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An Open Letter from the Vice Provost and Chief Diversity Officer:
Black History Month: Celebrating a People of Courage

February 13, 2008

The power of remembrance preserves the uniqueness of a culture, the spirit of kindred groups, the heritage of a people, and the roots that connect individuals to their bloodlines. As I reflect upon the history of the University of New Hampshire, I consider the fortitude it must have taken for Elizabeth Ann Virgil, the first African American student to graduate from UNH and accomplish her academic career goals in 1926.

Prior to the 1960s, university-sponsored social activities for black students on campuses were virtually non-existent. Black students could not join fraternities or socialize with others from different backgrounds on the campuses of many majority institutions. Their culture was often not accepted. Ethnic studies, multicultural work and diversity efforts had not been put in place, nor had they even been conceptualized.

But these students did not get discouraged. They did the best they could to improve their lives, in spite of the campus or community climate. These African American students no doubt were taught by their parents and grandparents about the great people from whom they descended.

Sharing their ancestral history was, and still is, a way to educate black students about the trials and triumphs of a courageous people. Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass succeeded despite a society held down by slavery. Benjamin Mays, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Fannie Lou Hamer inspired a nation held down by segregation to move toward hope.

These great leaders, both men and women, stood strong in transforming America from a theoretical democracy to a more living democracy. Frederick Douglass stated “Remember that our cause is one, and that we must help each other, if we would succeed. It is important for those of us who have made it to the next rung on the ladder to reach back and bring someone along with us.”

The celebration of Black History Month calls on us to be mindful that African Americans as a people have not succumbed, despite the forces against us. And we cannot falter now. Our faith and the courage to keep moving forward, no matter what challenges we face, is our legacy and our strength.

During the month of February, let us make a special effort to remember individuals like Elizabeth Ann Virgil and other black students who have forged new paths at the University of New Hampshire in pursuit of higher education because of the values gifted to them by their ancestors. If we take the time to look closely, we will see UNH students who are the children of courageous African American people, and know that we are richer for their presence.

Wanda S. Mitchell
Vice provost and chief diversity officer

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