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New Photography Exhibit Provides Never-Before Look At Black Student Life In The 1960s

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A preview of the photographs on display at the Kent State exhibit

Toledo attorney Lafayette Tolliver, 65, estimates there were fewer than 300 black students on the campus of Kent State University during his four years a half-century ago. “We pretty much knew everyone there because that’s how few of us there were,” he said. “We were there, we did it, we graduated. It was quite an exhilarating time.” 

Interested parties can glimpse that mid-American black student experience in a new photography exhibit, “Coming of Age at Kent 1967-1971: A Pictorial of Black Student Life.” Culled from Tolliver’s personal collection, these images depict a pivotal time on college campuses, as black students at predominately white institutions began organizing for more resources, taking cues from the burgeoning civil rights movement. It was also a pivotal time at Kent – the National Guard shot four unarmed students May 4, 1970.

When Tolliver arrived in 1967 to study in small-town Kent, the student-founded organization Black United Students was beginning to solidify. “We were looking to have immediate impact,” Tolliver said, ticking off their goals: more black professors, larger black enrollment, more black studies courses. Their overarching goal was to “make it less of an isolated experience for students.”

Young Tolliver worked on staff for the college yearbook and daily newspaper, majoring in photojournalism. “I was the only black student taking pictures of black life. Whenever you saw me, you saw my camera,” he recalled. He graduated in 1971 with his bachelor’s in journalism, but the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. shifted his career ambitions to law: “I wanted more leverage.” He attended law school at the University of Toledo and practices mostly discrimination, civil rights, and bankruptcy law.

Earlier this year, Tolliver gave the university thousands of negatives from his collection; archivists selected more than 30 to display at the Uumbaji Gallery in Oscar Ritchie Hall. He hopes it will inspire more people to dig into the archives for similar historical context.

“I just wanted to make sure somebody documented this life that we were going through,” Tolliver said. “I wasn’t just taking pictures for my personal use. I wanted to have a record: we were there and we made an impact.”

The exhibit runs from October 11 through October 23, and is free and open to the public. Tolliver will give remarks at a reception 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. October 18 during Homecoming Weekend at Oscar Ritchie Hall on the KSU campus. To register, visit bit.ly/tolliver

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