The Maryland Institute Black Archives were started not to sort through information, but to find it.
Deyane Moses, a senior photography major at the Maryland Institute College of Art, wanted her thesis project to look at the experience of African-American students at the arts school. When she went to consult a published campus history, she found only one page dedicated to the black experience, she said.
Clyde Johnson, associate dean of diversity and intercultural development at MICA, said he’s not surprised by the brief reference to African Americans in the school’s own telling of its history.
“If you’re not a historically black college, the narrative that is lifted is the white experience,” he said, “particularly the white male.”
Moses decided to dig through news archives, searching the school’s name along with keywords such as “negro” and “colored,” to find out more.
“Every day you can find something different and something new,” she said.
The news stories Moses unearthed and compiled online show not only the achievements of black alumni, but also “promising young black artists who attempted to study at MICA, from 1891 to 1954, but could not because of the color of their skin.”
Among those is Thomas “Blind Tom” Wiggins, a pianist and “autistic savant” who performed at the school nearly a dozen times between 1868-1898 and toured the country, and Thomas K. Jenkins, whose talent was apparent at 12 but who had to study at the Baltimore Arts Center, founded by a MICA alum, because the art school would not accept African-American pupils.
The clips also cover the legal battles from the early part of the civil rights movement during which African-American Baltimoreans sued for equal access to civic amenities. In a 1948 ruling, a federal judge said the city must allow black residents to play at city-owned golf courses because restrictions based on race violated the 14th Amendment. In another decision, the judged ruled that MICA, as a private institution, “did not violate Federal law by refusing to admit colored students,” The Afro reported at the time.
MICA’s board decided in 1954 voted to open admissions to all, and the Maryland Institute Black Archives continues tracking the story, highlighting the likes of Blanche N. Dugger, the first African-American woman admitted to the college, and Roxey Gaither, an award-winning fashion designer.
Those historic examples are complemented with oral histories from current students, accompanied by portraits shot by Moses. A common theme in their responses is the experience of being one of a few African-American students in the classroom, sometimes the only one.
That also rings true for Moses.
“Rarely did I see us, until I started to go to the Black Student Union meetings,” she said. “And then after the meetings, I didn’t see any of us again.”
Moses displayed her portraits and the photos of some of the black artists highlighted in the archives in an exhibit called “Blackives.” As part of the exhibit, students last week held a demonstration called Take Back These Steps outside the Main Building, a reference to a 1896 protest there by 15-year-old Robert H. Clark and his father after Clark was denied admission to the school despite receiving a legislative appointment by Harry S. Cummings, the first black city councilman.
Some students held up signs with the Maryland Institute Black Archives logo, stylized to look like the college’s, and almost all of the demonstrators wore a black piece of tape over their mouth.
“I want this moment to spark conversation and reflection on the past, present and future experiences of Black people at MICA,” Moses said in her speech, now posted in the archive, including the handwritten notes at the top of the page that say “*Slow Down*.” “I want MICA to remember, admit and honor their past. I want the Black students to remember this day and tell everyone who will listen our Black History here at MICA.”
In response, president Samuel Hoi, who observed the demonstration, released a statement acknowledging the school’s racist history and apologized “for its historical denial of access to talented students for no other reason than the color of their skin, and for the hardships to those who were admitted but not supported for their success.”
MICA, he wrote, has made a commitment to diversity, equity, inclusion and globalization (DEIG), following a two-year task force that looked into making the school more inclusive.
He also announced that Moses’ exhibit would be installed in the Main Building.
“It is essential viewing by everyone at MICA,” he said.
The archives and the school’s acknowledgment have received plenty of attention, with stories published in The Sun, Artforum, Bmore Art and this outlet, to name a few, and Moses said she’s gotten lots of positive feedback from her teachers and peers.
“It’s wonderful,” she said. “It’s been well-received on campus from students of all races and ages, as well as the faculty. I’m really, really happy it’s gained attention, because we need to talk more about diversity at MICA, it needs to happen.”
Johnson said the school is making strides in implementing its DEIG plan; among the latest opportunities is a scholarship, financed by Eddie and C. Sylvia Brown, to help students of color study abroad.
But there also needs to be a conversation–both nationally and at MICA–about making private schools more affordable with scholarships and financial aid, he said.
“We do need to talk about financing education nationally, and how that impacts black students.”
Johnson hinted that he wants Moses to continue her work in an official capacity with MICA, but those discussions are still ongoing.
Regardless of how it’s classified, Moses plans to keep up with her research, maybe following some of the students she spoke with to see what happens in their art careers.
Her hope is that the school’s plan and the initiatives in Hoi’s letter come to fruition, and that the Maryland Institute Black Archives and the school’s response will inspire similar conversations at other art schools and private institutions.
“Their statement can maybe be a catalyst for others to do the same, and talk about black history,” she said.