For most of us Black History Month is like air, it seems like it’s always been around, but where did it come from and how did it start?
The year was 1969 and change was in the air. In November of 1968 Black students, led by the leaders of Kent State’s newest activist organization, the Black United Students. Hundreds of Black students packed their bags and headed for parts unknown, for many of them were too far from home to return in the middle of the quarter.
The Black United Students are no typical student organization, they are student advocates. After protesting the presence of Oakland, CA police recruiters a number of students were deemed undesirables and either suspended or expelled. The walkout was a show of solidarity with their fellow student protesters. The students had tried to negotiate with the university administrators, to no avail.
The walkout was successful. The students were reinstated and the university agreed to meet the demands of the students to create a Black Cultural Center, Office of Minority Affairs, a Black Studies Department and give the, so-called undesirable students, amnesty. It was this series of events that brought Kent alumnus Dr. Edward W. Crosby back to his alma mater to create the Institute for African American Affairs (IAAA). The first order of business was to develop a curriculum with no money for faculty or staff.
This is where things got kind of tricky. Without enough money in the budget to do anything but act as a grand registrar for other departments Dr. Crosby began looking at the resources available to him on the campus. TV 2 Kent State’s closed circuit TV network debuted in October of 1968. With their fledgling television studio and capability of hosting a live studio audience Dr. Crosby saw an opportunity. He had become familiar with the power of TV broadcasting & recording from his tenure in East St. Louis, where he took unlikely college candidates and prepared them for matriculation from a liberal arts college. At Kent department chairs were encouraged to develop tele-courses. Dr. Crosby quickly saw a way he could turn this untapped potential into relevant educational content. By using TV2, to transmit information across campus and also record these lectures and cultural presentations for later use in the Institute’s 1st course, “Towards a Black Cosmology and Aesthetic,” he could turn water to wine.
At a Malcolm X Day celebration in February of 1969 Nelson Stevens, a graduate student in the art department, talked to Dean Wilson about producing a month-long Black History Month program for February of 1970. Dean Wilson liked the idea so much he added it to Kent State’s University calendar. Now, the only question was who would be invited as guest artists, lecturers, etc.
As an experienced educational administrator, Dr. Crosby was used to being in situations that required him to use creative financing, in order to achieve his goals. As he put it, “he could do more with a nickel, than a monkey could do with a peanut.” He came up with the idea of using funds from Black United Students for their cultural/educational programs to bring some of his friends and associates to Kent, where many of their lectures and presentations could be recorded for posterity. It was a match made in heaven. BUS needed programming for the Kuumba House while IAAA needed the recordings as curriculum materials for their fledgling Institute.
That first Black History Month program was all the way live, with Pulitzer Prize winning poet Gwendolyn Brooks; Jimmy Garrett, co-founder of the 1st Black Student Union in the USA; “Apostle of Africulture,” Babatunde Olatunji & the Drums of Passion; nationally renowned poets Eugene Redmond & Quincy Troupe, as well as other notables from the fields of psychology, sociology, art, etc. on campus, as part of the festivities.
This is how the 1st Black History Month program was created. From it’s inauspicious beginnings here in Kent, Ohio to the global phenomenon that it is today, Black History Month represents just one small part of the living legacy of Dr. Edward W. Crosby. His focus, 1st & foremost, to paraphrase his best friend Don Henderson, was “to produce millions of Black college graduates,” not by doing ground breaking research or writing hundreds of books, but by counseling, nurturing, guiding and advocating for each and every student that crossed the threshold of IAAA’s offices at Kent. In the end it is those students that make up his living legacy. Students who, oftentimes, would have been left by the side of the road, if not for his constant urging, cajoling and advocacy.
Over the past 4 months, since he celebrated his 88th birthday, it has become apparent that if not for Dr. Crosby many of today’s Black administrators, from Claude Steele, former Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost at UC Berkeley, to Larry Simpson, senior vice president for Academic Affairs and provost at Berklee College of Music would not be who they are, were it not for the influence, counseling and mentorship of Dr. Crosby. These 2 examples are not even representative of the tip of this iceberg. I’ve interviewed over 60 people that knew him well, including former students, friends, family members and business associates and have only scratched the surface, for his influence runs deep and wide from the world of entertainment to the world of business. From City Hall to Southside Mall, from pillar to post and stoop to stoop, Dr. Crosby made his mark.
He could have been an “armchair revolutionary” or a TV pundit, as so many with his type of credentials are wont to be, in today’s world, but for the influence of his mother, who urged him to work for Black people and let the chips fall where they may. Yes, he “made his money, but money did not make him,” as he liked to put it. He made sure the students were at the center of the learning process, but more importantly he made sure they were the focus of all of his efforts, on the campuses of Kent State, the University of Washington, Tuskegee Institute, Hiram College, the University of Kansas, the Experiment in Higher Education @ Southern Illinois University and one of Ohio’s 1st charter schools, Ida B. Wells Community Academy. He focused on the needs of the student, first and foremost.
While his accomplishments in the field of education were notable, he still had time for family, remained close to his parents and his siblings, attended family reunions and used his publishing skills to create a family newsletter and a genealogical scroll.
This brings up an interesting point. EWC (Eternal Work Creator), as he was sometimes called, was also known as an “educational entrepreneur.” I’m sure whoever said that meant it in a negative way, but I’m also just as sure that he would have taken that on as an additional title. He was an expert at promoting the programs sponsored by IAAA, the Department of Pan-African Studies, as it was later called and the Center of Pan-African Culture. He was also an innovator, as was noted earlier, he was an early adopter of new technology, including computers. In fact, his secretary Gladys Bozeman was the first secretary on Kent’s campus to use a desktop computer as part of her job description. The department also established the first desktop computer lab, at the request of Janet Stadulis, an English teacher attached to the department.
We would be remiss if we overlooked the creation of the African Community Theater. It was originally established as the Black Drama Workshop, by Sandy Sheffey. With nothing but their bodies and a small room in the cultural center to work with, the drama workshop began as an adjunct of America’s oldest Black theater company, Karamu House. The workshop had a number of directors over the years and finally became a full fledged theater under the direction of a graduate student in the department, Fran Dorsey. Under his direction the theater became a semi-professional organization producing a number of professional actors and actresses.
The last institution Crosby established was an outgrowth of a project his oldest son Kofi was involved in at Kent, the Progressive Education Community School (PECS). The establishment of Ida B. Wells Community Academy (IBWCA), one of Ohio’s 1st charter schools, was his most significant involvement with elementary/secondary school education. He literally carried it for 10 years, nurturing it and making sure it was solvent at all costs. In the end the school closed after 10 years of operation, due to a negative political climate that evolved over time, which has cast all charter schools in a bad light.
In speaking with everyone who knew him, without fail, the influence and support of Shirley Crosby, his wife of 65 years and childhood sweetheart is always mentioned. And, while Shirley and Ed became known as community mothers and fathers to students from far flung regions of the planet, including a number of African countries, the Caribbean and every state in the U.S., they still had time to raise 3 boys, E. Michael Crosby, Darryl M.L. Crosby and E. Malcolm Crosby, who continues to add to their legacy through the works of their offspring.
Dr. Crosby passed from this world as the sun set on Kent, Ohio the evening of February 10th, 2021. He died as he lived, standing on his feet, fighting for every breath of life he could get. Never one to back down from a fight, we can rest assured he’s continuing to fight the good fight alongside the angels Gabriel and Michael.