By: Willy Nichter, Staff Writer
At 4 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 6, the Drew University Library held its first Out of the Vault event of the semester titled, “African American History at Drew”.
The event was led by Dr. George-Harold Jennings, a Drew alum who has served in several administrative positions before being promoted to full-time faculty in the Psychology Department.
“I’m here and I think that says a lot,” said Jennings at the beginning of the event. “I stayed because I wanted to and because I always believed in what I saw as the promise of Drew University.”
University Archivist Matthew Beland was the one who selected the documents to be presented as part of the event. These ranged in date from the early days of the property that would eventually become Drew University to the early 2000s.
These included old issues of the Drew Acorn and the Circuit Rider, a professional magazine published for ministers, flyers and paraphernalia from Drew’s Pan-African Organization KUUMBA (then known as Hyera), a stereotype-promoting illustration from the late 1800s and even an excerpt from Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1964 speech at the university.
Before the guests were given leave to examine the documents, Beland asked Jennings a series of questions relating to his personal experiences at and around Drew, which proved to be quite interesting for the small but focused audience.
“It was interesting to hear from the perspective of someone who was a student and a faculty member and part of the administration,” said Claudia Ocello, a Maplewood woman who had been informed about the event by the Head of Special Collections, Brian Shetler.
“I arrived on campus at the cusp of the early 70s, mid 70s,” said Jennings when asked about his initial time at Drew, “so, it was a relatively quiet period given what had happened in the previous decade.”
Jennings talked about the difficulties he experienced during his time as a student, saying the curriculum and the time was unsupportive to students of color.
Additionally, prejudiced and racist statements and “jokes” were thrown around a great deal which made the overall experience more difficult. “You know, institutional racism is, at the heart of it, difficult to challenge and change,” he said, “and that can be linked to unconscious racism.”
He shared several experiences he had wherein he was exposed to said institutionalized racism, including a time when he was scolded by an elderly white woman who had mistaken him for a waiter in a restaurant. However, Jennings also talked about his successes during his time at Drew, focusing on his achievements as an administrator.
“If you could pull things together on a shoestring budget…then they let you do that,” he said regarding the administration’s overall attitude regarding his efforts and committees, including the formation of the Pan-African Studies department and the renaming of the Pan-African Student Union, changing it from the word “Hyera,” which was of unclear origin, to “Kuumba,” which is directly connected to African heritage and is one of the seven principles of Kwanzaa.
Jennings ended his discussion with a brief session of open questions and answers before the audience broke up to peruse the collected documents.