Posted 1:52 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2023
When Alfonzo Thurman, ‘71, arrived at UW-La Crosse in 1965 there were only three Black students on campus. Thurman’s incoming class had eleven. While the campus climate for students of color was not good, students came together to recruit more African American students and create an organization for Black students on campus that continues today.
Thurman went on to earn his doctoral degree and become a professor and academic leader in higher education. He received two alumni awards from UWL, the Graff Distinguished Alumni Award and the Parker Distinguished Multicultural Alumni Award.
Coming to UWL
Thurman initially didn’t think he would go to college. A counselor and a few of his teachers at Washington Park High School in Racine, Wisconsin noticed his academic talents and encouraged him.
“My social studies teacher told me I should go to college and that made me curious about what going to college would be like and why it was important for me to go to college,” he says. “It stuck with me.”
He picked UW-La Crosse after visiting campus to consider the university’s track team and school. He liked both. Thurman joined the largest Black student freshman class entering UWL at the time in 1965 with eleven Black students. Prior to their arrival, there had been just three Black students on campus.
These eleven played an important role in growing the population of students of color on campus when they agreed they would each recruit three additional Black students. The next class that entered had around 30 Black students.
The climate for students of color was not good in that era with repeated occasions where students used racial slurs and members of the community encouraged Thurman to “stay on campus,” he recalls. Being called the N-word was demeaning, Thurman says. His parents taught him to be a strong person and do anything he put his mind to. The words caused anger and “hurt that was just pervasive.”
“To deal with it, really I just wanted to be by myself and oftentimes that is just what I did,” he says.
Things improved after his first year on campus. He was able to find some UWL mentors – particularly a professor within the English Department, Emerson Wulling, who understood and was willing to engage in conversation about the discomfort he was feeling on campus. He found camaraderie in the department as a whole. Professor James Lafky was also a mentor, advising Thurman on life matters even after he graduated from UWL.
He became engaged in student organizations such as the yearbook, a service fraternity, intermural basketball, track and, most importantly, taking a leadership role in the African American Association, known today as Black Student Unity (BSU).
Thurman helped start the first African American Association on campus with other black students. He spearheaded the discussion of starting the organization, which launched in fall of 1967. Thurman was the first president and served for three years. They created a Black cultural center on campus and later held the first Black student culture week with poetry reading, African dance, speakers, a play and more. They displayed ongoing artwork displays at the cultural center. Through the years, they gained support from students, faculty and administration.
“It was an amazing time and we enjoyed it tremendously,” he says.
About Alfonzo Thurman
Alfonzo Thurman is a respected scholar, leader, educator, mentor and reformer. He earned his bachelor’s degree from UWL in English in 1971 and holds a master’s (1973) and doctorate (1979) from UW-Madison. He is a retired academic leader and professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee where he served as director of the Research Center for Urban Education Leadership Development. He was a past educator and administrator at Northern Illinois University, UW-Oshkosh and UW-Whitewater, as well as president of Holmes Partnership, a national consortium to improve U.S. education. He retired in 2016 and now lives in the Atlanta, Georgia area.
Thurman was recipient of the 2013 Graff Distinguished Alumni Award and the Parker Distinguished Multicultural Alumni Award from UW-La Crosse. The Graff award recognizes graduates who have achieved honor and distinction, with recognition and reputations that extend well beyond the immediate environments in which they work and live.
The Parker Distinguished Multicultural Alumni Award recognizes outstanding alumni who have contributed significantly to the improvement of multicultural understanding on the campus and in their careers.
See more videos celebrating La Crosse’s Black history on the Enduring Families Project website.