UVA accepted its first African-American student in 1950. Black enrollment increased gradually over the following 40 years, but since hitting 10 percent in 1990, the enrollment of African-American students has dropped steadily. According to 2012-2013 numbers, African-American students make up less than 7 percent of UVA’s undergraduate student body. Students, faculty, and alumni agree that the University is suffering, and one group is trying to preserve black history and culture through film.
African-American studies professor Claudrena Harold and film professor Kevin Everson are collaborating to produce Black Fire, a university-funded multimedia initiative documenting the life and challenges of black students at UVA, particularly during the 1970s.
“It critiques the myth about what people thought about the beginnings of when African-Americans came to campus,” Everson said of the project. “A lot of white people get self-centered, and have a false narrative about the beginning of African-American culture here at UVA.”
The first Black Fire short film, Sugar Coated Arsenic, centers around daily life on Grounds during the ’70s, with an emphasis on how black students created a community through academics, activities, and activism.
“Folks like the story of integration, and stories of the first black to do this or that,” Harold said. “I’m really interested in telling the story of first and second generation African-Americans here who wanted to transform the University intellectually, culturally, and politically.”
About 50 students participated in the making of the film, and they recreated pivotal scenes like Vietnam War protests, an equal rights march on Carr’s Hill, and a speech about racial equality and the importance of diversity in higher education delivered by Vivian Gordon, the director of UVA’s Black Studies program between 1975 and 1980.
Most students who participated in the making of the movie had taken African-American studies courses, so the material itself wasn’t new or surprising. What was new, Harold said, was an emotional connection between her students and their predecessors, and a better understanding of how it must have felt to be at UVA during that critical time.
“When they were marching and singing the songs, it was like they were embodying history in a different way,” Harold said. “It’s one thing to read about it, but there’s something about when you actually do it.”
Third year English and African-American studies major Corinthia Evans, who’s also vice president of the Black Leadership
Institute, said participating in the film gave her a different perspective on what she wants her role to be as a student at UVA.
“It just inspired me to pursue everything I want to do while I’m here and in my future endeavors,” she said.
Evans said she’s never experienced any blatant racism at school, but she often feels that she and her black peers are underestimated intellectually, which can put a strain on black-white relations on Grounds. The political changes in the ’70s created a tight-knit African-American community, she said, but “it’s not really like that anymore.” She hopes Black Fire can change that.
“I hope it gives people good perspective of the University, and they realize that they should be doing something,” she said. “There has been a lot of progress, but it’s kind of like it’s gone a couple of steps back, because of the amount of diversity now.”
Alumni Blake and Paulette Morant were surprised and disappointed to learn, nearly 40 years after graduating, that UVA’s black enrollment numbers have decreased significantly.
“It’s a little disheartening to hear that they’ve fallen back a bit,” Blake Morant said. “UVA has always had some of the best graduation rates for African-Americans in the country.”
According to Paulette Morant, 1970 was the last year all-black classes graduated from public schools in Virginia. So for many students, their first year at UVA was their first interracial experience, and a huge adjustment.
Now that African-American students have been making their way at the University for more than 60 years, she said she hopes the falling enrollment numbers are due to the disproportionate effect of the recession on middle-class black families, and not institutional racism.
“My gut feeling is that it’s because of finances rather than dislike,” she said.
Paulette and her husband were both members of the Black Student Alliance as undergrads—formerly called Black Students for Freedom—and return to Grounds whenever they can for the annual Black Alumni Weekend. They haven’t yet seen Sugar Coated Arsenic, but “Having a movie like that is inspiring. It’s inspiring to know that the University has a history that is intertwined with a variety of different people,” Blake Morant said. “I think it’s a wonderful thing to celebrate.”
“When they were marching and singing the songs, it was like they were embodying history in a different way,” Claudrena Harold said. “It’s one thing to read about it, but there’s something about when you actually do it.”