Students preserve African American Homecoming

By Teresa A. Sewell

Martha Wilkins, junior in Education, takes a deep breath and apologizes. For the second time, her phone rings. On the opposite end is the Illini Union Board Area Coordinator of African American Homecoming, Ryan Johnson, calling to make sure Wilkins, the African American Homecoming Co-chair has picked up the props and clothing that will be used for this week’s fashion show.

This, among such tasks as calling celebrities and negotiating contracts, has consumed both Wilkins and Johnson’s life since June. However, neither regrets taking on the responsibility because in the end, they will bring the campus unique and cultural activities through the African American Homecoming.

On a campus where blacks represent fewer than 3,000 out of the 40,000 students on campus, a week of activities has been dedicated to promoting diversity. The festivities begin Tuesday night with a pageant and end on Saturday night with a comedy show and party.

African American Homecoming started over 30 years ago when black students on campus felt the University’s homecoming events did not welcome them, said Natalie Davis, an IUB program advisor.

“So it’s sort of a grassroots type of program that has grown and been supported by the University,” Davis said.

African American Homecoming was needed in the past for black students to be included in homecoming activities, but it continues now because it can add to everybody’s college experience, Wilkins said.

It offers diverse and alternative programs because not all students, no matter their color, are going to want to do all of the same activities, Wilkins added.

“(With) the minority population being so low, this program caters towards them and lets them know they are acknowledged on campus,” Ryan Johnson, junior in LAS, said.

The traditional homecoming doesn’t have a party, only allows seniors to be in the homecoming court and is more focused towards celebrating the football game, Johnson said.

On the other hand, African American Homecoming allows all undergraduates to get involved, allowing freshmen to participate in the pageant, Johnson said.

Cultural events are a way for the University to welcome different ethnicities, Davis said.

“African Americans students aren’t told not to attend the other,” Wilkins said. “These are just other programs that are available and they are not just for African American students. We encourage diversity in our programs.”

It is hurtful when people argue that African American Homecoming is a way for blacks to segregate themselves, Wilkins said. With all the work that the students and the University put into planning the program, including finding artists to perform, negotiating contracts and marketing the program, Wilkins said those types of comments are disappointing.

“Whenever you are outside of the mainstream and you attach your race to something, people may look at it as being separate,” Wilkins said.

It is important to check out the event, talk to the people involved and then decide what type of program it is, Wilkins added. She hopes everyone will do that for African American Homecoming.

The majority of the people on the committees are black, but it is open for everyone, Johnson said.

People come down every year from everywhere for the homecoming weekend and are particularly attracted to the after party, Johnson said.

Since the party has been moved from the Illini Union to the Intramural Physical Education Building, Johnson said he knows it will be even more successful because there is now more room.

“We know that the party will be the biggest party of the year, so we want the program to be of quality, everyone to be safe and the best homecoming people have seen in a while,” Johnson said.

“I hope that people see the benefits of having an African American Homecoming,” Davis added. “It adds to the culture of the Illinois experience.”

We made sure we encouraged all to attend, said Davis.

Davis has seen different races try out for the pageant and the fashion show. Other ethnic groups have made the final selection, been a part of the audience and just participate in general.

“It’s a personal choice if people chose not to attend, but everyone is welcome,” Davis said.

Wilkins hopes everyone comes out and has a good time.

“I don’t care what color or creed you are, if you want to come and have a good time with us, you can,” Wilkins said. “That’s what we are about.”