In 1998, Dr. Donald Cunnigen suggested to the members of the University of Rhode Island Black Faculty Association the establishment of a Black Students Awards Dinner (the predecessor to the Black Scholar Awards) as a means of recognizing the outstanding accomplishments and contributions of graduating students of African descent. His suggestion was accepted by the group. He spearheaded a subcommittee with Dr. Yvette Harps-Logan who volunteered to serve as a member. After the first year, Dr. Donna Gilton assisted in planning the event. Beginning in 2000, Dr. Christopher Hunter assumed the position of Committee Co-Chairperson, a leadership role which he continues to maintain.
Although individual Black students received occasional recognition from other entities on campus, the Black faculty wanted to demonstrate their commitment and interest in the recruitment, retention, development, and support of Black students at the University by establishing an awards program that recognized consistently student achievement in a variety of areas. As a result, the program has been maintained and directed by Black faculty since its establishment.
The first awards program was a small dinner in the Atrium of the Memorial Union with approximately thirty to forty guests in attendance. In the early years, only seven awards were presented to seniors. Over the years, the program expanded to include twelve awards that recognize student achievement in areas such as academic achievement, athletic achievement, scientific excellence, independent scholarly research, creative and artistic expression, community service, university service, and all-around achievement. The awards program was the first campus-wide program that acknowledged the service contributions by students to the Black community on and off-campus. More than one hundred students have been award recipients. Past award recipients have become productive
contributors to the state and nation. They include professionals such as lawyers, journalists, professional athletes, social workers, doctors, and educators. The first speaker was Dr. Harold Bibb, Associate Dean of the Graduate School.
A critical component of the yearly program has been the featured keynote speakers. They have been a diverse array of scholars and civic leaders from different racial and ethnic backgrounds who have inspired and informed students. Speakers have included Judge Geraldine Hines of the Massachusetts Superior Court, Lieutenant Governor Elizabeth Roberts of Rhode Island, Senator Jack Reed of Rhode Island, Atty. Peter Hurst of The Community Bank in Bridgeport, and Dr. David Kim of Connecticut College.
In addition, the awards program recognizes the members of the Rhode Island Onyx Senior Honor Society. Its annual induction ceremony honors graduating seniors of African descent who achieve 3.30 or higher grade point averages.
The program has become a community event in which local politicians, family members, students, faculty, administrators, and staff participate on a regular basis. The incorporation of local community leaders has been a part of the program from its beginning with the participation of Melvoid Benson, a local political leader as an early award presenter. The organizers viewed the participation of local leaders as a key mission of the program because it allowed students an opportunity to meet and engage local Black community leaders. Through the Taylor Award, the program recognizes contributions made by individuals and/or organizations. This recognition reflects the program’s integration of community leaders as an important component from its incipient stages of growth and development.
Presently, the program is organized by the Black Scholar Awards Program Committee. Since its inception, the program has received funding from the Office of the President and the University of Rhode Island Alumni Association. The program has become an integral part of the university’s and the alumni association’s commitment to diversity on the campus. It continues to provide recognition for a segment of the university’s community that needs such attention. As the first awards program to recognize the diverse student achievement at the University, the Black Scholar Awards Program makes an invaluable contribution to the enrichment of its environment.