OMAHA, Neb. (KMTV) — The University of Nebraska Omaha is one of a few universities in the country to have a department dedicated solely to Black Studies, and it has student activists to thank for that.
The journey to create the department began long ago, but picked up steam in 1969, when a group of students staged a sit-in on campus, protesting the unequal treatment of Black students and the lack of Black studies.
The Omaha 54 as they became known, were arrested and jailed, but eventually paved the way toward progress. Cynthia Robinson, who is now the chair of the department, said they paved the way for students like her to learn about Black history, culture, and what the future can hold.
“There would not have been a Department of Black Studies for me to major in was it not for the Omaha 54," Robinson said.
On Wednesday, the university invited the Omaha 54 and their descendants to celebrate their bravery and dedication and to let them share their stories in their own words.
Catherine Pope described how she had been advised not to get involved with civil rights after winning Miss Omaha, and how they even asked her if she wanted to leave the protest to save face.
“But I stood, and I stood my ground," Pope said. "And it was my intention not to leave unless I left with the rest of them.”
Michael Maroney described how the sit-in developed as the students first asked that there only be a Black Studies course at the university, and the fight with the administration that followed.
“We said until we get the response that is acceptable to us, we wasn’t going anywhere," Maroney said.
The university’s new chancellor, Joanne Li, says the university has the Omaha 54 to thank for much of the progress that has since been made on campus, including her appointment as the first woman of color to hold the chancellor position.
“It is because of activists and scholars like you that a first-generation student from Hong Kong got this chance," Li said. "I want to say thank you.”
The group says they want to do more to remember the Omaha 54 and are hoping to have some kind of permanent marker on campus in their honor.
“I think if there’s anywhere in the United States where a group of people, students, need to be recognized, it’s here at the University of Nebraska Omaha," said Pope.