Professor Freida High, photographed in the classroom in the late 1980s, served on the steering committee that created the Afro-American Studies Department. She later joined the faculty, becoming the department’s longest-serving faculty member at 41 years. (Courtesy of UW–Madison Archives)

The Department of African American Studies (previously the Department of Afro-American Studies) was born of student activism. On April 4, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. His murder sparked a wave of riots and protests on college campuses across the country. Black students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison reacted to the murder of Dr. King by orchestrating a series of strikes intended to force the university’s administration to institute a program of study about African Americans. A year later, in April 1969, then Chancellor Edwin Young appointed a steering committee for what would become the Department of Afro-American Studies. The committee spent the next few months working on a proposal for the department. It was approved in November, 1969. The Department of Afro-American Studies offered its first classes during the fall of 1970. Since then, the Department has educated thousands of students about the history, culture and literature of Black people in America, many of whom are now teaching in high schools, colleges and universities throughout the United States and in Europe and Africa.

Leaders of the Black Student Strike of 1969 gather to speak at a rally. (UW-Madison archives)