The college board recognizes Black History Month, giving its top awards to a white educator and a white educator and a white community activist

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During the February meeting of the Board of Trustees of State Institutions (the College Board), Dr. Ormella Cummings, chairwoman of the diversity committee, presided over the ceremony wherein awards were presented to ten educators and one community volunteer for their activities in promoting diversity/inclusion. The awards ceremony is an annual event that takes place each February.

This year’s recipients included the following individuals:

• From Alcorn State University, Dr. Ping Zhang was honored. He is an Asian professor who teaches mathematics and computer science and chairs that department. 

• From Delta State University, there was Professor Sylma Samuel-Ferreira, a Black female who teaches Spanish and English as a second language. 

• Dr. Frances Dancer, a Black female who teaches electrical and computer engineering and computer science, represented Jackson State University. 

• Dr. Antonio J. Gardner, a Black male who works in the agriculture division of Mississippi State University, represented that institution. (He was the lone Black male in the group and the second awardee from Mississippi State. The other individual was recognized as the Diversity Educator of the Year.) 

• From Mississippi University for Women was Dr. Catherine L. Cotton, a Black female who teaches in the Speech – Language Pathology program. (She was unable to attend the ceremony.) 

• Dr. Rochelle McGee-Cobbs is a Black female who heads the Mississippi Valley State University Prison Education Partnership. 

• From the University of Mississippi, Dr. E. Gray Flora IV, – a white male who directs Grove Scholars at the university – was recognized. 

• From the University of Mississippi Medical Center, Dr. Roberto P. Santos – a Hispanic male who is in the department of pediatrics – was honored. 

• Dr. Adina Narcisse Green, a Black female who, as director of Trio Support Services, represented the University of Southern Mississippi. 

Each of those individuals was presented with a plaque in recognition of their diversity/inclusion efforts.

The overall winner in the diversity/inclusion endeavor – who was honored as the Diversity Educator of the Year – was Dr. David R. Buys from Mississippi State University. Dr. Buys, who is a white male, serves as an Associate Professor and State Health Specialist. He gave a brief speech thanking those responsible for his selection as well as emphasizing the pride he takes in his work. He was introduced by Mississippi State University President, Dr. Mark Keenum, who, among other things, boasted that Mississippi State University has a higher percentage of Black students than any other institution in the Southeastern Conference (SEC) or among the 1862 land-grant institutions.

Following the Diversity and Inclusion award presentations, Mrs. Shawn Brevard, a volunteer, community activist was presented the Karen Cummings Community Service Award. This award is named in honor of former board member Karen Cummings and recognizes individuals who have performed outstanding work in the community. Brevard is from Tupelo and, among other things, leads the Committee for King which honors Martin Luther King.

The annual awards ceremony takes place in February because decades ago, as a new board member, James Luvene had made the observation that at that time there was no Black History Month recognition by the college board. He had then made a motion to initiate such a ceremony. He was supported by the board and for the rest of his term he served as chairman of the awards committee.

Over the years, the event has seemingly strayed from its original thrust. It has become a time to recognize efforts at diversity or inclusion rather than a time to remember the achievements and/or struggles of Black people in America.

Also, while he was on the college board, Luvene proposed a settlement for the Ayers case that was so sympathetic toward the position of the plaintiffs until it was never even debated by the college board. Not much was heard from him from that point forward. It could be why not much is said about him today. 

Just as Luvene’s Ayers proposal has been swept from sight and memory, so has his idea of commemorating Black history. It may explain why today there is little mention of Black history during the February ceremonies and why the two major awardees this year are white. There is a big difference between commemorating Black history and what now takes place at the February college board meetings.  

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The college board recognizes Black History Month, giving its top awards to a white educator and a white educator and a white community activist

By Dr. Ivory Phillips
February 28, 2023