Tae Dews, Black Student Union president (middle), joined by facilitators, introduces small group discussion topics for the third annual Town Hall on Race at Eastern Mennonite University. (Photo by Dylan Buchanan)

BSU hosts chapel and town hall on race, launches neighborhood partnership during Black History Month

Among many other events during 2017 Black History Month at Eastern Mennonite University, a work day kicked off a new partnership with the Northeast Neighborhood Association that will stretch well beyond February. Students helped to renovate a small house in Harrisonburg that will serve as a local museum. Several other events planned by the Black Student Union and Multicultural Services also offered recognition, celebration and education, including the third annual Town Hall on Race.

NENA partnership

Northeast Neighborhood Association president Karen Thomas takes a photo of volunteers from EMU who helped clean out the historic Dallard/Newman House on Kelley Street in Harrisonburg. (Photo by Daniel Lin / DN-R)

About a dozen EMU students, staff and one professor teamed up with the Northeast Neighborhood Association to begin renovations to the Dallard/Newman House at 192 Kelley St. The historic building, which was added to the Virginia Landmarks Register in 2017, was the residence of George A. Newman, a teacher and principal at the former Effinger School. The school educated Harrisonburg-area black students from 1882 to 1938.

NENA hopes to purchase the building from owner Robin Lyttle and convert it into a museum, library and headquarters for the nonprofit association, according to an article in the Daily News-Record.

Workdays continue Saturday, March 17, and Saturday, March 24, from 10 a.m.-2:30 p.m. both days. No particular skills are needed to help. For more information about the renovation project, visit  http://nenava.org/the-renovation.html

Chapel with Pastor Basil Marin

Harriet Tubman, a woman of small stature who could not read or write, brought 500 slaves — and maybe more  — out of the south to freedom. In convincing them to make a dangerous journey, she had to tell them what freedom was and what it meant to their lives.

Pastor Basil Marin, an EMU alumnus, gives a sermon in Lehman Auditorium. He is pastor of New Song Anabaptist Fellowship in Harrisonburg, Virginia.

“She had to convince slaves that they were free,” said Pastor Basil Marin, of New Song Anabaptist Fellowship, during a Black History Month chapel service. “People who had been enslaved all their lives did not what to do for themselves. This small little lady came to them and said you are free and they did not know what that means.”

“What a stand!” he said. “I must believe that heaven has been different because of this little lady. Can I be honest? Our stand these days is for ourselves, for our own pleasure and our own benefit.”

Speaking on the theme of “Just Stand,” Marin urged the gathered in Lehman Auditorium to think about what they have stood for and why, to consider “eternal value” when a stand is taken.

“You have the wherewithal to make a difference where you are … you need to make a difference that has eternal ramifications, not just for here and now, a feel-good stance. I mean putting your life at risk, where you might die.”

Town Hall on Race

Participants in the Town Hall on Race gather for small group discussion. (Photo by Dylan Buchanan)

With the theme “Be Woke, Stay Woke,” facilitators Tae Dews, Theo Jackson and J.D. Richardson led participants into small group discussion on three themes: the impact of cultural blindness, the impact of staying and being “woke,” and restoration and healing. Dews challenged the attendees to think about their beliefs and whether they positively or negatively affect the community.

In his introduction to the discussion, Richardson offered a critical perspective on the university’s emphasis on diversity and social justice in an article published in the Weather Vane. “How can we keep EMU in the next 100 years from having students come and be disappointed?”

Honest communication and hope for improvement on many fronts is one goal of the event. The Town Hall on Race started in 2016, with discussion centered around how racism and oppression affect the work and spirit of the university. Last year’s event featured two 30-minute discussions about race and relationships on campus and the role of personal responsibility to foster and create relationships with others. A concluding section encouraged participants to think about concrete steps towards bridge-building.

“Our goal is to increase knowledge and awareness of how race impacts relationships, foster a sense of commitment, engage faith in the struggle against oppression, walk away with some concrete steps to help us work on this, and lastly, we want you to form relationships with people you may not know,” Dews said during the 2016 event.

Other campus events

Celeste Thomas, director of EMU’s Multicultural Student Services, helped to plan the month’s events with Black Student Union leadership. She has also led two spring break Civils Rights trips. (Photo by Andrew Strack)

Black Student Union hosted a movie showing of “X,” starring Denzel Washington as civil rights leader Malcolm X; the annual poetry slam in the University Commons Black Box Theater; and a Soul Food Night in the cafeteria. Additionally, the Sadie Harzler Library offered a day-long read-in featuring selected books by African American writers.

Spring Break Civil Rights Trip

While not officially listed among Black History Month events, the second annual Civil Rights Tour over the mid-March spring break traveled to sights in cities in Alabama and Georgia that were important sites in the civil rights movement. More coverage is in process.