History Matters: A Justice Oriented Research Agenda for Kinesiology
Michael A. Hemphill, PhD
“We want our children trained as intelligent human beings should be and we will fight for all time against any proposal to educate black boys and girls simply as servants and underlings, or simply for the use of other people. They have a right to know, to think, to aspire.”
- W. E. B. DuBois, August 16, 1900
The Department of Kinesiology at UNC Greensboro has recently affirmed our commitment to equity, diversity, and inclusion through a public statement and several actions to reflect upon our work. These efforts include a faculty-wide book club and the creation of an EDI faculty committee to develop our next steps. The department has decided to use Black History Month as an opportunity to engage in continual learning and welcome our students into this conversation. We have already begun discussing ideas for Black History Month in 2022 and we welcome your ideas! This year, we are highlighting one research program that has significant connections to Black history through the enclosed essay.
In October of 2020, I joined with several students and colleagues to assist with an “education drive-thru” organized by James B. Dudley High School in East Greensboro. Reeling from the Covid-19 pandemic, the school was struggling to connect with students who did not have access to remote learning technology. We donned face coverings and stationed ourselves in the school parking lot to hand out information as hundreds of students and parents visited the school. Our UNCG team was overjoyed each time we saw one of our students – participants in our restorative justice-based physical education program – move through the car line.
Before the pandemic, my research team spent each Tuesday and Thursday (and sometimes Friday) at Dudley High School where we provide an elective physical education option to 9th grade students. A typical day consisted of students leading circle conversations, followed by a Taekwondo lesson, and culminating with a circle conversation to reflect on the day and discuss challenges that students are navigating in schools. Along with my colleagues from Peace and Conflict Studies, we hope to create new pathways for integrating restorative justice through physical education in public schools. This agenda, we believe, can help students overcome institutional and systemic barriers that often alienate them from school. After three years of ups and downs, our effort is being recognized as a success.
But for a moment, I forgot one thing: History Matters.
As I stood in the car line handing out literature to students and families, I had the opportunity to speak with two other volunteers about the good work we were doing at Dudley. The Dudley alums listened with great interest. One retrieved his cell phone to ask for my phone number. He explained that he organizes a panel each semester to discuss college and career readiness with high school seniors. “We would love to see a Spartan there,” he quipped and then turned to the other volunteer to say “there were no Spartans there in 1969.” I understood then that I carry a history with me just as Dudley High School has its own rich history. This history matters to research programs, particularly as we enter communities who have been marginalized and underrepresented in public education.
James B. Dudley
Dudley High School was given its name to honor Dr. James Benson Dudley, an educator from Wilmington, NC. Dr. Dudley’s parents, John Bishop and Annie Hatch, were enslaved by Edward B. Dudley, the 28th Governor of North Carolina. Dr. Dudley was a teacher and principal of the Peabody School and served as the editor of the Wilmington Chronicle before beginning his higher education career. The North Carolina legislature appointed Dr. Dudley to the Board of Trustees for North Carolina A&T University in 1895 before he was named president of the university in 1896 where he remained for the next 29 years. During his leadership, Dr. Dudley was credited with increases in enrollment, curriculum offerings, and the physical plant.
Dr. Dudley is remembered in part for his relationship building and conflict resolution skills. During his tenure as president of NC A&T, Dr. Dudley was able to convince the white state legislature to support the Black university while also being responsive to the needs of Black faculty and students. In 1898, following the insurrection in his hometown of Wilmington, Dr. Dudley returned home to serve as a mediator between the Black and White populations. He also served as chairman of the Greensboro Interracial Committee before his death in 1925 at the age of 66.
Spend a little time at Dudley High School today, and you will know something about the deep pride the students, faculty, and alumni have for their school – and rightly so. Today our community often celebrates Dudley alums for being Greensboro’s “Black Firsts” – first Black judge in the state (Elreta Melton Alexander-Ralston), first Black Major League Baseball player for the St. Louis Cardinals (Tom Alston), first black woman to represent Mecklenburg County in the U.S. House of Representatives (Beverly M. Earle), and first Black Mayor of Greensboro (Yvonne Johnson), among others. This pride is rooted in a history of African-American education that values education for its liberatory and transformative potential.
In an interview with the News & Record Duke University historian William Chafe depicts Dudley as a “staging ground” for cultivating young leaders. A Dudley English teacher, Chafe explains, “used the novel she was reading to encourage [students] to have intellectual independence and to realize their potential for distinction.” Education at Dudley High School was also in close partnership with NC A&T, including reciprocal partnerships to promote the overall wellbeing of Greensboro’s Black community. This is consistent with histories of African-American education, as Emory University professor Vanessa Siddle Walker described, “Black educators in higher education and public schools did not exist separately from one another … research ideas were disseminated into public schools and public schools held researchers accountable for the viability of their research plans.” Dudley, A&T, and other Black institutions became “the soul of a community” in Black Greensboro, according to John Newsom of the News & Record. He described that outside of this Black bubble “lurked the indignities of second-class citizenship.”
Dudley students were present for protests following the sit-in movement led by A&T students, two of whom were Dudley graduates, whether those protests were in Downtown Greensboro or the March on Washington in 1963. While this was all known to me thanks to the annual celebration of the sit-in movement on February 1, I was less aware of the student election that led to the Greensboro uprising of 1969.
It seems that as the decade defined by civil rights protests came to a close, local school leaders were wary of Black Power movements whose ideas were outside of the mainstream. This tension was seen between students at Dudley, who preferred a relaxed dress code and other reforms, and administrators who were suspicious of the all-black decorum worn by members of the Black Panther Party. A popular student-athlete, Claude Barnes, ran for president of the Dudley Student Body in 1969. Now a retired professor of history, Barnes denied affiliation with the Black Panthers in an interview with News & Record. Instead, Barnes claimed that he and many other students simply wore the color black as a part of their wardrobe. Nonetheless, school officials were not comfortable with Barnes and an ascendent Black Power movement. The candidate for Dudley High School student body president with 200 votes was declared the winner, despite Barnes receiving 600 votes.
