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"Standing on the Shoulders of a Legacy" by Dr. Tawnya Pettiford-Wates

I’m Just Sayin’ Dr.T’s column 02/01/22

As we officially begin the month of February and the national celebration of Black History Month, we find ourselves once again recognizing the profound place and significance that the history and contributions of black Americans hold in the building of this nation. Once again, we are faced with a massive resistance to facing the truth of our national history. This discomfort and resistance are primarily due to the nature of un-learning certain aspects of “our history” that have excluded certain historical facts, while disproportionally glorifing the contributions of white people, of certain historic places and events and completely ignoring the multicultural legacy of the United States of America. A nation whose so-called founders violently claimed land and treasure from the Indigenous people on the land, used enslaved labor from African people bound and imported as chattel to build its wealth, and ultimately embraced the self-promoted concept of Manifest Destiny that stated, it was their divinely ordained right to expand the United States and its borders from one coast to the other. This is the legacy that we have inherited as a nation. For the next few weeks of Black History Month this column will be reflecting on some, perhaps lesser known, people whose tremendous contributions to the Commonwealth of Virginia and the Greater Richmond community were more profound than we know or perhaps remember.

Dr. M. Nijeri Jackson or Dr. “J” as she was fondly called on the campus of Virginia Commonwealth University was a friend to many and a fierce advocate for Black students, faculty, and staff. At the time of her passing at only 60 years of age in 2010, she held a joint appointment in the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs and the Department of African American Studies. Dr. J was committed to empowering people to stand up for truth and that often meant directly challenging systems, programs and policies that were discriminatory and explicitly bias towards African American students and faculty. She was an advocate for inclusion and breaking down systemic barriers that directly impacted the ability of Black students to be successful at a predominantly white institution like VCU. Dr. Jackson was not the only member of the faculty and staff that pushed the administration to create a department dedicated to African American studies, there were many over the years. However, she was a force that held the line and pushed the university to move what was originally created as a programmatic “carve out” into a certified and accredited department and course of study for our students.

In 1967 an interracial group of approximately 20 students at the Richmond Professional Institute held a series of meetings to address race relations and to promote the establishment of an Afro-American Studies Program [AAS]. They created the Afro-American Studies Committee to advance their vision; this committee included faculty, students, and administrators. This was the very beginnings of the legacy of what would become the VCU African American Studies Department. In 1969 the African American Studies Committee at VCU introduced two credit courses in AAS. For the first time, Afro-American Studies appeared in the University Bulletin under “Interdisciplinary Courses.” Almost a decade later, in 1977 African American Studies was offered as a minor at VCU. The process took firm commitment and a continued resiliency because it was exceedingly slow. Nevertheless, due to the tenacious pursuits of the fore mothers and fathers whose fierce persistence would not be dissuaded or deterred the students, faculty and the community of Virginia Commonwealth University would ultimately overcome several decades later, and a new department of African American Studies was birthed. In 1998 Dr. M. Njeri Jackson served as Chair of the Department of African American Studies. She directed a successful grant application from the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and Public Policy in which AAS faculty examined representations of African Americans at six presidential sites in Virginia. Finally, in 2003 VCU offered a stand-alone major in African American Studies in the fall for the very first time. This made VCU the only the second school in Virginia to offer a B.A. in African American Studies.

Dr. M. Nijeri was a force of nature. She was an extortionary educator, scholar, and advocate. During her tenure at VCU, she also served as a consultant, adviser, board member and educator for public, educational and private agencies on a wide range of diversity-related issues, including cultural differences, health disparities, women, and cultural efficacy. Dr. Jackson received numerous awards for her teaching and service to the profession of political science. She received her bachelor’s degree in political science from Georgia State University and earned her master’s and doctoral degrees from Clark Atlanta University. Today we are standing on the shoulders of a Legend and the Legacy she left us.

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