A panel discussion tonight will look into the experience of black students and community members in Blacksburg.
The Blacksburg Alumnae chapter of the Delta Sigma Theta sorority will present “Black in Blacksburg, Then and Now,” as a part of the celebrations of Black History Month.
“It’s for reflection and appreciation,” said Takiyah Abdulmalik, event coordinator. “We want students who are here now to understand and appreciate what went on in the past that influenced the benefits we have now.”
The seven panel members include students, faculty and alumni, as well as locals who have had an impact on the black community.
“We’re just trying to get them to share their experiences in a different era, what challenges they saw being African American,” Abdulmalik said. “And we will have current students come who might want to discuss issues they face and compare and contrast with the experiences of the panelists.”
Though the forum focuses on blacks, all are invited to attend.
One of the panelists is Charles Johnson, a man who has lived in Blacksburg for his entire life and owns New Image Barber Shop.“I felt I could help them a lot more with the ‘then’ than the ‘now,’” Johnson said. “With some of my experiences, I’m the only one who can share it, because I’ve been around since day one.” Johnson said in the past Blacksburg “was just like any other Southern town.”
“We didn’t have the privileges of whites,” Johnson said, recalling driving by the whites-only Blacksburg High School to attend Christiansburg Institute, the school that served all area blacks before desegregation.
He has also witnessed the changes at Tech over the years.
“It was a very segregated university. There were no blacks — well, there were black employees,” he said. “The students didn’t come until ’53. It was really exciting to the black community.”
Another panelist is Dr. Bevlee Watford, who was one of the first black female students in engineering, and now works as the interim department head of engineering education.
“When I came here as a freshman in 1976 it was a very different place. There were 56 black freshmen and there were about three of us women in engineering,” Watford said.
Watson said over the years, she has seen both gains and losses for Tech’s black community.“Overall, I believe things are better, but one of the things I sometimes see as a loss is the sense of community between blacks on campus, because there’s more of them,” Watson said. But she said that one of the most important reasons for this forum is to help current students appreciate what they now have.
“Sometimes we all need to take a step back and appreciate what we have. This is by far not a discrimination-free environment, but it’s certainly better than some places I have lived.”
The panelists also hoped the forum would discuss what still needs to be done in terms of diversity.
“I would like to see a much more purposeful effort at all levels — students, faculty, staff and administration — to increase diversity,” Watford said. “I’m not sure that’s happening everywhere in our university.”According to enrollment data for the fall 2010 semester, 1,272 black students attend Tech, which is about four percent of the entire student population.
The panel will be held tonight from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. in Room F of the Graduate Life Center.