African-American studies celebrates history

In the basement of Paley Library Thursday afternoon, the crowd that had gathered for a series of speakers on the civil rights movement was packed in every chair and out of the door.

A man dressed in a button down shirt printed with a traditional African design squeezed through the crowd packed at that door, on his way out to refreshment table.

“Dr. Asante,” one woman called, “pose for a picture with Bobby!”

Molefi Asante, the chair of Temple’s African-American studies department, agreed, and him, Bobby Seal, the co-founder of the Black Panther Party, and Sultan Ahmed, the head of its alumni association, gathered for a few seconds for pictures before heading back into the room.

The three men in the photo, and many more men and women gathered in the Paley Lecture Hall, represented some of the most distinguished names in the civil rights movement in the city of Philadelphia and the country.

Temple’s African-American Studies Department, which is celebrating the 25th anniversary of its doctoral program this fall, has a long, and often unknown history in connection with American civil rights movement.

Asante, serving as the chair of the department for the second time in its history, is himself one of the world’s most renowned Pan-Africanist thinkers. He founded the world’s first doctoral program at the school in 1984.

“[The African American Studies Department] became part of the historic movement of black people themselves to say they could come here to study,” Asante said.

Even before the founding of the department, Temple’s campus was a significant focal point of the civil rights movement in the city.

In 1961, Martin Luther King Jr. spoke to students community members on at the Amos Playground on 16th and Berks street. King spoke to The Temple News about the state of education in the civil rights movement at the time.

“Student’s must remove every vestige of prejudice from their minds,” King said, adding that “all negro fraternities should open their doors to all people.”

In 1971, the Black Panther party held the People’s National Constitution Convention in Temple’s McGonigle Hall. The party had previously held several national conventions at the nearby Church of the Advocate on 18th and Diamond streets.

The Advocate’s Rev. Paul Washington was another prominent figure in Philadelphia’s civil rights movement. With connections to names such as Huey P. Newton, Angela Davis and Jesse Jackson, Washington petitioned the university to allow the party to hold their event on campus even while Washington and members of the Philadelphia Black Panther Party were being investigated by the FBI.

In 2005, Washington’s collection of correspondence letters were donated to the Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection library in Sullivan Hall. The library holds an additional 30,000 works related to African-American history and primary documents from the civil rights movement.

In addition to notable events, Temple has produced some noted figures in the civil rights movement.

Cecil B. Moore, a Temple alumnus, was one of the most prominent leaders in the civil rights movement in Philadelphia, leading the way to the desegregation of Girard College in 1968. Columbia Avenue on the south end of campus was changed to Moore’s namesake in 1987.

On Thursday, Oct. 3, an event was held in the lecture hall of Paley Library honoring the legacy of Moore and other prominent activists in the Philadelphia civil rights movement. Alexis Moore, Cecil B. Moore’s daughter, was in attendance along with several members of the Cecil B. Moore Freedom Fighters.

Asante was the opening speaker at the event, and spoke to the audience about the historic nature of the event.

“There is nothing more historic than the moment we live in now,” Asante said. “Years from now, people will tell their grandkids that Bobby Seale came to Temple.”

The African-American studies department will hold several more events this month in honor of the 25th anniversary of its doctoral program. An all-day conference featuring 10 speakers will be held in Walk Auditorium on Thursday, Oct. 17.

John Moritz can be reached at john.moritz@temple.edu or on Twitter @JCMoritzTU. 

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