Maine Memo — Recognizing Black history every month of the year

Dear UMaine and UMaine Machias community members,

At the beginning of Black History Month this year, President Biden reminded us that the month represents “both a celebration and a powerful reminder that Black history is American history, Black culture is American culture, and Black stories are essential to the ongoing story of America — our faults, our struggles, our progress, and our aspirations.” As Black History Month draws to a close, consider that our celebration, reflection and inclusive action should be ongoing, every month of the year.

We have had an array of Black History Month events, many organized by UMaine’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion. Both Fogler and Merrill libraries on our campuses have Black History Month resources and displays. Throughout the academic year, special events and ongoing programming, led by the Division of Student Life and others, promote reflection, mindfulness and greater communication related to diversity, equity and inclusion. Nobuntu, the female a cappella quintet from Zimbabwe, performed at the Collins Center for the Arts, and the Maine Business School presented a virtual screening of the documentary “Trace the Line.”

Institutionally, we have strengthened our commitment and set important DEI goals that become ever-more urgent as we emerge from the worst days of the pandemic. From the work of the President’s Council on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion led by Susan McKay and Silvestre Guzmán to the Faculty Senate’s DEI Committee chaired by MJ Sedlock, and similar groups within our administrative organizations, colleges, schools and programs, we are focused on a concerted effort to address structural and policy barriers to being the inclusive institution we strive to be.

Thanks to Fogler Library Special Collections, and important resources such as Maureen Elgersman Lee’s book, “Black Bangor: African Americans in a Maine Community, 1880–1950,” we know about the contributions of some of UMaine’s earliest Black graduates, including Bangor students Federico Walter Matheas, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering in 1907 and had a long career as a public works engineer in Philadelphia, and Ada Smith (Peters), who graduated in 1927 with a bachelor’s degree in French and went on to a teaching career at Tuskegee Institute.

In 1935, another Bangor native, Beryl Warner (Williams), was the first Black woman to receive a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from UMaine. She returned to earn a master’s degree in mathematics in 1940 and went on to be a nationally recognized educator at Morgan State University. She overcame substantial challenges here at UMaine and in Maine, including racial discrimination in the 1930s that forced Beryl, her sister, H. Althea Warner, and other Black UMaine undergraduates to pursue their student teaching outside of the state. We have named Beryl Warner Williams Hall on the UMaine campus in honor of her legacy that includes accomplished leadership in education, vision for inclusiveness and engaged community building.

Dr. Mae Jemison, whom I had the honor to meet in the earliest days of her career as the first African-American female astronaut, said “Never be limited by other people’s limited imaginations.”

It is a good message, for February, and for every month.


Joan Ferrini-Mundy