Grey area exhibit tells PLU’s Black history

BREANNA WIERSMA; Copy Editor; wiersmbm@plu.edu

It’s the Black History of Pacific Lutheran University as discovered by a PLU sophomore.

Sophomore Nayonni “Nai Nai” Watts created the display using archival information and collaboration with on-campus resources including Campus Ministry, the Diversity Center and information from the Provost’s Office.

As a program assistant for Campus Ministry, she worked under the direction of Melannie Denise Cunningham, the Director for Multicultural Outreach and Engagement.

Starting in the middle of November, Watts put in long hours working in the archives, coordinating with on-campus resources and putting together the seven-panel display.

“I am putting Black history on this campus,” Watts said. “If we don’t know our history we will definitely be doomed to repeat it.”

Watts’s display highlights the events about and experiences of Black students throughout PLU’s history. Her investigation begins with the 1960s, where she found the earliest evidence of Black students attending PLU. It outlines the university’s initial efforts to support students of color and subsequent increases in the population of students of color through the ‘60s and early ‘70s.

The display also illustrates the racial tension and lack of institutional support that many of them felt.

“I found some interesting things, some controversial things, some not-so-surprising things about the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s” Watts said. “I found that the school thought of itself as ‘Since it is a Christian school, racism doesn’t really exist at our school.’ But no, that is not really the case.”

Her display points out how student-led organizations have provided prominent resources and support for Black students throughout PLU’s history.

It highlights student-led events from Black Alliance Through Unity’s first Black History Week in 1973 to the Black Student Union’s Black History Month calendar for this year. Institutional support grew for students of color in the early 2000s when the Diversity Center gained its physical space on campus and cultural and diversity training was provided to PLU faculty and staff.

Watts related her own experience as a person of color at PLU to the ones she featured.

Photo Courtesy of Nayonni Watts. Sophomore Nai Nai Watts, a Campus Ministry employee, put together the display in the AUC.

“From personal experience and from what I hear from other people of color and my black friends, PLU is really good at handholding in the process of making me feel secure on getting in and answering questions,” Watts said.

She also noted that some students of color felt that their support at PLU diminished over time.

Watts left the 2020s section empty in her exhibit, opening space for student submissions for future diversity ideas.

She plans to discuss these submissions with President Krise. Requests for more resources for Black students and a larger population of Black faculty at PLU are prominent themes.

Watts said that she shares in the desire for more support and Black faculty on campus, saying it would be inspirational.

“It is just refreshing to know that the person teaching this class is someone like me,” she said, “and can help me move forward my own advances.”

Watts also called attention to notable Black PLU alumni, including politicians Rosa Franklin, ‘74, and Joyce A. Barr, ‘76, as well as gospel singer Crystal R. Aikin, ‘97.

Watts said seeing these successful black alumni made her think “wow, I didn’t know this person went to PLU and now they’re a CEO of their own company or they started a children’s hospital or they are a gospel singer.”

Through including current events and space for the future, Watts created a display that gives voice to the stories and ideas of current Lutes as part of PLU’s history.

Watts hopes that her display inspires students of other ethnicities to explore their history at PLU: “It makes me wonder ‘who were the first people of color at PLU?’” she said. “It doesn’t have to stop with Black History Month.”

As Watts herself put it, “I am leaving my mark. I am telling everyone’s story.”

Watt’s display will be up in the grey area until the end of February.

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