The refounding: How BlackBoard got its restart

The refounding: How BlackBoard got its restart

Photos Courtesy NU Archives and Evanston Shorefront Legacy Center.

After researching on-campus organizations, Sierra Boone was eager to join BlackBoard Magazine and the National Association of Black Journalists when she arrived at Northwestern University in fall 2013. But when she and a friend from her PA group, Jesse Sparks, spoke to Black upperclassmen, they were shocked to learn that there was no BlackBoard, and NABJ was functioning mainly as an exec board.

How could it be that one of the country’s top journalism schools had no Black-interest student publication or thriving pre-professional group dedicated to Black student journalists? Alumni pointed out that during this time predominantly white publications didn’t feel welcoming.

“A lot of people just wanted the opportunity to write and be Black and that was something that was not very easy to do,” Boone says.

Unwilling to accept defeat, Boone approached Medill professor and former Blackboard editor-in-chief Charles Whitaker, an alum of both organizations, with a plan: revitalize NABJ and then BlackBoard. The next year, NABJ made its comeback and was nominated for Chapter of the Year. At an NABJ dinner at Professor Ava Greenwell-Thompson’s house in fall 2014, Black faculty and students discussed the possibility of reviving BlackBoard.

“We were just talking about why BlackBoard had gone and what it was, and I remember Charles saying ‘It’s always just been about 10 kids and adults each year, and it hasn’t gotten any better,’” says Princess-India Alexander, a Medill alumna who served as co-editor in chief of BlackBoard alongside Boone in the fall of 2016.

Over the next year, a core group of NABJ members — Sierra Boone, Carson Brown, Jesse Sparks and Rachelle Hampton, and Princess-India Alexander, Tyra Triche and Kali Robinson — turned NABJ exec meetings into BlackBoard planning meetings.

The complete story of how this handful of students resurrected Northwestern’s second-oldest publication has not been well-documented. But they were certainly not the first to do so. In fact, the history of BlackBoard is a story of reviving legacies and voices in the Black community.

BlackBoard origins

“We had this beautiful legacy of a publication… and I’m like, ‘We have to continue it. There was no other option.”

Sierra Boone

(Courtesy NU Archives and Shorefront Legacy Center)

Dino Robinson, Evanston historian and founder of Shorefront Legacy Center, pulled down several cardboard boxes filled with BlackBoard magazines. Before renovations began in 2016, these copies lived in the Black House, where BlackBoard refounders first discovered and reviewed them to determine what BlackBoard magazine should look, feel and sound like.

“We had this beautiful legacy of a publication,” Boone says. “I was going to the Black House finding old issues of it from the 70s, the 80s, reading editors notes, and I’m like, ‘this is literally some of the most beautiful history. We have to continue it. There was no other option.”

In winter 1971, a small group of Black students labored over typewriters in the Black House to rush to the press their new, FMO-sponsored weekly newsletter: “The Black Board.” They sought to renew Black communication across campus just as “Uhuru,” Northwestern’s first official Black student publication, had from 1968 – 1969.

Historically, Black students have enjoyed several overlapping Black publications. From 1970- 1973, FMO published a quarterly newspaper known as “Pajoma People.” Until 2009, the Black Student Handbook provided information on all people, places and things to thrive at Northwestern. “New Senses,” a Black student literary magazine, ran for 15 years and was briefly rekindled as “Visions and Voices” from 2006 to 2011.

As for BlackBoard, we can thank its longevity to a series of reincarnations in style and format, which were usually spearheaded by Black women.

Dean Whitaker ushered in one of its earliest formative changes in 1978 when he converted BlackBoard from a newspaper to a monthly news magazine. And, starting in 1983-1984, BlackBoard editors added a cover photo to each issue and a biweekly supplement called “BlackBeat” containing cartoons, editorials and poetry.

The update that ensured BlackBoard’s survival into the new century began in December 1998, when it transformed into a glossy, 34-page magazine. And while BlackBoard’s aimed to keep its diverse perspectives and urgent tone, staff experimented with font and design — to varying degrees of success, according to Robinson. As BlackBoard’s advisor from 2001 to 2007, he set the layout, word counts, font, cover design and logo.

“I tried to make it like, ‘Don’t be intimidated by this,’” he says. “It can either go very easy or go very complicated; you can choose.”

But as Robinson let go of the reins, the publication slowly faltered, especially without stable fundraising. While BlackBoard began publishing issues online starting in 2009, Dino doubted whether they could print many copies. In winter 2011, BlackBoard published its last issue for five years.

But besides a one-quarter gap, Black students didn’t stop making a magazine. They simply renamed and rebranded. In the fall of 2011, a group primarily consisting of Black women founded “Pulse,” a Black and multicultural publication. The constitution delineated expanded editing positions including for marketing, fashion, beauty and health, and writers.

They published five issues between then and 2014, before going completely online and fizzling out as seniors graduated. Many of those who would go on to restore BlackBoard initially worked on Pulse Magazine, but felt it could not measure up to having a publication specifically for and by Black students.

“There had been, lot of great initiative and effort to create something really cool of ‘Pulse,’ but we wanted to kind of take it back to its roots back to its origins,” Sparks says.

Making the dream team

It was decided: BlackBoard would keep the mission statement of earlier iterations, and embody the artistry of the Black community in each issue. Sparks and Boone poured over indie magazines for inspiration. Sparks says this organic process set the precedent for design and layout that matched the content, not the other way around.

