“Charting our Path: Celebrating 50 Years of Black Studies” at the University of Nebraska at Omaha

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The University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO) is celebrating the 50th anniversary of its Department of Black Studies between 2021 and 2023. The UNO Black Studies department, established in 1971, was created through student activism, community engagement, and the tireless work of faculty and staff. It is one of the oldest Black Studies departments in the United States, having survived decades of political backlash, administrative discord, and even threats of violence against its students.

The Omaha 54 group stands in front of the University of Nebraska-Omaha banner

The Department of Black Studies celebrates its 50th anniversary as they honor the Omaha 54 students at the University of Nebraska at Omaha in Omaha, Nebraska, on Wednesday, July 28, 2021. Photo credit: University of Nebraska at Omaha.

The two-year anniversary project, “Charting our Path: Celebrating 50 Years of Black Studies,” is composed of many outreach initiatives, including a year-long library exhibit, a traveling exhibit, an oral history project, and an event to honor “the Omaha 54.” The Omaha 54 were a group of Black students who were arrested after peacefully protesting unfair treatment on campus in 1969. UNO Libraries’ archivists incorporate archival materials about the Department of Black Studies into tours and instruction sessions, and they work with teaching faculty to increase the visibility and use of these collections in classes.

“Charting our Path” has proven to be deeply meaningful. During the July 2021 Omaha 54 celebration, which members of the Omaha 54 and their families attended, we heard comments such as “[T]his is the first time we’ve been recognized by the university” and “I didn’t even know my parent did this.” The large department exhibit and the consolidation of Black Studies materials into instruction sessions have deepened connections with students and teaching faculty, who have incorporated archives and special collections visits and assignments into their syllabi.

A selection of artifacts, including documents, tshirts, and photographs, in an exhibit case.

Charting Our Path: Celebrating 50 Years of Black Studies (1971-2021) at the UNO Libraries’ Archives and Special Collections, October 2021. University of Nebraska at Omaha. Photo credit Claire Du Laney.

The traveling exhibit, which is still active, has been our most far-reaching example of community engagement. Both public libraries and university libraries across Nebraska have hosted the exhibit, and it was installed at the 2022 Omaha Freedom Festival and Juneteenth celebration. The traveling exhibit shares the history of the department through text and reproduction images of primary sources, which various audiences have engaged with meaningfully. Exhibit highlights include the Omaha Black Community’s involvement at UNO as the department fought for accountability and against multiple attempts to downgrade the department to a program.

The legacy of engagement and continued relationship building has important implications for UNO Libraries’ continued collaboration with Omaha’s Black community. Much of our funding originates from the UNO’s Strategic Investment in Social Justice, Inequality, Race, and Class initiative, but buy-in from senior administrators was not universal for various reasons. Additionally, the remainder of the program’s budget was gathered from other internal sources and external humanities organizations, including funding for a student worker.

Four vertical panels entitled "Charting our Path" stand in a room.

UNO Libraries’ Archives and Special Collections. University of Nebraska at Omaha. Photo credit: Claire Du Laney. September 2022.

Tracking multiple, relatively small funding sources proved to be difficult and has inspired one archivist to take a more proactive stance on budget communication. Despite these challenges, the program continues to be a success.  As the oral history portion of the project begins, we look forward to building a more inclusive and democratized archival record, preserving the historical and current experiences of the UNO community.

~Claire Du Laney is the Outreach Archivist at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

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