UMSL Succeed and Missouri Historical Society discuss intersection of Black history, disability rights during digital event
Nya Hardaway was doing research on the intersection of Black history and disability rights when she came across an article about “Holla if You Hear Me,” a February 2020 event on that exact topic hosted by the Succeed Program at the University of Missouri–St. Louis.
After reading about the Black History Month event, Hardaway, the community outreach coordinator for the African American History Initiative at the Missouri Historical Society, knew she wanted to collaborate with the program on something new.
“In the African American History Initiative, we have space for rapid response programming, so something that isn’t necessarily on our printed calendar,” Hardaway explained. “As the summer goes along, we think about the needs of the community and what we haven’t talked about yet that year.”
She connected with Rachel Goldmeier, an UMSL Succeed student support specialist, and Frances Davis, an UMSL Succeed practicum student, and the three created, “Black History and Disability Rights: The Coalescence of Disregarded Voices” for the Missouri Historical Society’s STL History Live series.
The Missouri Historical Society presented the virtual event in collaboration with UMSL Succeed on July 24. The digital gathering included a discussion on the impact of Black Americans on the disability rights movement, with the aim to shed light on experiences that often go ignored.
“I think a lot of people don’t understand that there are folks with identities that exist on the margins of even marginalized communities,” Hardaway said. “In my time at the museum, all the programs that I have done have been oriented around some of those even further marginalized identities. When we talk about Black history, there is a focus on people who hold specific identities, so I want to change how, especially at the museum, people are able to engage with our programs.”
Panelists Chris Worth and Monica Williams, both disability rights activists and organizers at Paraquad, examined that intersection by recounting the life of Brad Lomax – a Black wheelchair user and member of the Black Panther Party – and his role in the occupation of the fourth-floor offices of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare in the San Francisco Federal Building in 1977.
Later, Worth and Williams were joined by Sean Gold and Michkeal Cross for a Q&A session moderated by UMSL Succeed student Sydney Clark.
Worth kicked things off by noting that people with physical and developmental disabilities have always played instrumental roles in society, and Lomax’s story is just one of many throughout history.
“We really want to stress that we’re focusing on Bradley – and what an awesome person to focus on – but his history, our history, is much longer. Why we’re stressing that is that it’s not talked about very much. It’s not focused on, so as we talk about Bradley, remember and think back to that history.”
Lomax was originally from Philadelphia and relocated to Washington, D.C., to attend Howard University. Williams noted that he developed multiple sclerosis as a student and also became involved in the civil rights movement in the nation’s capital.
However, he became a leading figure in the disability rights movement after moving to Oakland, California, and joining the Black Panthers. He began working at the Black Panthers’ George Jackson People’s Free Clinic.
“When he was working there, working with his community and dealing with his disability, he realized how hard it was for not just a disabled person but for a Black man to get assistance and make it around the city,” Williams said. “So, he reached out to guy named Ed Roberts, whom we consider the founder of the independent living movement.”
Worth interjected to ask Williams about her own struggle to fight within two communities, being a Black woman with a disability. She explained that it can be frustrating to have her experiences discounted but has found the remedy is to “make a lot of noise.”
Lomax came to the same conclusion.
In 1977, Lomax, Burns, and other disability advocates banded together and demanded that Joseph A. Califano Jr., the new HEW secretary, make good on President Jimmy Carter’s campaign promise to enforce section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.
The long-ignored section of the act stated that no person with a disability could be excluded from any program or service that received federal funding. In effect, it also meant that public buildings had to be accessible.
“Even when I was younger, people with disabilities could not get into a place like the library,” Worth said. “It was not part of the consciousness of our culture to think about how people traverse basic spaces.”
However, Califano delayed any significant progress on section 504. In response, Lomax and more than 100 other people occupied the HEW offices in the San Francisco Federal Building to force action on the matter.
“They said, ‘We’re not waiting anymore. You have missed the deadline. Now we mean business,’” Williams said.
The demonstration became known as the 504 sit-in. Lomax and the rest of the protesters remained in the building for 25 days. Lomax enlisted the support of his fellow Black Panthers, who delivered food and other provisions daily in show of solidarity with the protesters.
Making a lot of noise worked. Califano signed the new regulations, and 25 protesters traveled to Washington to witness the historic moment.
Following the discussion, Gold and Cross joined Worth and Williams for the Q&A session where they covered topics such as having a different ability status while also being Black, obstacles in the education system and contemporary advocacy work.
Goldmeier was thrilled with the collaboration and the opportunity to explore such an important topic.
“I’m so happy that Nya reached out, and we had the opportunity to make a new connection in the community,” she said. “That’s really important to us to continue to get the word out about different groups and different identities and continue to educate the entire community. I think this is a really powerful collaboration. I hope we can work together more in the future and bring some more great things to the forefront.”
Short URL: https://blogs.umsl.edu/news/?p=90181