In protest of the fraudulent election, several students walked out of Dudley and sought support from A&T students. After weeks of organizing, protests were held and attended by hundreds of Dudley students. Student protesters were met with riot police and sprayed with tear gas. Greensboro’s mayor asked for, and the governor approved, the National Guard to restore order in the city. A&T and Dudley students were relentless in their protests, despite a militarized police presence organized against them. At the peak of the standoff, shots were fired by police, who reported gunfire from an A&T building. The events had a tragic ending as A&T honors student Willie Grimes was killed in the gunfire. The source of the bullet remains unknown, according to the FBI, making his killing the oldest unsolved homicide in Greensboro.
The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights studied the events of 1969 and reported that school administrators inappropriately suppressed protests. They also reported the National Guard intervention to be reckless and unjust. The report concluded, “it is a sad commentary that the only group in the community who would take the Dudley students seriously were the students at A&T State University.”
Why History Matters
History matters to our community engagement work. And not just broad strokes of history, but local history matters too. Although I was not a Spartan in 1969, and neither were you, it is true that the Spartans were not there and I carry that history with me as I enter our community. My restorative approach to community engagement requires me to grapple with the harm caused by individuals and institutions that still lingers and defines relationships today. With support of colleagues and students, awareness of this history reminds me that we deserve to be received with skepticism and it should be our responsibility to build institutional trust through our professional relationships. As far as I’m concerned, Spartans were not there in 1969, but we are there today and we will remain as long as they will have us.
A Justice-Oriented Research Agenda
Our research program is situated in the scholarship of engagement, suggesting that universities should be committed partners to our community in our work to address society’s most pressing needs. Drawing on the ideas of restorative justice, our work aims to empower students to resolve interpersonal conflicts through relational strategies that consider the historical factors that have led to educational inequalities. As one example, school punishment practices in Greensboro and across the U.S. are disproportionately harmful to Black students. According to a Racial Equity Report from the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, Black students in Guilford County were 5.1 times more likely than white students to receive out-of-school suspension in 2017-18. This is a stark racial disparity that causes harm to Black students, Black families, and Black communities.
We locate our research in physical education, which has state and national standards that promote teaching conflict resolution skills. This creates the space for us to engage students in conversations about the conflicts they are experiencing that place them at risk for out-of-school suspension. We are careful, however, to acknowledge the interrelated sources of conflict and harm – interpersonal, institutional, and systemic. The issue of racialized school punishment, for example, results from harm to interpersonal relationships among teachers and students in schools. But this is also informed by institutional practices, policies, and power structures that have historically punished students of color more harshly than others. And this cannot be understood or solved without grappling with generational systemic racism within and beyond school systems in American society. The three sources of harm – interpersonal, institutional, systemic – are interrelated and must be addressed as one.
Drawing on the lessons from the student leaders of 1969, our research team recognizes that those students offered a critique of institutional policies, power, and practices that silenced dissent and rejected their choice for student leader in a school election. The societal response reflects the systemic racism deeply embedded in society – where a militarized force was called upon to address protests led by high school and college students. Their response stood in stark contrast to the argument of school officials that the problem of the day was that the student might wear black colored clothes, potentially associating themselves with a Black Power movement. My takeaway: critiques of Black behavior must be married to critiques of institutional and systemic racism.
In an article in the Journal of Public Affairs in 2012, community engagement scholar Byron White explained that universities do not care about people. We may have good intentions, but our efforts at democratic community engagement are challenged by systemic and institutional practices. But people do care – the people within institutions can collectively leverage the institution’s power to the benefit of communities. In the enclosed essay, I reflect on how the people of Dudley High School have cared for the Black community, and we see that the people of NC A&T have cared for Dudley High School. In honor of Black History Month of 2021, I’m asking my people – the Department of Kinesiology – to care as well. In our shared moment of reflective practice in the summer of 2020 I think we all, myself included, learned that we can grow in our effort to respond to the histories that we all inherit.
As we begin to see light at the end of the pandemic tunnel, I look forward to returning to Dudley with our colleagues and students with a renewed sense of purpose. Informed by the history of our past, we have a new history to confront together – one shaped by disparities in access to technology, housing, nutrition and other basic needs. Drawing on Byron White’s idea that people – not institutions – care about people, I invite us to consider the following points of reflection,
- What communities are impacted by our research programs and to what extent are they engaged in the research process?
- How have we considered community-identified needs in our research programs?
- What histories are necessary to consider to fully understand ourselves, our community partners, and the possibilities for transformative research?
- What institutional and systemic practices create roadblocks in our attempt to engage with communities and respond to community needs?
- How can we sustain the current reflective practices that have created space for us to reimagine our commitments to diversity, equity and inclusion?
The research program discussed in this essay would not be possible without funding provided by the Department of Kinesiology, School of Health & Human Sciences, Office of Research in Education, Undergraduate Research and Creative Activity, and Institute for Community and Economic Engagement. Community partners include Dudley High School, Guilford County Schools, Communities in Schools of Greater Greensboro, and Triad Health Project. Faculty collaborators include Dr. Pam Brown of the Department of Kinesiology and Drs. Omari Dyson, Emily Janke, and Jeremy Rinker of the Department of Peace and Conflict Studies. Graduate student contributors include Yongsun Lee, Santos Flores, Mahlik Conley, James Cook, Claire Newman, Luciano Gonzalez-Vega and Meagan Patillo. Undergraduate researchers include Sarah Ragab and Destini Hogan.