Our Past, Our Progress
“We, the undergraduate Afro-American students of Canisius College, recognizing the integral role black culture plays in today’s society, feel that we are obligated to acclimate the Canisius College community to black culture and society, and seek cultural rapport between all people. We hope to accomplish this by unselfishly making available to the Canisius College population any resources we may have.”
–The Preamble of the Constitution of the Afro-American Society – Established 1968
As Robert H. Maloney readied for graduation day in May 1971, he took a moment to savor his past four years at Canisius: The young intellectual was about to earn his bachelor’s degree in history and head off to Harvard Law School. He knew his education and various roles within student government prepared him well for a lifetime of both leadership and service. And then, there was the legacy that he and a small but resolute group of students would leave behind at Canisius.
“We wanted to make a point,” Maloney recalls. “We went to then President Rev. James M. Demske, SJ, and said ‘We have a culture. We have contributed. Maybe things hadn’t been right in the past but we wanted to help make things right now. He listened and he gave us the opportunity.”
Maloney is referring to the establishment of the Afro-American Society (AAS) at Canisius. The student club turns 50 this year and to commemorate the milestone, the college is hosting “Our Past, Our Progress,” a campus- and community-wide series of events that continues through the end of April.
“Sometimes great things are born out of challenges and the Afro-American Society at Canisius is one such example,” says committee co-chair Janelle (Minor) Brooks ’04, MS ’06. “This anniversary provides us with an opportunity to reflect on those challenges as well as the many triumphs that followed when a group of five men at Canisius saw the need to take a stand.”
Historic years such as 1968 don’t come around very often.
Seismic social and political changes were roiling the country and the world: Tensions ran high amidst the Cold War between the United States and the former Soviet Union. Protests continued over U.S. involvement in the burgeoning Vietnam War. Racial inequality persisted despite a civil rights movement that successfully fought to outlaw racial segregation and discrimination, with such legislative victories as the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act. Then, the movement lost its leader. On April 4, 1968, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed while standing on the balcony of his hotel room in Memphis, TN.
As Americans reeled in grief and rage, a moral revolt ignited among college students who opposed U.S. political policies and questioned social norms of oppression and prejudice.
Born against this backdrop was the Afro-American Society at Canisius.
“It was a time of great civil unrest and one in which younger people wanted to be more involved in the politics and life of the world,” recalls LeRoi C. Johnson ’71.
Johnson and Maloney, were among only a handful of African-American students attending a predominantly white Canisius in 1968.
“Together, we realized we had a responsibility to make things better for people of color at Canisius,” Maloney says. “By making things better for people of color, we were going to make things better for all people at the college.”
This group of five African-American men became a force for change at Canisius. They founded the Afro-American Society. A student club, yes, but one with an infrastructure focused less on social activities and largely on advocacy initiatives aimed at “diversifying the student body, diversifying the academic curriculum and introducing diversity to the campus community,” explains Johnson.
Founding members became admissions ambassadors, of sorts. They canvased city high schools to encourage academically qualified minority students to consider Canisius. A new scholarship program was established by the college at the urging of the AAS and with the full support of Father Demske. The Martin Luther King Jr. Scholarship offered 20 full academic scholarships to students of color who met the college’s admissions criteria.
“The MLK Scholarship was the impetus for me attending Canisius,” says Lilly A. Adams-Dudley ’72, MS ’85.
An inaugural recipient of the MLK Scholarship, Adams-Dudley earned her undergraduate and graduate degrees from Canisius. She now oversees the MLK Grant Program at Canisius plus several additional initiatives that offer educational opportunities for students of color and others with exceptional financial need. Adams-Dudley is associate dean of Canisius’ Opportunity Programs for Education (COPE).
“It was a strange time and place back then, as most of us MLK recipients attending high schools that had far more students of color than what we encountered at Canisius,” Adams-Dudley recalls. “But we were determined not to allow our meager number to deter us from our goals.”
With the first of many sought changes underway, the men of the Afro-American Society directed their attention toward the absence of diversity in the academic curriculum. The student club proposed the introduction of a black history course.
“Students of color didn’t have anything to identify with in the classroom,” Johnson says. “We learned about American history and British history but not about black history, black heroes or the racial undercurrent surrounding the social problems of the time.”
History Professor Walter G. Sharrow HON ’13, PhD, heeded these concerns and developed the college’s first black history course. He told The Griffin at the time, “The need for such a course is vitally important.”
Despite some dissent among Canisius faculty, who doubted the need for such a course, and a few students suspicious of a white man teaching the course, Sharrow’s syllabus proved to be a significant departure “from the vague and incomplete history generally discussed in history classes,” Maloney explains. Instead, “Sharrow brilliantly dove deep into the long and misunderstood history and culture of African-Americans, often relating the black past to the present and the future.”
The success of that first course spurred the creation of many more, including African-Americanization, African-American Institutions, the History of Africa, the Reconstruction Era and the Sociology of Race Relations.
