UR Black studies department gains momentum

Print More
Jeffrey McCune Jr. hopes to create a space for the study of all Black lives–across gender, sexual orientation and socioeconomic status. (Photo: UR/J. Adam Fenster)

A little over a year ago, Jeffrey McCune Jr. was tasked with building a Department of Black Studies at the University of Rochester. Since then, he has hired new faculty, and in December, UR received a $3 million grant to add more.

McCune, director of the Frederick Douglass Institute and Department of Black Studies, hopes to create a space for the study of all Black lives–across gender, sexual orientation and socioeconomic status.

“How do we create a department for people to take those questions seriously? Everybody can’t study everything, but we have to have the same committed values,” McCune says. “And so what we’re building is a set of faculty who are committed to the same values, as we think about what Black studies can be and do.”

His plan goes a step further, with a vision for a Black studies department that is recognizable and meaningful as a research hub and also one that has community impact in Rochester and beyond.

“What does it mean to have Black folks who are just members of the community who happen to be scholars?” McCune says. “We’re not always starting with the orientation (that) ‘I’m a scholar coming to teach,’ (but) ‘I’m actually a scholar who’s a part of the community who’s interested in what you could teach me.’

“I’m trying to build the spirit or energy of folks who really take seriously our commitments to not only social justice, but the social world of Black people.”

The department resides in the Arts, Sciences & Engineering realm at UR. It works closely with the Frederick Douglass Institute, which was established in 1986. 

The institute was formed to promote the development of Black studies in undergraduate and graduate education and to advance research. While it has had faculty in the past, their primary appointments have been in other departments on campus. A Black studies department, officials say, will enable research and issues central to the Frederick Douglass Institute. 

The new department is currently in its second cycle of hiring. Last September, it appointed its first two full-time faculty members: Jordan Ealey and Philip McHarris. Ealey’s research explores Black feminist creatives, with a focus on theater and performance. McHarris, who comes to UR after a postdoctoral fellowship at Princeton University, explores racial inequality, housing and policing. 

Jordan Ealey and Philip McHarris (Photo: UR/ J. Adam Fenster)

Now, the department has $3 million from the Mellon Foundation to add more people to its bench of expertise. McCune expects to recruit scholars in the fields of culture and global Black studies. An additional position is an open-field search.

“The Mellon grant allows us to expedite the hiring so that by the time we get to 2026, we are at scale,” he says. 

For McCune, that means nine to 12 faculty in total. The department is deploying a cluster-hiring approach–recruiting multiple faculty members based on shared interdisciplinary research goals. It is a way to attract scholars who can collaborate within and across disciplines.

“In one of our next searches, we’ll be looking at folks who are really interested in the health of Black communities, people who actually take very seriously what we might call the medical humanities,” McCune says. “And so, part of what I hope can happen is that we utilize the cluster hire to diversify the larger university. Black studies becomes the kind of catalyst for that.”

Students across race have shown interest in Black studies. It is with their support that the Douglass Institute was established, McCune says.

“What happens with departmentalization is that parents and students begin to believe that Black studies is a real formidable area to study,” he says. “But I think we’re still seeing what the impacts of student interest are.”

While teaching a 50 years of hip hop course, some of McCune’s students, who had taken courses with Ealey and Harris, asked if they could only take Black studies courses to account for a major or a minor area of study.

“When they came here, their parents said, ‘You’re gonna be an engineer, you’re gonna go into finance, you’re gonna write books through English,’” McCune observes. “People don’t realize all of those degrees can be coupled with Black studies. So, what we’re seeing is students taking a real interest in learning about Black folks from all over the world, (and) not just about Black people, but issues that affect Black people all over the world, and they want to intersect it with areas of study.

“The more faculty we have that have diverse interests and diverse profiles,” he adds, “the more students are going to be interested.”

Communicating the vision could pose a challenge for the fledgling department.

“There’s three of us now who have to tell the story of Black studies and tell it over and over again,” McCune says. “There’s three of us who have to say, ‘No, we do not want another traditional historian in Black studies.’ I get it, they do great work, but they’re not interdisciplinary. They don’t have the kind of rich interdisciplinary tradition of looking at multiple things for multiple people. We have to have interdisciplinary studies, because Black people are interdisciplinary people.”

The Rochester community is part of the growth of this department as well. McCune and others would like to operate as community partners. The department and the institute often join with the Avenue Black Box Theater to host programming at that site.

“We really are trying to make sure that we’re out in the community,” he says. “We take our brand with us because what we want to be is a community partner, not necessarily a community leader, because I think that the community leads. 

“We partner with the community to help the community lead in efforts that they find most integral and most important. Historically, we haven’t been as active, but I have been really charged with the idea that we need to be active and engaged.”

Smriti Jacob is Rochester Beacon managing editor. The Beacon welcomes comments and letters from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name. Submissions to the Letters page should be sent to [email protected]

One thought on “UR Black studies department gains momentum

  1. Dear Dr. McCune

    Your reported “vision for a Black studies department that has community impact in Rochester and beyond” is most interesting and intriguing. I look forward to learning more regarding your approach and strategies.

    Attempts to “build the spirit or energy of folks who really take seriously [your] commitments to not only social justice, but the social world of Black people” is extraordinary and highly commendable.

    I’m not clear about the idea of “not wanting another traditional historian in Black studies.” What (exactly and specifically) does that mean, e.g., what (exactly and specifically) defines “a traditional historian in Black studies?” And if you don’t mind, can you please say more about the idea that “Black people are interdisciplinary people?” Again, what (exactly and specifically) does it mean to be an “interdisciplinary” Black person? And, is there such a thing as a Black person who is NOT “interdisciplinary”? Please know that I am not being facetious, nor rhetorical. My interest in learning more about the concepts highlighted above is serious and genuine.

    We were elated to read that you “and others would like to operate as community partners.” Those whom I work closest with would love to meet with you and others and explore the possibility of collaborating, especially and particularly as it relates to anti-racism.

    U of R professor calls for year-round integration of Black studies in education

    If you don’t feel like reading the article, there’s a feature that allows you to listen to it. Click on the link below. When the article comes up, to listen, click on this symbol ⧁ above the “Spectrum News” photo.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *