Fourteen visit Washington, DC as part of a trip sponsored by the UO Lyllye Reynolds-Parker Black Cultural Center
After a transformative trip, the smallest memory can sometimes leave the biggest impression. For University of Oregon senior Tamia Joseph, it’s an unremarkable (but devastating) image of an engagement ring that stands out from their recent trip to Washington, DC.
When Breonna Taylor was killed in her Kentucky home in 2020, the twenty-six-year-old medical worker was not engaged. But her boyfriend had a ring and was planning to propose. Amy Sherald—the artist who painted the official portrait of Michelle Obama—added the ring to her portrait of Taylor.
“The painting was very simple, but details like the ring really stood out,” says Joseph, a sociology major and cadet in the UO Army ROTC program who plans to study urban planning and development in graduate school, then work on behalf of communities struggling with housing security and gentrification.
“A wave of emotion hit me. I think sometimes we turn these people into icons and heroes. They become statues, rather than the humans they were. A lot of things changed because of Taylor’s death, but it shouldn’t have happened. She had a lot more life to live.”
During the five-day experience, the students also volunteered for a youth organization called the Hustlers Guild and visited UO alumni, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art, Howard University, and the National Mall.
“The Black Educultural Connection was an opportunity for Black students at the University of Oregon to explore their own Black identities in a place where they were not the minority. We hope to continue this initiative each year in different US cities where there is rich, nuanced Black culture and history. The LRP BCC wants to celebrate, enrich, and educate Black students while also building a community for them, both in and out of the classroom.”
Coordinator, Lyllye Reynolds-Parker Black Cultural Center
The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, which opened in 2016, covers six hundred years of African American history. The students began their visit with a trip in a huge glass elevator, descending seventy feet underground to the “Slavery and Freedom” exhibit—a journey that begins in fifteenth-century Africa and Europe and progresses through time as visitors progress upward.
Through sights and sounds, the students travelled through the founding of the United States, the Civil War, and Reconstruction. The museum also highlights segregation, the Civil Rights Movement, and more-recent history—as well as modern, changing exhibits.
“I think sometimes we turn these people into icons and heroes. They become statues, rather than the humans they were. A lot of things changed because of Taylor’s death, but it shouldn’t have happened. She had a lot more life to live.”
Sociology, Army ROTC
“We learned how Black families were organized on plantations,” recalls Skyler Davis, a global studies major who helped organize the trip as the center’s graduate student employee. “As soon as families formed, they were split up—because families were considered dangerous to slaveholders and threatened their ability to control people. That was interesting to me, given the state of families in Black America today.”
After completing her master’s degree, Davis plans to pursue a career in social and community impact, working with outdoor and athletic brands. She hopes to shed light on the experiences of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) individuals in the outdoors.
“The museum—and the entire trip—gave us something you can’t find in a textbook,” Davis says. “Traveling is one of life’s best teachers, and the experiences hit all five senses. It’s important to give Black students opportunities to learn more about, and experience, their culture. They got to interact with different cultures, eat new foods, navigate unfamiliar spaces, and go beyond their comfort zones.”
Another benefit of the trip, adds Davis, was building community among the participants. The students bonded, despite differences in majors, ages, and backgrounds.
“The museum—and the entire trip—gave us something you can’t find in a textbook. Traveling is one of life’s best teachers, and the experiences hit all five senses.”
Most of the people on the trip were older than undergraduate Brooklyn Cicero, who is majoring in biology and psychology and hopes to become a counselor for marginalized youth.
“It was just me and one other first-year student,” Cicero says. “But we all had one common thing: we’re all part Black. By the end of the trip, I’d become really close friends with all of them. We’ve gotten together for a game night since returning to Eugene. Now that we’re back on campus, I feel more comfortable getting involved with the Black Cultural Center and joining activities—and also just more comfortable being myself at a predominantly White institution.
“Visiting Howard University was really fun,” Cicero adds. “We saw the fine arts department, which is named for Chadwick Boseman, one of their alumni. And there’s a museum of African art. It was very new to see a university that’s predominantly Black. I didn’t know much about Black fraternities and sororities, but it was Founders’ Weekend for the Delta Sigma Theta and Alpha Kappa Alpha sororities. Everyone was dressed up, and there were flags everywhere.”
Five of the “Divine Nine” historically Black sororities and fraternities were founded at Howard University. The main quad on campus—known as the Yard—is the nexus of student life, as well as hallowed ground for these national organizations.
“We just stood in the Yard while everybody was going to class,” recalls Meraf Tenaw, a graduate student in the College of Education. “We said, ‘Wow, over here we feel like we belong!’”
Tenaw, who aspires to become a school superintendent, also relished the opportunity to meet UO alum Cory Mainor, BA ’05 (English), MEd ’09 (teaching and learning), an assistant principal at Arlington Public Schools in Virginia and one of four alumni who joined the students for dinner and conversation.
“That was a cool experience,” recalls Tenaw. “He was very inspirational, because he’s doing the things I want to do. He talked about how he connected with people through the Black Student Union when he was a UO student.”
Mainor also found community through the UO’s Multicultural Center, Office of Multicultural Affairs, Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity, Inc., and connections with other members of the Divine Nine Black Greek Letter Organizations.
“They built a community for themselves and made lifetime friendships,” Tenaw says. “That was good to hear, because I feel like I’m on the same path as him.”
On January 16, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the students visited the National Mall, the site of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, both on August 28, 1963.
“I was standing there looking at the Lincoln Memorial and imagining how he made this speech that changed the world,” Tenaw recalls. “We recite this speech to this day. It makes me feel like I can complete my dream, too. It was a very inspirational place to see.”
“I was standing there looking at the Lincoln Memorial and imagining how [Martin Luther King Jr.] made this speech that changed the world. We recite this speech to this day. It makes me feel like I can complete my dream, too.”
College of Education