“BlackBoard had the opportunity and the ability to really evolve and change, and I think in some ways evolve and change at a much more rapid pace than some other publications,” he says.

While envisioning the new magazine, Boone reached out to former BlackBoard editors hoping to gain wisdom and advice. Kyra Kyles, now CEO of YR Media and former editor-in-chief of Ebony, advised her to make BlackBoard “something that can cause us to have a dialogue with one another,” Boone recalls. “Because uniting us doesn’t mean that we all have to embody monolithic thoughts or beliefs.”

Alexander remembers the moment when she came up with the magazine’s theme, “Elevate,” while scouring for inspiration pictures on social media. “It was like this group of these four Black people all dressed in white just jumping at once, and we had the same Medill, artistic, magazine geek moment,” Alexander says. “Elevate! It has to be our theme!”

NABJ and BlackBoard members Alisa Nazaire, Tyra Triche, Aaron Lewis, and Princess-India prepare for the BlackBoard website launch in March 2016. (Courtesy Sierra Boone).

But the first revived edition of BlackBoard would not arrive until December 2016. But until then, the BlackBoard planning team mustered support from current and incoming Black Medill students. This wasn’t difficult according to Alexander, who says, “there’s so much Black talent on campus that it’s like you could throw a stone and just hit someone.”

Lauren Harris, thenfreshman and current artist and animator, created the website in March 2016. She also assisted fellow freshman and digital storyteller Courtney Morrison with the photoshoot for the first few editions.

“It was potluck style,” Harris says. “Everyone has these various skills, and it’s like, we’re not picky.”

That same spring, prospective student Debbie- Marie Brown, connected with NABJ treasurer and then-junior Carson Brown, who persuaded her by text to attend Northwestern and join BlackBoard instead of New York University. “She’s like… explaining to me through texts this deep history of the Black community and Black journalism at Northwestern,” she says.

Brown says she joined BlackBoard knowing that she would want to be editor-in-chief, which she was from fall 2018 to fall 2019. “I feel like BlackBoard wasn’t huge on campus… but it was huge to me,” Brown says. “I felt cool because these seniors wanted to take care of me.”

However, there was still the everlasting hurdle: funding. In order to print at least 200 magazines, they needed to raise nearly $2,000 per issue. Some of that money came from FMO, motivating BlackBoard leaders to make letters from the FMO coordinator a staple in each magazine issue.

But the most memorable and culturally significant source of money came from cooking and selling soul food. For the team’s first fundraiser, they spent hours in a cramped apartment kitchen chopping turkey legs and stewing 25 pounds of collard greens hauled straight from the Southside. Alexander says the whole experience incentivized them to stick to macaroni and cheese and cornbread down the line.

“We made mac and cheese over the winter, and we were trying to study for finals at the same time, and we burned a whole pot of mac and cheese sauce and had to start over at midnight, and then we pulled an all-nighter,” Alexander says. “It was fun.”

Midway through the fall quarter, BlackBoard reached out to Black students on campus to be models, searched Chicago Army Supply for cheap, size-inclusive clothing, and found student makeup artist Darcelle Pluviose, to pull the photoshoot together.

Still, challenges arose. Sparks, who was also juggling a full-time journalism residency, could no longer design the magazine as planned. Alexander says she designed much of the magazine, despite having “never designed a damn thing before.”

Nevertheless, at the end of fall 2016, BlackBoard distributed hundreds of polished magazines across campus.

“When we got the copies back, that was kind of like the deep breath of happiness after all,” Boone says. “I still remember standing at the arch with Princess-India and passing them out, and just being elated just to have something.”

BlackBoard today

Open “print issues”

As leaders transitioned out of positions and graduated, however, remaining members had to work zealously to sustain the publication. Brown says Alexander was “so good at doing everything herself,” that it left shoes too big to fill for everyone else, especially the next sole editor-in-chief in winter 2018: Aaron Lewis. In fact, that issue didn’t get printed.

“At that time, the editor in chief was typically doing most of the work on the actual magazine design as well in addition to writing the cover story,” Lewis says.

The next season, Kali Robinson and Tyra Ritchie split the editor-in-chief role before passing on the weighty role to Brown. Similar to Alexander, Brown began designing nearly the entire magazine herself — a situation she now regrets.

“When someone does all the work, it causes tension in the personal relationships,” Brown reflected. “India carried that magazine, and you can’t carry magazine and train staff at the same time.”

Still, BlackBoard alumni say that they left their roles with the confidence that the magazine would continue to thrive. After all, no one thought there would be a shortage of Black creatives and writers on Northwestern’s campus.

“If anything, the story of BlackBoard is so much more the story of Black women’s ingenuity and commitment to reinventing something for themselves and creating a service that other people in the Black community can benefit from and invest in,” Sparks says.

From FMO coordinators that funded the magazine into existence to the recent editors who create stories centered on the intersection of queerness and multicultural identities — BlackBoard archives document a legacy of visionary Black women. Whether through editorials, poetry, or photography, BlackBoard has also evolved throughout the ages to give Black students a platform to express, discover, and exercise creative control.

“The best part about the relaunch endeavors is just that it, If nothing else…it will always continue to be as a place for Black students to land, for them to learn, to grow,” Sparks says.


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