“Interestingly enough, once the courses were established, they attracted students across the entire race spectrum” recalled the late Sociology Professor Jesse E. Nash Jr. HON ’93 in a 2007 Canisius Magazine interview.
If diversity in the curriculum educated white students to the black experience, then the Afro-American Society’s ‘Black Experience Week’ introduced the same population to the breadth and depth of black culture and community. The seven-day event hosted in spring 1968 featured a lecture by Cleveland Mayor Carl B. Stokes, the first African-American mayor to lead a major U.S. city; a performance by Dick Gregory, a legendary comedian and civil rights activist; a concert by The Main Ingredient, the No. 1 rhythm and blues band at the time; and a visit from Muhammad Ali, the three-time world heavyweight boxing champion.
Each occasion drew vast, overflow crowds from on and off campus, surprising even the AAS organizers.
“That first ‘Black Experience Week,’ that whole first year – we felt as if we conquered the world,” says Maloney.
Nothing could dampen the Afro-American Society’s spirits. Not even the cautionary commentary that came, albeit unexpectedly, from Rev. Neil L. Ver’Schneider, SJ, then chair of the Martin Luther King Committee at Canisius.
“Father Van Schneider visited the AAS club room to congratulate us on all our success,” Maloney recalls. “He then said it was ‘unfortunate it wouldn’t last.’ Diversity, he said, was not something that could survive at an institution like Canisius.”
Fifty years later, however, the Afro-American Society endures at Canisius, as does its influence on diversity.
“Student clubs have come and gone but the Afro-American Society remains steadfast,” says Vice President for Student Affairs Terri L. Mangione, PhD. “Throughout its existence and still today, it keeps the focus on issues of diversity and inclusion for all students of color across all areas of the college.”
True to the founding mission, the foremost goal of the AAS remains equal representation in education. Certainly, the establishment of the Martin Luther King Jr. Scholarship in 1968 marked a seminal moment for Canisius in its effort to increase enrollment among students of color. Several more initiatives with similar strategic purpose followed over the years.
- The Arthur O. Eve Higher Education Opportunity Program (HEOP) helps make private higher education a reality for New York State students – many of them minority students - who are academically underprepared and economically disadvantaged.
- The Academic Talent Search at Canisius identifies students from low-income households throughout the city of Buffalo who have the potential for academic success at the college level.
- Another hallmark program introduced was the Urban Leadership Learning Community (ULLC). Established in 2000 with the help of the McGowan Charitable Foundation, the goal of program was to educate and create a new generation of leaders for Buffalo from its populations that have historically been denied positions of influence and power. Eighteen years later, the ULLC mission continues to provide Western New York’s academically talented students with scholarship support, and room and board discounts, so they may obtain an education that fosters academic excellence, extra-curricular involvement and service to others.
“My experience coming to Canisius was very different than many of my predecessors because I arrived on campus with a cohort of diverse individuals,” says Janelle Brooks, ULLC alumna and past president of the Afro-American Society.
Brooks studied not only alongside students of African-American descent but of Latino, Middle Eastern and Native American descent. Her coursework was similarly reflective of the racial and ethnic diversity of students: A drama class largely focused on African-American literary works; a religious studies and theology course that delved deep into African religions; a philosophy class that probed injustice and oppression as a result of race and class. She benefited from a program known as The African-American Experience, which incorporated innovative coursework, field trips and cultural encounters to expose students to elements of African-American history.
“Even though the college lacked diversity among its faculty, I always felt very fortunate to have professors – across all disciplines – committed to teaching about ethnically and racially diverse groups and experiences,” adds Brooks.
At the same time the classroom curriculum evolved to integrate and educate ethnically and racially diverse groups, so too did the college’s residence halls.
By the early 1990s, Canisius began to see an uptick in the number of students who wanted to live on campus. Slowly, this primarily commuter college became a residential one. As it did, Canisius’ traditionally homogenous housing became more diverse, with a mix of students from different racial and ethnic backgrounds, sexual orientations, and mental and physical challenges.
“It was as if we were in a cultural petri dish,” says Vincent D. Clark ’97, a past president of the Afro-American Society and Undergraduate Student Association.
For many, the experience of living on campus marked the first time they shared a room, a bathroom and common living spaces with people they did not know.
“The intimacy of living together with people different than you can really challenge engrained stereotypes, breakdown racial barriers and lend itself to the promotion of tolerance,” Clark continues.
So too can student organizations, which play a vital role in the college experience.
The Afro-American Society was the first to orient the campus community to African-American culture. Its influence later served as the impetus for several new student clubs, each of which echoed their own native interests: The Latin American Students and Friends (LASAF) promotes the cultural and language of Hispanic countries around the world. The Society of Asian Students exposes the student body to cultures of the East. Global Horizons promotes the awareness of all the diverse cultures represented on campus, including the college’s international students.
