Rosa Parks had a posse
Chico State celebrates Black History Month
When it comes to important figures in African-American history, most people believe they know the story of Rosa Parks well: An Alabama woman is so fed up with segregation and racial inequality she decides one day not to relinquish her city bus seat to a white passenger. Her subsequent arrest sparks community—and nationwide—outrage, and her lone act of defiance single-handedly starts the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
Right? Not exactly.
Before Parks’ arrest, four other Montgomery women—Claudette Colvin, Aurelia Browder, Susie McDonald and Mary Louise Smith—had also been arrested for refusing to change seats in 1955. All of these were intentional acts of civil disobedience organized by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s Montgomery branch, of which Parks was secretary.
These women were the subject of a Feb. 19 discussion at Chico State’s Cross-Cultural Leadership Center (CCLC), part of a four-part series held throughout the month of February focusing on unsung heroes of African-American history. The discussions were part of the CCLC’s contribution to campus-wide events celebrating Black History Month.
As Julia Walker—a CCLC paraprofessional and Chico State student who organized the series—explained, learning the details doesn’t diminish Parks’ legacy, but illustrates how true histories are often much richer than American students are taught, and challenges what people think they already know.
“I think college students are pretty well informed, but as a whole, we can all be a little bit better informed in both history and current events,” Walker said. “I think discussions like these are beneficial, because it helps people see where the gaps are in our history in general and think about what we need to do to fill those gaps.”
The group of about 20 students attending seemed especially impressed by the cases of Colvin and McDonald, the former of whom was 15 years old, and the latter of whom was in her 70s at the time of the bus boycott. Walker explained she personalized the women’s stories by design.
“You can see the wheels start to turn when people put themselves in the individual’s shoes,” she said. “If you make the stories real to them, they have more impact.”
Walker, who said the nonviolent aspects of the civil-rights movement are her own primary inspiration to work for social justice, also said there’s hope to be found in history.
“Without knowing where we came from, it’s hard to move forward, especially in terms of social justice,” she said. “It’s important to be reminded of civil rights successes, because without that knowledge it can be hard to get new things moving.”
In addition to the CCLC, other campus entities that held events throughout February include the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, University Housing and Food Service, and UMatter, which is dedicated to promoting the positive mental health of Chico State students.
The events kicked off Feb. 3 with a discussion in the Student Services Center titled “Legacies Lost: Trayvon Martin and Victims of Violence.” Entertainment events included a Feb. 6 showing of the film Fruitvale Station, Chico Performances’ “True Blues” showcase on Feb. 13, and a Feb. 20 Poetry Night with spoken-word artist and activist Suzi Q. Smith.
Mazi Noble, a graphic designer in the university registrar’s office (and former Chico News & Review employee), explained that many of the events were overseen by the Black Faculty and Staff Association (BFSA).
Noble said he joined the BFSA when he started working at Chico State in 2010, and became the organization’s social chair in 2011. He designs the physical calendar of Black History Month events each February, always incorporating the work of famous black artists, and this year featuring the late Harlem Renaissance artist Hale Woodruff. Since 2011, Noble has also organized a Poetry Slam with fellow BFSA member Deanna Pierro. He said this year’s Feb. 13 installment was one of the best ever, despite a major hiccup.
“There was an overbooking issue with our on-campus venue, but at the last minute the owners of the Naked Lounge came forward and offered their space,” he said. “It was a great night, with 14 contestants and an a capella performance by local hip-hop crew Chain Gang. The winners got to open for Suzi Q., which they were really excited about.”
Two Black History Month events were scheduled to take place (after CN&R deadline) on Wednesday (Feb. 26)—the final installment of the CCLC’s Unsung Heroes series, and a “Hoodie March for Trayvon Martin & Those Lost to Violence” at Trinity Commons.
The month’s culminating event is tonight’s (Feb. 27) ninth annual Harlem Renaissance Rent Party, a collaboration among the BFSA, the Office of Diversity and Inclusion and the college’s School of the Arts.
The party is in the tradition of rent parties held during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1930s and ’40s, when people would throw get-togethers complete with live musical entertainment and food to raise funds when they were short on rent. Attendees are encouraged to dress up in period garb.
“They were celebrations of that amazing community,” Noble said of the historic rent parties. “From my viewpoint, the rent party tradition is all about reaching out to your own community, circling the wagons and taking care of yourself and the people around you.”
Though nobody is under threat of eviction from the Harlen Adams Theatre stage, where the event will be held, Noble said the party retains its altruistic roots by choosing a yearly benefactor. This year, all proceeds from the suggested $5 donations to attend the party will go to Chapman Elementary School. Noble, who is also a visual artist, will be completing two paintings during the party that will be auctioned off, with those proceeds also going to the school.
Noble noted the Rent Party has been a community staple for nearly a decade, and was originally started by English professor Tracy Butts, the event’s coordinator, as an extension of one of her literature classes.
“Since it started as a literary event, we’re asking the money raised be used specifically for books,” Noble said.