Janet Stovall & Judy Harrell, 1985
Authored by Ramona M. Davis ’21 in “Black Student Activism at Davidson College“
last updated 02.09.2021
Any discussion of black student activism at Davidson will likely begin with the Black Student Coalition (BSC) and Project 87’. The Black Student Coalition was founded in 1967, during the peak of the civil rights movement, to hold space for the Black community at Davidson. Almost 20 years later, the organization’s leadership released a statement of demands known at Project 87’. This project gave three years for the college to enroll more black students, hire black faculty and administrators, and begin offering courses in Black Studies. Project 87’s demands mirror student demands from the Third World Strike at San Francisco State University, the first major example of activism leading to department creation (Rojas, 2010). Janet Stovall ‘85, depicted in this exhibition’s opening photo, led the BSC in various capacities throughout her time at Davidson and was instrumental in creating Project 87’.
The archive houses written documents from Project 87’ and the BSC, but this yearbook photo helps give depth to the student experience that shaped visions set forth in Project 87’. Figure 1 depicts two black women, Janet Stovall (left) and Judy Harrell (right) smiling as they embrace one another, showing the spirit of their friendship and community created by the BSC. They are both wearing nice clothing and jewelry, indicating that they may have gotten dressed up for a BSC event. In the background, there is a brick fireplace, a window, and a white lion. Although happiness is the centerpiece of this image, the white lion represents the menacing presence of institutional racism that still runs rampant at the college.
Yearbooks generally rely on photography, but this photo has more importance as an opportunity for positive self-representation for the BSC. For black people, photography “offered the possibility of immediate intervention, useful in the production of counter-hegemonic representations even as it was also an instrument of pleasure” (hooks, 49). The students enjoyed being photographed and simultaneously resisted dominant constructions of blackness by selecting this photograph as significant enough to be remembered. One could read the happiness in this photo as broadly reflective of black student’s overall experience at Davidson, yet Janet Stovall is leading an initiative that is founded upon the discontentment of black students. The black joy in this photo shines through anything that may be going on in the background of their lives. The friendship and community of the BSC helps is more powerful than struggles they may be dealing with. This joy is what sustains them.
This photo and Project 87’ represent the birthplace of Africana Studies at Davidson, as the first well documented initiative to hire more black studies faculty and add classes in Black Studies. “Black nationalist politics would never have had an academic impact if it were not for student activists who brought these ideas to campus” (Rojas, 2010, 25). Although the goals of project 87’ were not reached by 1987, these students pushed black studies onto the agenda. The Ethnic Studies Concentration was founded in 1994 with Africana Studies coming twenty years later in 2014. At every turn, student activists are not just advocating for themselves, but arguing for black people to be placed in positions of power in the university. Although these students are advocating for themselves, they do not become their struggle. This photo reminds us to center black joy and remember how black women activists have cultivated community at Davidson.