Long before Alex Haley started his geneological study that resulted in "Roots" and an uprecedented audience for the television adaptation the Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History Inc. was encouraging blacks to learns about their heritage and achievements.
So there was something both familiar and different at the association's meetings at the Sheraton Park Hotel Wednesday through Saturday last week. Not surprisingly, afon black geneology, who heard Robert Clarke and James D. Walker from the National Achives and Records Serter "Roots," there was a substanial audience at a seminar vice talk about racing black ancestors.
But equally, seminars on black art and literature, the black press, the late New York Rep. Adam Clyton Powell Jr., and recent black biographies drew numerous listeners.
In between sessions, the nearly 2,000 scholars, students, and participants wandered around an exhibition are that featured black historical personalities.
Many Americans are not familiar with the people whose faces appeared in the exhibition: Garret Morgan, who invented the automatic stop sign; Elijah "the real" McCoy, inventor of an oil container that lubricates machines and engines while they are in motion, or Maggie L. Walker, the nation's first woman bank president.
Getting all people to appreciate black contributions to American culture is the major thrust of the organization, explained Dr. J. Rupert Picott, executive director of the association. Standing outside one of the meeting rooms Friday, Picott said, "When Carter G. Woodson founded the association in 1915, he wanted a vehicle through which Negroes would learn to be proud of their heritage an an organization that would get all people to know black contributions." Woodson also started Negro History Week, which will be e
The organization has also been the wellspring for black historical scholars, men like Howard University historians Rayford Logan and Charles Wesley, and the University of Chicago's John Hope Franklin.
"This is the tops for black history history scholars," said Al-Tony Gilmore, associate director of history at the University of Maryland and director of the school's Afro-American Studies Department. "This is where you have to be recognized if you're doing work in black history. This is the primary organization that promoted the idea that the black past was worthy of sudy. They did it long before any black studies programs or affirmative action. This is the vanguard."
Many of the sessions centered on the delivery of scholarly papers but discussion wasn't limited to academic theories. Dr. Andrew Billingsley, president of Morgan State University noted at a seminar that black family life has roots "firmly planted in Africa and branches firmly planted in the American society and economic order." He said this has resulted in a necessity to develop social policies that take into consideration "the varieties and complexities of black family life."
Billingsley then added that he had recently testifies before the House Ways and Means Committee in support of a bill that would encourage working parents to place their children with grandparents and receive the appropriate tax credit for the expenses involved.
"This is a simple measure which would have the effect of strengthening the extended family (the structure of many black families) which is so important in black family life today." said Billingsley. "Yet government, both the Congress and the administration, are approaching these matters with great reluctance."
History and politics also melded in a session titled "Affirmative Action and Reverse Discrimination in Higher Learning." Talking to a packed room, Hugh M. Gloster, president of Atlanta's Morehouse College, said that he preferred to talk about "a reversal of disrimination, not reversed disrmination. It is only when blacks began to enter the professions of medicine and law, the direct pathways to affluent living, that this resistance began," he said, referring to the Allan Bakke reverse discrimination case now before the Supreme Court. "Bakke had more education than most minorities can ever hope to get," he said.
Taking a breather from the meetins and sessions, historian John Blasingame of Yale University, who had participated in the seminar on "Slavery and Abolition," said he found the annual meeting "an opportunity to meet old friends and share in an exchange of ideas." Blassingame is currently working on the papers of orator and ex-slave Frederick Douglass.
And certainly a generational meeting of blacks, a kind of historical link, was part of the association's meeting. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Patricia R. Harris spoke at a banquet Saturday night on "Americans, Housing and Projections." But part of her time, she was recognizing people in the audience who, she said, had influenced and taught her.
Said a woman historian who sat in the Sheraton-Park's hallway waiting for a taxi at the end of the conference: "I live in Harrisburg, Pa., where, once in a blue moon, I'm likely to have the opportunity of seeing a lot of books on blacks.
"Here, I not only got the opportunity to see a wealth of writings on black subjects, I also got to meet a lot of the authors."