An art banner designed to honor 400 years of African American history is now mounted on the main academic building on USF’s St. Petersburg campus, where organizers say it will serve as a powerful symbol of the campus’ commitment to honoring the Black experience.
Called “I AM 400,” the banner was created by father and son artists Jerome and Jeromyah Jones from Richmond, Va. It is a collection of 69 painted portraits of notable pioneers from the African American community, such as Martin Luther King Jr., Arthur Ashe, Stevie Wonder and trailblazing NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson.
“This shows we value the people, we value the history and we want to learn more,” said Michelle Madden, campus diversity officer. “We want people to know we care about different perspectives, we care about different people and we are striving to be inclusive.”
The portraits have been transformed into digital images and arranged on a 4-by-12 vinyl banner. The banner is intended to highlight the achievements and victories of African Americans in the 400 years since the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in colonial North America.
“We call ourselves visual historians,” Jeromyah Jones said during a virtual lecture held to celebrate the banner’s arrival at USF. “In other words, we’re documenting the history that we see today. Beyond that, we take what we learn from yesterday, apply it to what we see in the news today so that we can predict what will happen tomorrow.”
Some of the portraits were autographed by the subjects, including New York Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm; actors Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee; musician Wynton Marsalis; author Alex Haley and attorney Oliver Hill.
There is a special connection between the banner and USF’s St. Petersburg campus. One of the notable figures depicted is historian John Hope Franklin, who was a close friend and mentor to Ray Arsenault, the John Hope Franklin Professor of Southern History, who recently retired after 40 years of teaching on the campus.
The banner is being displayed in a variety of locations, including at the Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science in Los Angeles, the August Wilson Center for African American Culture in Pittsburgh, Hampton University’s William R. and Norma B. Harvey Library, the African Union Mission in Washington, D.C., and the Afrocentric Alternative School in Toronto.
Madden said she first learned of the project after receiving an email from the artists. She brought the idea of acquiring the banner to the Chancellor’s Advisory Council on Issues of Diversity and Inclusive Community (CADIC), whose members enthusiastically agreed.
After some discussion, the group decided that the banner should be displayed on Davis Hall, which is named after Lowell E. Davis, the first African American to serve as dean of the USF St. Petersburg campus from 1986 to 1989. The location is symbolic as well as visible to faculty, staff, students and members of the community.
Geveryl Robinson, an English instructor who also serves to advance diversity at USF through her work with a number of different groups, including the Senate Council on Racial Justice and the USF Black Faculty and Staff Steering Committee, said she notices something new every time she looks at the banner.
“When I see it, I feel pride and I feel peace,” Robinson said. “Pride because of everything that is depicted. That’s what I love about it: It’s not just about the struggle. It’s victories and it’s triumph and it’s a lot of different things that make up who I am. That’s the reason why it gives me a sense of peace.”
Both Madden and Robinson said they have already heard from professors who plan to incorporate the banner into their teaching. In addition, they believe it will inspire hope in students as well as a deeper understanding of the Black experience in America.
“I know my students will be taking a field trip to look over and discuss the different people on the banner,” Robinson said. “I’m really excited to include this in my classes and I’m grateful to the campus for understanding and realizing the importance of it.”
To watch a video of a discussion with artists Jerome and Jeromyah Jones, please visit here.