. “It’s about learning to deal with differences and becoming culturally aware.”

Rutherford says her interest in issues of race has been lifelong and started with her parents, who were active in the Civil Rights Movement. Black Studies at Portland State filled in the information gaps left by the meager offerings of her public school education. She says it propelled her into a degree that led to her career as a civil rights investigator and then attorney.

“Portland State filled a personal role for me. I just needed more information about my people—a fuller history of this country.”

Captions: Darrell Millner gives a lecture during a Black Studies class in the 1970s (center). Black Studies Director Phil McLaurin accepts books and papers that Jeannette Gates is donating to the PSU Library.