UNO Department of Black Studies honors past, prioritizes future

The department is in its 51st academic year, with eyes on both its past and its future.
Reflecting on history with the UNO Black Studies Department
Published: Feb. 13, 2023 at 4:44 PM CST
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

OMAHA, Neb. (WOWT) - It’s a good bet that Black history is discussed much more than 28 days a year at UNO’s Black Studies Department.

The department is in its 51st school year -- an accomplishment that didn’t come without a fight. In November of 1969, 54 students protested the absence of Black studies courses at the university.

Mike Maroney, now president of the Omaha Economic Development Corporation, was one of the 54. He said the idea of a protest was brewing a couple of years before the demonstration.

“The challenge for us was that summer, this was in ‘67, that following summer, they actually sent a white professor back East somewhere to study Black history and come back that following fall and teach a course,” Maroney said. “That was totally unacceptable.”

A group was formed. Demands were made, and the students took those demands to the university’s president.

“We were confident we weren’t going to get the kind of response we wanted,” Maroney said. “Then we had to prepare ourselves for what could happen.”

It did happen. Students refused to leave the president’s office, police were called, and the students were led off to jail.

Two years later in 1971, a Black studies department was established at UNO.

Dr. Cynthia Robinson is the department chair. She says back in 1971, the department wasn’t welcomed with open arms.

“Immediately after that, there was pushback taken from a department to a program,” Robinson said. “The university didn’t support the Department of Black Studies. It sustained itself because the community supported the department and it still supports the department.”

Dr. Robinson says the department is doing well, and the students on campus, no matter their ethnicity, sign up to take the courses.

“This is a predominantly white campus in a predominantly white state and town,” Robinson said. “Most of our students are going to be white, but we don’t water anything down, and the students don’t want it. That’s why they’re taking Black studies.”

Dr. Robinson says UNO’s Black studies department must continue to stay on guard. To guarantee its future, it must remain aware of its past.

“I want to know what other disciplines on this campus involved people going to jail so the discipline can exist,” Robinson said. “Again, this thing called race is really a thing we should try to eradicate, because it gets in the way of what we’re trying to do.”

Dr. Robinson says all they’re trying to do in the Black studies department is to have a discussion about American history.

San Francisco State College founded the first College of Ethnic Studies in 1968. That department was also established after a student-led protest.