Retired professor to receive Legends Award Saturday
James Pappas to earn award for 50 years of community service at UB and beyond
Few people leave an impact on their community significant enough to be called a legend.
Retired professor James Pappas has earned this title, and the Buffalo community wants to recognize the work he’s done.
On Friday, Pappas will accept the Legends Award at the 47th Annual Black Achievers Awards Dinner, honoring his contributions to Western New York. Herbert Bellamy, Jr., president and CEO of Black Achievers Inc., recognized Pappas’ efforts to pave a way for black youth in the community and his mentoring of young artists.
The award isn’t arbitrary; it comes after Pappas’ 50 years of teaching at UB and decades of community service in Buffalo. Pappas, who retired from UB in January, was the chair of the Black Studies department –– now a program encompassed in the Transnational Studies department –– from 1977-90. Born in Syracuse in 1937, Pappas lived through the civil rights movement and saw protests and segregation firsthand, which he says began his “social consciousness.” He later moved to Buffalo to pursue his bachelor’s degree in fine arts (‘67) at UB, and then worked as a juvenile parole officer, where he was exposed to more disadvantages minorities face. He went on to pursue his Master of Fine Arts (‘74) at UB. In the late 1960s, Pappas wanted his passion for art to elicit social change, and he co-founded the Langston Hughes Center for the Visual and Performing Arts with artists Allie Anderson, Wilhelmina Godfrey and Clarence Scott.
Pappas attributes his interest in art to his aunt and uncle –– both musicians –– who he lived with in Cleveland for much of his childhood.
“[They] were responsible for opening up my mind to the world,” Pappas said. “I was under the musical influence of them and it really broadened my horizons about life in general.”
Soon enough, his interests in the arts and civil rights merged.
As a UB undergraduate, Pappas wrote a thesis on how he could use art to elicit social change. Pappas went on to do just this, teaching social justice through art at UB and creating an institution for visual and performing arts, a concept he suggested in his thesis.
Pappas’ passion for social justice showed through his lectures, and during his time at UB, he started a class called Blacks in Films, which students can still take today. The course studies the role of black actors in media, from Hollywood stars to independent filmmakers.
“Students would tell me I spoiled their enjoyment of watching movies,” Pappas said. “Because now they have to look at the psychological aspects and do a complete investigation of the film itself from an African-American perspective.”
Pappas has seen the effects of stereotypes throughout his life. And the arts taught him to view the world “deeper than the surface” and observe things as they are, he says.
“Everyone looks at you strange anyhow, because you are an artist, and they don’t know exactly where you’re coming from,” Pappas said. “So I play that game with them, because there are so many stereotypes –– [not only] about being an artist –– and people live off those stereotypes because it’s ingrained in our culture.”
Pappas showed his students, through film, that you can’t judge people based on their stereotypes.
“I taught that insidiously in class, because a lot of the films were based on stereotypes,” Pappas said. “So [it taught] the notion that film is a powerful weapon for change itself for what they see and envision and bring to their own experiences.”
But Pappas began teaching through art before he even finished his master’s degree.
In 1969, Pappas, with Anderson, Godfrey and Scott, created the Langston Hughes Center for Visual and Performing Arts, named after the legendary black artist and poet. His hope: to teach kids to express their creativity through dance, drawing, painting, weaving and ceramics.
“It was way ahead of everything going on at the time, in terms of retrospective idea of self-expression among young people, because they weren’t getting it in school,” Pappas said.
He left the center in 1975 to focus on teaching at UB, but the center lasted roughly 40 years before the program dissipated in 2015.
Pappas said he faced challenges throughout his time as Black Studies department chair, as there were “a number of push backs from the university” which “kept the program from progressing.”
“I looked at them as a challenge to overcome as opposed to getting emotional about it,” Pappas said.
Pappas said the department had to “fight for every little crumb” to become part of the academic structure. He said the social sciences departments were, at first, against accepting the department into UB curriculum, as they didn’t see it as a “legitimate academic program.”
“We had to show what we were doing was significant,” Pappas said. “We were fighting with university administration to get something as simple as space.”
Cecil Foster, Transnational Studies professor, has known Pappas for nine years, but joined the UB faculty six years ago.
“[Pappas] would remind us that AAS was founded as a community outreach, a need to create black spaces at the university,” Foster said. “He would recall those early days when scholars, artists, musicians, political activists, everybody would meet at UB under the auspices of the Black Studies program, and how excited those days were, how much Blackness had a notable presence at UB.”
The department now has a home on the 10th floor of Clemens Hall.
“I refused to accept anything less,” Pappas said. “If there’s any kind of progress that was made, I helped to save the space and get new hires to bring faculty members to teach courses.”
Pappas has dedicated most of his life to instructing others, but his award-winning contributions to the community are only a result of his own artistry. His art is displayed in 50 exhibits across the world, including Paris, Germany, Koh Phangan, the Bahamas and places around the U.S., including Albright Knox Art Gallery here in Buffalo.
And even when Pappas wants to keep his art to himself, it doesn’t last. He recalls a painting he once really loved and swore he would’ve never sold, but when Buffalo’s Albright Knox offered to buy it, he changed his mind.
“At least it’s here in Buffalo,” Pappas said.
Bellamy says Pappas –– after all of his contributions to the Buffalo community and the years he spent paving the way for young artists–– earned the recognition he will receive on Saturday.
“He’s one of the ones who helped so many people who think they got there by themselves, but they didn’t, someone else started the groundwork,” Bellamy said. “He’s an inspiration to all of us. He does things to make better for his community.”
Brittany Gorny is the senior news editor and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @BrittanyGorny.