African American Studies Program Celebrates 30th Anniversary

February 06, 2023


  • The driving force in the creation of the program was Dorothy Perry Thompson, an English professor, who said there was an interest and a need at Winthrop.
  • Thirty years later, university officials said there continues to be a need for the minor.

ROCK HILL, SOUTH CAROLINA – In 1992 when Los Angeles erupted in riots after white police officers were acquitted of beating Black resident Rodney King, setting off a national debate about race, Winthrop University’s African American Studies minor first became available to Winthrop students.

The driving force in the creation of the program was Dorothy Perry Thompson, an English professor, who said there was an interest and a need at Winthrop. Thirty years later, university officials said there continues to be a need for the minor.

The program’s highlights from the past three decades will be on display Feb. 9 at the Louise Pettus Archives and Special Collections during an anniversary celebration. The contributions of Thompson, who passed away in 2002, also will be recognized during the 4-6 p.m. reception.

Thompson told a reporter for The Johnsonian student newspaper in 1992 that the minor was good to pair with any major, particularly with political science, literature and education. The minor’s 18 semester hours were designed to give students perspectives on cultural diversity to help navigate everyday life and the work force.

The African American Studies program has a lot to offer, Thompson said at the time, but she added that some may misinterpret it as radical and aggressive, and fear it would cause racial upheaval. However, she believed the opposite would be true, and that if anything, the minor would promote understanding.

Program Remains Relevant

Fast forward to 2023, Jennifer Dixon-McKnight, an assistant professor of history who now coordinates the minor program, said that African American Studies remains important. Focusing on the Black experience in the United States, it covers the African Diaspora across time and space.

“The program is interdisciplinary, and that is beautifully reflected in our course offerings and the diversity of the faculty that teach those courses,” said Dixon-McKnight.

Our nation continues to grapple with the legacy of slavery, the issue of race, and even the validity of studying African-American history, Dixon-McKnight said. “Students who take courses within the program have the opportunity to come face to face with the complexities of the African-American experience and acquire knowledge about a people that can positively influence how they engage with the world around them and help shape the way forward for future generations,” she added.

In the past decade, there have been an average of 10 Winthrop students a year who chose the minor. They come from a variety of fields of study, including art, dance, history, mass communications, world languages, political science, psychology and sociology. 

Annual Colloquium Stands Out for Speakers and Topics

One of the African American Studies minor’s missions has been to hold a seminar to share knowledge. The first colloquium, held in 1999, featured Winthrop History Professor Ginger Williams who discussed “Afro-Cubans and the U.S. Embargo Against Cuba.”

Upon Thompson’s passing, the colloquium was renamed in her memory. Fittingly, the first speaker for the Dorothy Perry Thompson Colloquium on African American Studies and the African American Experience was civil rights activist and Congressman John Lewis (D-GA). During his lecture, he recalled another trip he made to Rock Hill in 1961 when he became the first Freedom Rider to be assaulted while he was trying to enter a whites-only waiting room of the Greyhound bus terminal.

Other nationally known speakers also have visited the campus, including Diane Nash, a founding member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), who spoke in 2003 on the Charlotte/Rock Hill sit-ins and its legacy. Another prominent speaker included Cleveland Sellers, a South Carolina civil rights activist who was shot and unjustly jailed in the Orangeburg Massacre. 

The program also noted the significance of various national anniversaries, such as the 50th anniversary in 2004 of the landmark Supreme Court Brown vs. Board of Education which led to the integration of schools. In 2006 there was even a student tour of civil rights sites in Memphis, Selma, Montgomery, Birmingham and Atlanta.

By the next decade, speakers arrived annually on campus to discuss current events and other topics, including the Confederate flag, police brutality, and more. In 2019, Winthrop welcomed back one of its own, educator and historian Derrick Alridge ’88, ’92, to speak at the colloquium on hip hop and the black intellectual tradition. For the past two years, due to the COVID pandemic, the colloquium has been held online.

Alumni Say Minor Enriched Their Perspectives

Alumni who have taken African-American courses or completed requirements for the minor are happy they did.

Vilissa Thompson ’08, ’12, said the African American Studies minor set the foundation for the disability activism work that she has been involved in for a decade, centering on Black disabled people. 

“I got to study not just African-American history and politics, but also African politics, which allowed me to understand the dynamics of the continent in a fuller way than what is typically portrayed in Western media,” Thompson said. “Knowing my history has allowed me to speak fearlessly about the injustices committed on this demographic of the Black community, as well as speak on the powerful contributions this community has made that goes under the radar.”

Kambrell Garvin ’13, a Columbia, South Carolina, attorney who now serves in the General Assembly representing House District 77, said the African American Studies program provided him with the historical framework to effectively understand the present day Black experience in the United States and in the African Diaspora. 

“From organizing social justice protest and voter registration initiatives as an undergraduate to now advocating for equitable policies as a lawyer and state legislator, my work has always been underpinned by the historical truth and knowledge gained as an African American Studies program participant,” Garvin said.

Ashley Briggs ’17 frequently uses the lessons she learned through the program during her work as a news producer at WUSA9 in Washington, D.C. Her professors went beyond surface level in their lectures to boldly challenge students. “Through their efforts, I am able to confidently speak on topics pertaining to Black history, culture and sociology,” Briggs said.

Alumni who attended Winthrop during the 1990s regarded their interaction with Thompson as priceless. The Columbia native joined the Winthrop faculty in 1985 and was granted full professorship a year before she passed. One of her many contributions was to lobby for the African American Studies program’s creation and to chair a committee to design courses and create programming. 

Montrio Belton ’96, ’99, was among the first students who took one of Thompson’s African-American courses. According to Belton, Thompson did not think he would pass her class because his grammar and writing skills were lacking. She wanted him to take a remedial writing class instead, but they ended up compromising, and he spent hours in the writing lab trying to perfect his assignments. 

“I was just a young kid from rural South Carolina who had the intellectual capacity but spoke and wrote in the environment from which I came,” Belton said. Thompson’s “tough love” pushed him to improve his writing and his speaking abilities. 

Belton was among a dozen students who formed a Taking Back Integrity organization that worked with Thompson on activities such as attending the Million Man March in 1995. Many of them, like Belton, are now attorneys. 

Logo Reflects Past and Future

The logo for the African American Studies program features an image of the Sankofa bird, a West African symbol that shows the animal facing forward toward the United States but simultaneously turning its head to look back at a map of the African continent. 

The logo represents one of the most vital aspects of the African American Studies program, which is the importance of remembering the historical past in order to understand and succeed in the valuable lessons that African and African-American cultures teach today.

For more information about the program, please visit the website or contact Dixon-Knight at

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