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Taking Closer Look at African American Experience Through 57 Years of Yearbooks


JONESBORO – A presentation is planned for Black History Month to bring light to the experiences of African Americans on the Arkansas State University campus over a nearly 60-year timespan. “The African American Experience at A-State: Yearbook Snapshots” will be presented by Dr. Lillie Fears, professor of multimedia journalism.

This event will be held on Tuesday, Feb. 7, at 6 p.m. at the A-State Museum. 

Fears said this project began as a class project in her fall 2021 qualitative research methods graduate course. That semester, there were 12 students in the class whom she allowed to assist her in helping the School of Media and Journalism prepare for the 100th anniversary of The Herald campus newspaper.

“When it came time to demonstrate how to conduct research using an archive, I used the online yearbooks and assigned students specific decades to look through the online yearbooks for photos featuring The Herald,” said Fears.

In their research, Fears said the students formed four groups covering sports, A-State mascot, international students and the African American experience. These projects were presented at the 2022 Delta Symposium.

After the presentation, Fears said she met with A-State Museum director Dr. Michael Reinschmidt who expressed interest in having an exhibit featuring the work done by students.

“I met with him last summer at the museum. During the visit, which included a walk through parts of the museum, I realized that as many times as I’ve taken classes to the museum for tours, I had not paid attention to how the current permanent exhibits do not address the Black experience at A-State in any detail,” said Fears.

Fears said the previous museum director did a great job bringing traveling exhibits to the museum that focused on diverse topics along with hosting a special program and reception for Black History Month every year.

Jill Kary, curator of education at the A-State Museum, is looking forward to visitors experiencing this exhibit. “This enlightening exhibition and lecture by Dr. Lillie Fears will enable the public to explore the evolution of African American representation in A-State yearbooks and their presence on the A-State campus,” said Kary.

“I think one of the biggest takeaways from this presentation and the exhibit will be that, although the path has not always been smooth for Black students enrolled at Arkansas State College then Arkansas State University over the past 60-plus years, many African Americans still managed to enroll here, endured and completed degree programs that have put them on the road to successful careers in life,” said Fears.

“For their efforts, in turn, A-State is now a better institution for higher learning for all people. Research shows that investment in education pays off in a multitude of ways that can be measured by economic success, better health, more stable families and, of course, social connections. And, even without research, I already knew that about my own life.”

Kary spoke about the collection of images, “The exhibition will inspire guests to view A-state yearbook photos to discover how yearbooks covered the African American experience at what is now Arkansas State University. Dr. Fears’ lecture and following discussion will deepen the learning and understanding.”

After working on this project, Fears said she has a list of topics she wants to pursue that go beyond the yearbooks. “I think people who are under 40 or so might be surprised to learn about so many ‘firsts'.”

Fears said some difficult moments in the school’s history are documented in the yearbooks.

“One such example is when black students protested the band playing the controversial song, ‘Dixie.’ The yearbook features photos of the students marching with protest signs and holding them up at an event. To me, that showed their ability to organize, strategize and mobilize in ways that led to change. And, of course, the band eventually stopped playing that song."

Kary said, “When we are made aware or reminded of past unjust attitudes and/or actions towards others, we are less likely to repeat these wrongs.”

She went on to say she thinks this exhibit will be a good lesson for everyone who attends.

“Human stories aren’t always comfortable to hear, but they contain important lessons for us all,” said Kary. “Arkansas native Maya Angelou famously said, ‘…when you know better, do better.’ I hope visitors to this exhibit and lecture will leave with a determination to do better.”

KLEK will livestream the program at klekfm.org.  For-Exhibit-Turner-Strong-and-Williams-flat-with-stroke-4-copy.png