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The Graduate Association for African American History hosting annual conference this week

The Graduate Association for African American History is hosting its 21st Annual Conference. The conference will begin Thursday, February 17 at 2:00 pm and conclude Saturday, February 19 at 5:00 pm.

The theme of this year’s conference will be “Welcome Back: African American History for the Next Generation.”

Brianna Harrison, president of GAAAH, said the title for the theme was chosen because the organization was unable to hold a conference last year.

GAAAH usually holds three events, including its annual conference, each year, but the COVID-19 pandemic put a hold on the events taking place.

“It’s kind of like a welcome back in a sense,” Harrison said. “We’re getting everything going with the conference and continuing our tradition.”

The conference is also named after the topics that the guest speakers will discuss during the event.

The keynote speaker will be Dr. Deidre Cooper Owens. Owens is a professor in the History of Medicine and director of the Humanities in Medicine Program at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She is also the author of the book, “Medical Bondage: Race, Gender, and the Origins of American Gynecology[AF1] ”, which focuses on the Antebellum South and how slaves were experimented on in the medical field.

 Owens will be giving advice to attendees on how to be a successful historian.

“Some members of GAAAH are training to be historians in the graduate school,” Harrison said. “It’s going to be a way to get the next group of scholars, in terms of African American history, prepared for the job market.”

Dr. Sheena Harris will also be a guest speaker at the conference. Harris is an associate professor of history and Africana studies coordinator at West-Virginia University. She will be discussing her book, “Margaret Murray Washington: The Life and Times of a Career Clubwoman”, which is the first biography to focus on the life of Margaret Murray Washington.

Harris is an alumni of the UofM, receiving her PhD[AF2]  in African American history at the university and also serving as president for GAAAH while she was a graduate student.

Harrison said the organization did a lot of early planning for the conference through getting funded, picking who they wanted to speak and coming up with a theme for its annual conference.

“It’s a lot of hard work. It takes a lot of planning and participation from all group members,” Harrison said. “We’re a small organization too, so a lot of us have to take on most of the roles. But we get it done.”

She believes it is important to have an organization like GAAAH at the University of Memphis given its history of formerly being a segregated institution under the name Memphis State University.

The university, founded in 1912, admitted its first black students in 1959. These eight students became known as the Memphis State Eight. They faced racism, isolation and scrutiny for attending the university. They were even restricted from being on campus after-class and in public places such as the student center and cafeteria.

These restrictions on black students eventually dissolved as time progressed and more black students began to attend the university.

According to the University of Memphis Office of Institutional Research, there are 7,360 black students that attend UofM as of the Fall 2021 semester, making up over 34% of the student population on campus.

“In terms of grappling with that conflicting racial past of Memphis State University, having an organization like GAAAH shows the progression that this university has made and that African American history is something worth studying, something worth being involved in,” Harrison said.

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