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Educational tours promote awareness and appreciation for the African-American plight struggle

In helping students grasp history and culture, Purdue’s Black Cultural Center is on a roll – down the highway.

And BCC is on a roll with several successful tours to U.S. cities and more to come. Recent trips have taken groups to Milwaukee, New York and St. Louis. The trips reinforce a busy BCC schedule of speakers, creative activities and study on campus.

The longest of those tours was the Oct. 4-8, 2002, "Remembering the Harlem Renaissance" tour, which was built around BCC’s four performing arts ensembles – Haraka writers, Jahari dance troupe, New Directional Players drama troupe and Black Voices of Inspiration choir.

"We did that because the Harlem Renaissance focused on arts and literature," says Renee Thomas, BCC director. The movement occurred in the 1920s and 1930s.

The group stayed at the historic Harlem YMCA, visited the Apollo Theater, heard a presentation and did research on the movement, ate at Sylvia’s "Queen of Soul Food" restaurant, took a walking tour of Harlem, and saw a production of Langston Hughes’ "Little Ham: A Harlem Jazzical," and participated in instructive activities led by experts in the medium of each ensemble.

The Harlem expedition included 32 students, BCC leaders and BCC artists in residence. Among them was Stephany Spaulding, a Ph.D. student in American Studies and three-year member of Haraka writers, as well as program coordinator for BCC. As such, she has some perspective on the work and personal growth of her Haraka colleagues.

"We have learned to express our journeys through free verse, autobiography and storytelling," she told the audience at a spring awards banquet. "Our performances have been gateways into the life of each participant who is negotiating his or her identity within American society."

For Spaulding, a Harlem highlight was seeing personal papers of Zora Neale Hurston and discovering her poetry. It sparked a sense for the person and for the value of primary documents.

A year before the Harlem trip, during October break of 2001, BCC took a group on a two-day Black Holocaust Museum Tour in Milwaukee, Wis. Students learned facts about the injustices suffered by people of African heritage in America and were challenged to rethink their assumptions about race and racism.

This March, a "Discovering African American St. Louis" trip acquainted 30 students and other travelers with current and historic contributions by African Americans such as Dred Scott, Scott Joplin and Katherine Dunham. John Wright, a St. Louis educator, conducted a bus tour.

The group also visited two museums. The Black World History Museum, the nation’s second black history wax museum, highlighted historical figures. It also featured an authentic slave cabin, originally built on the Wright-Smith Plantation in Jonesburg, Mo. The Missouri History Museum had an exhibition titled "Seeking St. Louis African American History."

"The tour helped to promote awareness and appreciation for the African American plight from struggle to success," Thomas says. "The Purdue group left St. Louis enriched and enlightened. And as a bonus, 10 alumni from St. Louis joined the tour and shared their own struggles and successes with our current students."

When students learn in substantial ways how they are part of a legacy of struggling and succeeding, they acquire a more palpable sense of their own paths to success – that’s part of the reasoning.

"We all owe it to ourselves to experience the thrill of knowing about African American history makers," Thomas says. "As we learn about our past, we acquire the power to construct a better future."

Story by Dan Howell
Purdue University Perspective writer