African American Icons at KSU

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African American History at Kent State originally started out as a much broader exhibition idea that was executed for Kent State’s centennial celebration in 2010. While researching the great performances and the major icons that had visited Kent State University over the previous 100 years, exhibit curator Jason Prufer kept coming across a thread of materials showing some of the truly greatest African American icons making well publicized appearances here at KSU during many their most vital periods. These included original and long unseen advertisements and photographs by the likes of Aretha Franklin, Bill Cosby, Jesse Jackson, Odetta, Dizzy Gillespie, Maya Angelou, Sly and the Family Stone, Stevie Wonder, Muhammad Ali, Dion Warwick, Duke Ellington, Ray Charles, Louis Armstrong, Sun Ra and many many others. Prufer who is a lifelong resident of Kent and virtually grew up on Kent State’s campus couldn’t believe that nobody had ever taken the time to give the material any major attention so he set about himself to compile this collection to help celebrate Black History month on campus and to show that Kent State had been celebrating this kind of diversity for decades. 

“I didn’t come to create this exhibit as any kind of expert on African American history but I certainly knew of the gravity and the authenticity of these images as I kept uncovering them. I just couldn’t ignore this thread. I had to make it as part of my next show or I felt this incredible history would die.” Prufer continued “Plus let’s face it. This stuff is cool…long lost photos of Stevie Wonder performing in what is now the MAC Center back in 1972 are just really cool. And if you do the research you will know that when he showed up here, he was at the peak of his creative and commercial powers. You’ll find that with so many of the icons in this exhibit.

“We have a great poster advertising a Sly and the Family Stone performance on campus that occurred within just a few months of their legendary headlining 1969 gig at Woodstock and an awesome old Daily Kent Stater ad showing Herbie Hancock playing the Student Center Ballroom in February of 1975 with his groundbreaking fusion group The Headhunters. Plus we are showing some rare images of Jesse Jackson speaking on the old commons at the one year commemoration of the May 4, 1970 shootings. These are all incredible little slivers of history and it’s really amazing that we had these events right here in the Midwest at Kent State!”

It must be noted that most of the materials Prufer put together for this exhibit were found in the holdings of Special Collections and Archives right here in the Kent State University Library and not floating around in various corners of the Internet. “I have to give a huge credit to the Department of Special Collections and Archives for holding every single issue of the Daily Kent Stater and Chestnut Burr Yearbooks going back to the very birth of this University. Had they not kept these materials this valuable history would have been lost.” 

Jason Prufer is a lifelong resident of the city of Kent and has worked in the Kent State University Library for 14 years. From 1999 to 2003 Jason worked as a student worker in the Student Multimedia Studio while he pursued (and eventually received) a BA in Art History.  In 2004 Jason Prufer was hired as a full time employee in the library and now works as a Library Associate at the main Circulation Desk. 



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