The Black Student Union held an event Thursday night titled “Through Our Eyes: A Look Back.”
The aim of the function was to parallel the presence of blacks on the USF campus for the past 50 years with the celebration of USF’s 50-year anniversary.
The event was, as the title suggests, a historical retrospective told through the medium of memory by a panel of four USF graduates.
Panelists ran the gamut of social, educational and life experience. They each had a unique message as to what it meant to be black and a student at USF during the respective time periods they attended.
Fred Herns graduated from USF in 1970 with degrees in English and journalism. Today he is the director of the Department of Community Affairs Office of Human Rights and Community Services for the city of Tampa.
“Growing up in Tampa during the 1950s, there would be whole weeks where I wouldn’t see a white face,” Herns said. “That was the world I left to come to USF. There was always a concern as to whether (the black community) could compete with the white students. We could compete, and I believe that was because we had brilliant high school teachers. They had been locked out of every other aspect of society.”
While Herns was at USF, he estimated there were only about 20 other black students enrolled. Every Wednesday at 2 p.m. they would gather together.
“That was our rap session,” he said. “It was a very exciting time to grow up – students were leading the pack in almost every city where there were civil rights demonstrations. We had a lot to talk about, a lot to contemplate. We were living our blackness and celebrating our blackness for maybe the first time.”
Those meetings on the patio of the Phyllis P. Marshall Center, which was then called the University Center, were the only opportunity for expression for Herns. There was no Black Student Union and no organizations that put an emphasis on being black.
Another speaker, Henry Bell Jr., describes himself as “the guy that your mama warned you about.” He graduated from USF in 1989 with degrees in psychology and physics. He has been the Diversity Manager at TECO Energy for the past five years.
“You will never have an opportunity to recapture these moments in history,” Bell said. “Take advantage of every organization that exists.”
Bell recognizes the role that Herns played in pioneering the experience of the black student at USF.
“By virtue of the hard work and discussion that people like Mr. Herns had early in the 1970s, they provided opportunities for students like me,” Bell said. “When I got to USF there was a Black Student Union; there was a fraternal system. I had the opportunity to make bonds with people that I still have today.”
Regarding his involvement at USF during his time as a student, Bell said: “If you wanted to party you went to FAMU, if you wanted the black experience you went to Bethune-Cookman College. Most of us who attended USF were damn good students, to say the least. When we got here, we were pretty full of ourselves. With that homegrown mentality along with being a member of a fraternity being launched on this campus, you just couldn’t tell me nothing. I was just doing my thing and loving every minute of it. In doing that, it brought on a sort of elitist mentality so BSU did not serve in the capacity that it had in the early ’70s.
“I am proud and appreciative of everything that (USF students) now have because of the sacrifices that we made to get these things,” Bell said.
Margaret Dyson received a master’s in vocational rehabilitation from USF. Her college experience was markedly different than those of the other panelists.
She came to USF after receiving poor grades at two other universities. By the time she arrived here she was driven to obtain a degree rather than involve herself with extracurricular activities. She committed herself to education and today she is a vocational rehab counselor with the Department of Veteran Affairs.
“Education is important; having a degree gives you opportunities. If you can get a masters or a PhD, then do it,” Dyson said.
Ralph Moore graduated from USF in 1994. During his time here, he was a member of the Black Student Union and a senator for the college of business.
“During my time at USF the black population was around 3 percent. You were happy to see another face that was familiar to yours on campus when you saw another black student walking to class,” Moore said. “There was a little bit of racial tension. There were some people that believed that (black students) shouldn’t be here. We fought and we stayed here to prove we were just as deserving as the other students on campus.”
Moore recognizes that college is a transitional experience he experienced mental change and viewed a physical transformation on campus.
“The face of the University did change. We were here to see a lot of development,” Moore said. “The (Martin Luther King) bust went up in 1992. That is a long time ago for me, but to see how far you have come and to see these advantages that you have now, take full advantage of every opportunity that is given to you because there are a lot of people that did sweat and did bleed for you.”
The message of the symposium is encapsulated in the closing remarks of each speaker.Bell advised students to, “Give back, you will be surprised at the shoulders you rub when you volunteer.”
Herns holds spirituality and success hand in hand.
“Keep God first in your life,” he said. “If you go through your life and ask God to guide you, you will make the right decisions.”
Moore offered this advice to students: “Don’t be afraid to ask the hard questions. Don’t be scared to interact with people different hand yourself,” said Moore.