UM marks 50 years of African-American studies with new resolve

Students engage in an in-class activity in one of UM professor Tobin Miller Shearer’s courses. (Tobin Miller Shearer)

“The first thing I want you to know is that I know I’m white.”

University of Montana professor Tobin Miller Shearer begins each class in the African-American Studies program with this statement. After a pause, he continues.

“But one of the things I can do is demonstrate as a white person that African-American history isn’t something that just members of the black community should know about, it’s something we should all know about,” he said.

Shearer is the department head and sole member of UM’s African-American Studies program. Founded in 1968, it’s the third oldest program of its kind in the country and the only one in Montana. Right now, 18 students are enrolled in the program, which offers a major, minor or certificate option of study.

Shearer said a program like his is essential to student development in today’s world, especially in a racially homogenous area like Montana.

“One of the most important things for a white majority community like Montana to recognize is that everyone is raced,” Shearer said.

Shearer said if white people become more aware of their own racial identity, relationships across racial lines can be more productive. He added that many of his students come into class with assumptions and notions derived from cultural influences, but they may be unaware of their own biases. Shearer said recognizing that bias and learning how to talk about it can help students be more prepared to enter the working world.

“What we’re giving students by going through this program is they’re able to talk with sophistication and nuance about one of this country’s most persistent, divisive lines – the racial line,” Shearer said.

Tobin Miller Shearer

Next week, Shearer will embark on a weeklong, 500-mile bicycle trip. It’s partly in commemoration of the 41-day journey Fort Missoula’s 25th Infantry Bicycle Corps made from Missoula to St. Louis in 1897. It’s partly to remember the Black Student Union’s 1974 re-creation of the 1897 ride. It’s also partly to raise money for the program.

But it’s also to kick off the 50-year anniversary of the African-American Studies program. Shearer said he was inspired by his students, who are planning a Black Solidarity Summit that will be held next year.

This bike ride is just the tip of the iceberg for Shearer. He’s pledged to raise $15,000 to support the Summit, the African-American Studies Program and the Black Student Union. Shearer said thanks to generous public and private donors, they’re nearly halfway to that goal.

Not only that, but there are fewer students of color at UM than in recent years. In fact, the Montana Kaimin reported in November 2016 that out of 8,000 undergraduate students, only 76 students identified as black.

Shearer said this is lower than the normal enrollment of around 200 black students due to UM’s enrollment struggles. He added that while this number is low, he doesn’t think it’s any lower than other predominantly white schools.

Despite the school’s financial troubles, Shearer said he is inspired by students who continue to put their own time and energy into organizing events like next year’s Black Solidarity Summit.

“Even in the midst of the fiscal realities that the university’s dealing with, to see that kind of energy coming from our students is very gratifying,” Shearer said.

Shearer won the Independent’s Best University of Montana Professor award last month. Recent graduate Julia Sherman can see why.

“He’s engaged in a way you don’t see a lot from other teachers and advisers,” Sherman said. “He really wants students to be better thinkers and learners.”

Sherman received a certificate in African-American Studies in May. Sherman said Shearer secured a grant which will allow her to work in the fall, studying archived documents about black history in Montana.

Sherman is continuing the work of another recent graduate, Morgan Curtin.

Students Meshayla Cox, Morgan Curtin, and Johnny Barber recently won the Ulyesses S. Doss African-American Studies scholarship. (Tobin Miller Shearer)

Curtin was one of the first three students to major and graduate with a degree in African-American Studies. She said her degree has prepared her to work with children in her new full-time job as a Flagship Program youth development coordinator at Washington Middle School. 

“Having extra knowledge on diversity has been really important because it helps me connect with all the kids in different ways,” Curtin said.

Curtin added that she’s seen a resurgence of racism in the school where she works, but the tools she obtained through her degree help her discuss the issues with the kids without vilifying them.

“They don’t really understand what they’re doing wrong, but just having the knowledge and the tools to talk about that, especially with kids, is a great skill,” Curtin said.

Here’s more information about the African American Studies Program. Shearer’s bike ride begins July 29. You can follow his ride on Facebook, email him or find the Twitter hashtags: #ride4blacksolidarity and #500forthe50th.