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Photos Courtesy of Small Special Collections Library, University of Virginia

On the wintry afternoon of February 18, 1969, one thousand students at the University of Virginia (UVA) descended on the historic Rotunda in a moving display of political solidarity and self-determination. Spirited yet peaceful, their assembly marked the culmination of a three-day campaign protesting the University’s “Racist Atmosphere.”   At this pivotal, 90-minute rally, student leaders demanded that the University’s president, Edgar Shannon, eradicate all vestiges of Jim Crow segregation, eliminate application fees for low-income students, and establish a Black Studies program by the fall of 1970.   Coupled with their focus on diversifying UVA’s student body and its curriculum, campus activists also engaged the concerns of the University’s low-wage earners.  To the delight of the enthused crowd, student leaders insisted that “the legislature of Virginia raise the minimum wage scale for all-nonacademic University employees in the state and allow the University of Virginia the option of raising its own pay scale.” [1]

Frequently ignored in traditional narratives on the formative years of Black Studies was the seriousness in which the field’s architects approached the issue of economic justice for university workers.   On college campuses across the nation, students’ demands for African American Studies programs/departments, along with their calls for improved wages and working conditions for non-academic employees, emerged out of the same fertile, political soil.  Student activists at North Carolina A&T and UNC-Greensboro, for example, viewed the implementation of a politically vibrant Black Studies curriculum, the massive unionization of black workers, and the democratization of higher education as central to the implementation of their Black Power agenda.  Further west on the campus of San Francisco State University, Black Studies activist James Garrett sought to build a “Black Student Union,” which would include “students, faculty, security people, buildings and grounds landscapers, gardeners, [and] maids who worked the dorms.”[2] As Black Studies scholar James B. Stewart so eloquently states, “discourse about the economic conditions of people of African descent has always constituted an important dimension of the black intellectual tradition that Africana Studies seeks to preserve and extend.”

Much has changed in the world of academia since the Black Power era, but the struggles of low-wage earners remains an issue of great concern for many activists. On the grounds of the University of Virginia, for example, three campaigns to secure a living wage for all employees have emerged in the past fifteen years. Campus activists and community members have written moving manifestos, organized labor teach-ins and forums, arranged meetings with campus administrators, and sought to build coalitions (most notably, the Labor Action Group) with workers. Combined with contesting the economic policies of the University, these campaigns have brought to the forefront important questions for scholars in Black Studies. How do we facilitate, individually and collectively, a more radical political vision and praxis within and beyond the University? To what extent does our pedagogical agenda and service work advance the labor concerns and rights of working-class blacks? How do we organize our resources to address economically marginalized communities and groups in our most immediate, working environments? Such concerns might appear parochial to those convinced that real political battles over social policy, racial justice, and economic inequality exist in more formal settings (courts, Congress, labor unions); yet, it is my belief that academics must think critically about the institutional spaces we inhabit in our everyday lives, the ways in which we shape our students’ understanding of the world, and the unique opportunities we have to effect democratic change.  To dodge this responsibility is to dishonor the legacy of our elders and ancestors whose political agenda extended beyond tenured track positions, endowed chairs, and nods of approval from University administrators.  Especially given the devastating impact of the current economic crisis on African American communities, it is imperative for us to speak honestly about these issues.

[1] The Cavalier Daily, February 19, 1969.

[2]Ibram Rogers, “Remembering the Black Campus Movement: An Oral History Interview with James P. Garrett,”  Journal of Pan African Studies, Vol. 2, No. 10, June 2009.