“What we’ve started to see more of recently is a cross section of students getting involved in all these culturally diverse clubs,” says Mangione. “It’s less about ’This club aligns with my race or culture’ and more about ‘This club is engaged in activities that interest me.’”
Despite strides made in diversity and inclusion, Canisius is not immune to incidents of harmful and negative stereotyping that arise and remind us there is still much work to be done to educate people, and to help them to appreciate diversity and embrace inclusion. Though these occasions expose significant divisions that still exist, “they also afford opportunities for important dialogue,” adds Mangione.
These opportunities come in many different forms at Canisius, where the college’s new strategic plan outlines a commitment to diversity in its recruitment, academic programs, policies and practices.
Part of that plan included the creation of a Campus Conversations on Race task force. Chaired by Mangione, the group was charged with developing a comprehensive and sustainable strategy for inclusion across campus. Recommendations from the task force currently being implemented include the addition of diversity training for public safety officers. Additionally, the college made improvements to the diversity and inclusion education and awareness programs for new students. A new Racial Diversity Team was formed with the goal of continually seeking input from students, faculty and staff regarding racial diversity and inclusion, as well as the development of new educational and awareness programming.
“At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what color we are or where we’re from,” says current AAS President Clarise Simmons ’18. “What matters is that we’re students, first-and-foremost, and although some of us may look different or act different, there’s more commonality among us than not.”
Too often, the ivory tower of academia gets a bad rap.
Colleges and universities are criticized as intellectual havens with little to no interaction with the outside world. In reality, the work done here - at Canisius and at college campuses everywhere - ultimately informs public policy and procedures, drives medical and technological breakthroughs, and can stir the mass adoption of social change.
Sometimes that change starts small, as it did in the 1960s when a group of five African-American men challenged the status quo at Canisius. They realized then that the work was just beginning. That it would be up to those who followed, and those who followed them (and so on), to peel back the cloak of isolationism that often accompanies diversity.
A half-century later, there’s no doubt more must be done. But for those compelled to question just how far the college has come, let us refer them to someone who was there at the beginning.
“Make no mistake about it, Canisius has come a long way,” Maloney recalls following a recent visit to campus. “As I looked around campus, I saw a rainbow of diversity. It makes me so proud to be an alumnus,” says the Board of Trustees member.
Maloney again, savored the moment, wishing he could share it with one other person.
“I immediately thought of Father Ver’Schneider,” Maloney adds. “And I said to myself, ‘God bless you Father – but you were wrong.’”
Influential Father Figure
Jesse E. Nash Jr. played a critical role in helping students of color achieve their goals
It was fall 1967 when that small but resolute group of African-American students first took their concerns about the position of the black student to the Canisius administration. Standing there alongside them was the late Jesse Edward Nash Jr. HON ‘93, encouraging the young men to find their voice and purpose to achieve their goals.
A giant at Canisius, both literally and figuratively, the late professor of sociology/anthropology who stood 6’7” was the sole faculty member of color, for the majority of his tenure, on the small and predominantly white Canisius campus. When he saw a growing number of African-American students beginning to enroll at Canisius, Nash recognized their need for a mentor – someone who could help them find their voices at Canisius and in the world beyond.
“He never said it but we knew by his actions that Professor Nash felt compelled to serve as an educator and role model for students of color at Canisius,” recalls former student and friend David I. Rudder ’96, PhD.
Nash never shied away from the responsibility.
His classroom served as a safe and intellectually stimulating home for all students to have open and honest conversations about race, class and gender.
“Without question, these conversations propelled students individually and Canisius as a community to foster an inclusive environment,” adds Rudder. “He emphasized that Canisius was not isolated but rather a microcosm of the struggles taking place in society at-large,” Rudder continues. “To this day, I am inspired by the man and friend that Professor Nash was to me personally and the gift he was to Canisius College.”
In the halls of Old Main and at social activities across campus, Nash became a friendly and familiar face to all students. “The best way to build bridges, he used to say, was by investing in meaningful relationships with one another,” Rudder says.
Those relationships proved instrumental in Nash’s careful work bringing about change on campus – and in the community at-large, where his influence burgeoned.
As president of Seventy-Eight Restoration, an organization focused on neighborhood preservation and economic development, Nash helped forge the development of the Emerson Row Apartments for low-income families. During his tenure as executive director of Model Cities Buffalo, Nash worked to improve the physical, social and economic well-being of inner-city residents. He was instrumental in such civic projects as the War Memorial Stadium Restoration Project and the Buffalo Waterfront Alternatives Study. The Jesse E. Nash Health Center on Buffalo’s East Side also became one of the first locally to base its fees on income level.
Jesse Nash passed away May 11, 2016 at the age of 90. His wisdom lives on today in the lives of so many Canisius students who turned to him for guidance, and city residents who continue to benefit from his civic activism.