A tribute to the late, great namesake of the Bruce D. Nesbitt African American Cultural Center, from a former grad student and forever fan of the campus icon affectionately known as The Godfather:
“Bruce not only provided me with a safe place to land as a 22-year-old fresh out of college student, but he became one of my greatest mentors,” says Harris-Stowe State Professor Greg Carr (MFA '90, theatre/African American Studies).
“I was in charge of the three cultural workshops” that what’s now known as the African-American Cultural Program offered — “the University of Illinois Black Chorus, the Omnimov Dance Troupe and Theatre 263: Theatre of the Black Experience.
"Because my assistantship wasn’t with the theatre department, I was required to pick up, escort and dine with such luminaries such as Susan L. Taylor of Essence magazine; Kwame Toure, formerly known as Stokely Carmichael; and Dick Gregory as a part of my ‘job duties.’
“Bruce Nesbitt was at the forefront of the 1968 integration of the U of I called Project 500. Black students from the Champaign area, Chicago and East St. Louis were brought in to the Student Union to establish themselves as students.
“In 1988, Bruce arranged for many of these individuals to return for the 20th anniversary of Project 500 and he entrusted me to develop a tribute program for them, so I enlisted the help of my cultural workshops along with students from my theatre class.
“We sang songs from that era, performed dances and we read poems that the honorees had written from a collection they had compiled as the Black Student Association while they were there called ‘Irepodun.’ It was truly an emotional occasion for many in the audience because they thought that they had been forgotten.
“Through the AACP, we put on Black History Month talent shows known as the Cotton Club in Foellinger Auditorium that produced some of the best singers, dancers and rappers that would put ‘American Idol,’ ‘The Voice’ and ‘America’s Got Talent’ to shame.
“The University of Illinois Black Chorus, led by the incomparable Dr. Ollie Watts Davis, has performed all over the United States and even in Costa Rica. The most famous TH263 alum is Mr. T.C. Carson, who is best known for playing the role of the arrogant and flamboyant Kyle Barker on ‘Living Single,’ one of the top-rated sitcoms of the 1990s.
“I myself am an accomplished writer, director and actor as well. Two of my plays — ‘Johnnie Taylor Is Gone’ and ‘A Colored Funeral’ — were a part of the 2005 and 2007 theatrical seasons of the historic Karamu House theatre in Cleveland; the former won an award in 2005 as Best Play Set in a Bar, while the latter was given a workshop production at the Cleveland Playhouse.
“I am currently developing a futuristic screenplay with my business partner in Los Angeles called ‘Watch Night,’ which may feature the first all-black superhero group, trying to save a dystopian America.
“I say all of this because many of the accomplishments that I have listed are because of the seeds that Bruce Nesbitt planted at the University of Illinois over 50 years ago. Although the African-American Cultural Program is no longer located at 708 South Mathews, whenever I visit the U of I, I go to this area and reflect upon the profound impact Mr. Bruce Nesbitt had not only on me, but on the rest of the world through his dedication to promoting black culture.
“Another way he maintained the cultural identity of black students upon their commencement was by holding a ‘Black Graduation’ ceremony that celebrated the expressive cultural tradition of African Americans.
“I’m sure Bruce is smiling down at us and urging us to continue to ‘do it for the people.’”