History in Minutes

February 24th, 2016

By Laura Schmidt

For Black History Month, UWDC was curious to see what we could discover about the creation of the Department of Afro-American Studies on campus through our collection of the Board of Regents Minutes. On the department’s website, it says that in 1970 it was approved by the Board of Regents and that it is “an outgrowth of the student concern for relevance in higher education which was so dramatically evidenced on many college campuses during the late 1960s.”

All of the text of the Minutes is searchable on our site, so finding the exact date was extremely easy. On January 16, 1970, Regent Pasch presented the recommendation of the Educational Committee and the department was passed within the length of a page. But how was it so easy? Meeting Minutes should hardly contain fighting, but, for reading a primary document, it feels so removed from the situation at hand. The complexities of creating an entire department, let alone in a time of protest, are lost entirely.

Even going back to previous Minutes doesn’t necessarily bring up anything impassioned. In the December Minutes the proposal was mentioned and it was suggested that Board members read the material distributed, but nothing is attached. In November, they are found vaguely arguing about what to do with faculty and staff who are arrested for protesting, but no firm conclusion is given.

All of this isn’t to say that nothing is found within these Minutes. Looking at the creation of the Afro-American and Race Relations Center at Madison (later the Multicultural Student Center) and UW Milwaukee’s Center for Afro-American Culture is extremely telling. Happening in August and December of 1968, both Minutes are adamant that these Centers provide courses, but that these were not places, “where students could concentrate a majority of their studies” (December 6, 1968). They were so against this potential for creating a department, it seems like a miracle that it happened within two years of these meetings, let alone in such an ostensibly casual way.

It’s easy to image the struggle and passion that was occurring in this time and it’s jarring to see that so hidden. Clearly it’s necessary to look elsewhere for the full history, but it’s fascinating to see the representation of how the University navigated the politics of the time through a single set of documents. It also brings to light the importance of clearly understanding the institutional perspective of the archives and documents one uses in research.

For more on African-American history at the UW, we highly recommend the Archives’s exhibit, African-Americans at the University of Wisconsin (1875-1969).

About the author: Laura Schmidt is a first year SLIS student who works as a metadata assistant for UW Digital Collections. She’s a little too interested in the politics of higher education.

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