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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University February 13, 2006 | Vol. 35 No. 21
Celebrating JH’s African- Americans

Franklin Knight, the Leonard and Helen R. Stulman Professor, directs the Webbased African-Americans at the Johns Hopkins Institutions Project..

By Amy Cowles Lunday

Student-written biographies of influential African-Americans throughout the university’s history will be formally unveiled this Thursday, Feb. 16, during a celebration honoring the faculty, staff, students and financial supporters behind the African-Americans at the Johns Hopkins Institutions Project.

The fete, which is open to the entire Hopkins community, will take place from 5 to 7 p.m. in 210 Hodson Hall on the Homewood campus. James West, a research professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, will deliver the keynote address, and the event will also feature an awards ceremony and a 24-panel timeline display chronicling selected events from Johns Hopkins’ history, with an emphasis on contributions from African-Americans. Much of the students’ work is already online at, the project’s permanent Web-based exhibition.

The event is the capstone of the project’s first three years, during which 20 undergraduates recorded the oral histories of some of Hopkins’ renowned African-American doctors, professors, researchers, alumni and staff for independent study credits.

"The idea behind the project’s creation is to look at the contributions of African-Americans at Johns Hopkins in a reciprocal way—what they contribute to Hopkins and what Hopkins contributes to them—across all divisions,” said Franklin Knight, the Leonard and Helen R. Stulman Professor of History, who directs the project. Knight is also the first black faculty member to gain academic tenure at the university and is one of the scholars profiled on the Web site.

The site currently features 15 profiles, among them physicians Benjamin Carson and Levi Watkins; Douglas Miles and John Guess, two of the founders of the university’s Black Student Union; Shirley Dilsworth, Karen Freeman Burdnell and Gail Williams-Glasser, the three African- American women enrolled as freshmen in the first undergraduate class to formally admit women to Hopkins; and Frederick I. Scott, Hopkins’ first African-American undergraduate to be admitted and to receive a degree.

In addition to the written histories, many of the profiles will include an audio component, and at least one, a video. An excerpt from the video, whose subject is Minnie Hargrow, a longtime assistant in the President’s Office, will be presented during Thursday’s event.

The purpose behind the African-Americans at the Johns Hopkins Institutions Project is twofold, according to one of its founding members, librarian Sharon Morris.

"One idea is to collect these stories and the other is to start thinking about what it means, to analyze the role of race and achievement,” Morris said. "We need to explore what it is that African-Americans bring to the table. To be able to articulate our own value is an important part of this project.”

In many cases, the histories of these individuals are being written for the first time, noted Melanie Shell-Weiss, one of the project’s faculty mentors. "Many of the people featured in the project played critical leadership roles while at Hopkins and then went on to do pathbreaking work in their field of study or in their communities,” Shell-Weiss said. "This is not just about Hopkins history. It also illuminates important chapters of African-American history.”

Though the primary goal of the endeavor is to improve the Hopkins community’s understanding of the collective influence of its African-American members, the project is having an impact off campus as well. When Roland Smoot, the first African-American faculty member at the School of Medicine, died in late January, both The Baltimore Sun and The Washington Post quoted Homewood senior Claudette Onyelobi’s biography of Smoot in their respective obituaries, attributing the work to her.

Smoot and Onyelobi, who plans to go to medical school, stayed in touch after the project was completed. "Dr. Smoot provided me with goo-gobs of pre-medical and medical advice,” Onyelobi said. "[He] shared his time and wisdom with me.”

Morris said that one of the offshoots from this project that they hadn’t predicted was the bringing together of the generations. "When [the students] interview the alumni or faculty or staff, this magical stuff is happening,” she said. "There is a mentoring role that people are taking on, and they don’t just end the relationship with the interview.”

According to Morris and Knight, the goal as they move forward is to transform the independent study project into a regular undergraduate course, most likely through the Center for Africana Studies or the History Department. With continued assistance from the Digital Media Center, Knight would like the projects to become more interactive and to use even more of a multimedia approach with more photos as well as audio and video clips.

"What you see now on the Web page is really just stage one,” Knight said. "We think it is a very important project that tells us a lot about the institution as it relates with the community on both a local and international level. We look at it as a living part of Hopkins culture—what is, has been and will be.


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