‘I felt great seeing those pictures,’ students say
LIBERAL, Kan. —Brená Buggs is a cheerleader — not a historian or art curator. In fact, she’s the cheer coach at Seward County Community College.
Yet that role is what led her to create and install a huge DIY exhibit in the college’s gymnasium. The collage-style displays in black and white feature notable figures from Black History.
“It was just me and the copy machine,” she said with a laugh, adding that students pitched in to help install hundreds of pictures. “I wanted it to be done the first of February, which was our first game. I wanted to inspire and cheer on our students who are Black.”
The images highlight achievements by Black Americans in multiple categories — music, sports, social justice and LGBTQIA+ activism, inventors, entertainment, Black fraternities and sororities, and HBCU colleges and universities.
Buggs’ intentions were twofold: instill pride in the students of color and educate viewers about the many accomplishments of Black Americans. The display has already started many conversations.
From students, the response was amazement and pride.
“We’re so grateful to Coach Bree who’s teaching us about our own history and heritage,” said women’s basketball player De’Shawnti Thomas.
“It’s great just to know we’ve got a lot more of people to be recognized, lots of people who did justice for us,” said SCCC student Shacaetra Ross.
For Annalee Thepthongsay, whose heritage is a mixture of Laotian and Black, the display provided a powerful jolt of belonging and pride.
“I felt great seeing those pictures,” she said. “I don’t know anything about the Black side of my family.” Learning about the history offers her an entry point to something powerful.
For Buggs, growing up in Texas and Maryland, “Black History Month was very, very big. The Civil Rights chapter in our textbook was more than just two pages, and as a kid, you had to do Black History essays. You couldn’t just pick Martin Luther King or Rosa Parks,” she said.
She credits her mother and grandpa for passing down complex cultural knowledge and pride.
“I really have to thank my mom because she stressed understanding where we come from, the trials and tribulations of what it is to be Black in America, and the achievements we reached in spite of that,” she said. Through the display, Buggs hopes to replicate that experience.
Thomas confirmed that much of the information is new to her and her peers. “She’s showing us these pictures, and sometimes we didn’t even know who they were—”
“— and they were Thurgood Marshall, Frederick Douglass, Bessie Coleman,” interjected Buggs.
Thomas said smaller achievements are just as inspiring as the Supreme Court justice, abolitionist, and aviator.
“The main thing I am learning is anybody that makes a mark has made history. Even now, the students going here have made a mark,” she said. “Me and my teammates made a mark; we were the first three to sign Division I before the season, and that’s not normal. You don’t have to do something big to make history, you can do little things.”
Even the fact that many of the faces in the display are largely unknown serves as inspiration.
“So much of the time, what we do, what people we know do, goes unrecognized,” Thomas said to a chorus of nods and “yes, yes, yes,” from the others in the room.
“There’s a saying that the Black woman is the most unprotected and unwatered flower in the garden, and in reality, that’s true. We’re women, on the lowest level, and we’re Black, and we’re in a world run by white men. It’s like a sin to say it, but it’s the reality,” Thomas said.
Thepthongsay’s upbringing, far from the mainstream Black community, did not arm her with that knowledge. She said learning Black history has helped her understand barriers and challenges she has already navigated.
“Sometimes people act like I’m Black, sometimes they ask, ‘what are you,’ and not always knowing how my skin tone affects that, it’s hard,” she said. Learning Black history has given her understanding and eased a feeling of loneliness.
From others, the response to the display “has not been the prettiest,” Buggs said. “I’ve witnessed some eye-rolling, overhead some conversations about why this is up and how come nobody does this for White history.” One picture was even torn down. Buggs simply replaced the image and kept a smile on her face.
“The two sports playing in the Greenhouse right now have 95 percent Black students,” she pointed out, “So why wouldn’t I do this for Black History Month?”
People who are uncomfortable with the display may not realize their feelings reveal an opportunity to grow.
“That is a sign there’s some learning to be done, we can all take that as a sign that we have work to do,” Buggs said. “It’s baby steps. The pictures are a great way to start those conversations we should be able to have.”
“It’s not their fault if they were taught to be comfortable with people of color always being quiet and never speaking up,” Thomas said. “But I hope they stop and think. What are my deepest intentions? What’s in my heart? For myself, I’m going to say what I’ve got to say. I wasn’t raised to hold my voice. The last time I checked, God gave me my voice, not the people on this earth.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: Check out the Black History Month displays in the Greenhouse, as well as a display in Hobble Hallway, honoring a huge variety of change-makers in history. And, look for social media posts with students who share their favorite person in the displays, and why they made an impact.