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For Us, For Others, For Action: Alumni Reflect on a Half-Century of the Black Student Union

Fifty years after the founding of the BSU, alumni look back on a time filled with mission and personal impact.
January 7th, 2019 by 
Members of the BSU circa 1970 sit together in chairs

It was Spring 1987 and high school senior Arnold Principal was lost.

He arrived on Mount St. James for a campus visit, got separated from his host and unknowingly stumbled upon the Black Student Union-sponsored Spring Talent Show.

“Two BSU members immediately recognized that I was not a current student and seemed lost,” he remembers. “That night, they made sure I had a great time at the event and hosted me in their dorm. Not only did I join the BSU that fall, but I also performed twice in the talent show the following spring.”

Today a proud alumnus of the class of 1991, Principal recognizes the impact of that happy accident and how it changed his life: “I credit coming to Holy Cross to its students and that one particular event.” Changing lives, taking action, finding lost students (usually figuratively, but in this case, literally) — and inviting them into a welcoming community of shared experience is a common thread that spans the history of the BSU, which celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2018.

A Place to Find Community

“Prior to 1968, there were very few black students on campus,” notes Arthur “Art” Martin Jr. ’70, first BSU president. He arrived on campus in 1966, one of two black students in a freshman class of 600. “You may have had eight to 10 black students, so there wasn’t any organization or safety net for the number of students who came on board.”

In the wake of the April 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., Rev. John E. Brooks, S.J., ’49, then academic vice president and dean of the College, took his now-famous road trip up and down the East Coast to recruit more students of color, an effort to better diversify the student body. That fall, 19 black students arrived at Holy Cross, and while they greatly bolstered the minority numbers on campus, they were still a tiny percentage of a nearly all-white institution, which was jarring for many of them — and their new classmates.

“As much as the black students didn’t know the white students, the white students didn’t know the black students,” Martin says. “There were a lot of cultural differences going on back then, even down to the music that people listened to, the way people danced. It was a whole cultural shock for some.”

Notes Theodore V. “Ted” Wells Jr. ’72, who was recruited by Fr. Brooks and later became the BSU’s second president: “When we arrived on campus, I dare say that Holy Cross was not ready for us and we were not ready for Holy Cross.”

The environment was familiar to Martin, as he graduated from a predominantly white high school as student council president of a 2,500-person student body — one as large as Holy Cross. “I was used to that demographic; it didn’t bother me,” he says, “but I knew a lot of people that came on board that year didn’t have that. And I think Fr. Brooks realized they didn’t come out of that environment. So he and [then College President] Fr. Swords made an effort as if to say, ‘What do we need to do to make this whole thing possible?'”

 A handwritten list of the former BSU executive board

An early recording of the BSU executive board, as noted by the then-director of student activities. Photo courtesy of Holy Cross Archives

The answer was the formation of the Black Student Union, which received recognition as an official student organization, a budget and office space on the fourth floor of Hogan Campus Center. It was the first cultural affinity group in the then-125-year-old College’s history, a trailblazer that paved the way for students from other cultural backgrounds to form their own groups and find their own voice in the years to come.

“What the Black Student Union was doing was giving the students on campus the opportunity to interact with each other, to have some commonality, to have some comfort level,” Martin says. “We were there at the same time, we breathed the same air, we suffered the same way. I mean that not in a negative way, but that experience really made us brothers — literally, brothers. We went through some stuff on campus and it made us stronger.”

A Time to Take Action

The organization would need to draw on that strength just a year later, when at least 60 black students — nearly the entire BSU — famously turned in their student IDs on Friday, Dec. 12, 1969, and quit Holy Cross in protest of the suspension of four black classmates. Martin names “the walkout” as the BSU experience of which he is most proud.

Earlier that week, 16 students (four black, 12 white) were charged with violating College policy and suspended after being identified in an on-campus protest of General Electric. The BSU had voted to remain neutral in the protest itself, but became involved after the suspensions, noting that a disproportionately high number of black students were charged because they were more easily identifiable, which the group argued was an act of racism. Of the 49 white students involved in the protest, only 12 were identified and suspended, compared to the five black students, four of whom were identified and punished.

“It wasn’t so much about [the suspensions], it was more about, OK, why them?” Martin says. “‘Well, we could identify them.’ Well, I guess you could identify them! There’s the old saying, ‘it’s the fly in the buttermilk!'” He chuckles, then continues: “I can look back and smile and laugh, but at the time this was going on, it was not quite that funny.”

Martin and Wells decamped to nearby Clark University (“Our refuge,” Martin recalls), where Fr. Brooks visited them, gave them cash out of his own pocket to ensure they ate and urged them not to leave the city altogether. The College administration, torn between upholding its policy and fairly treating its students, met continuously over the weekend, and the college careers of the BSU members — nearly all the nonwhite students at Holy Cross — hung in the balance. All of the students had a lot to lose, but few more than Martin, who was halfway through his senior year. He was already accepted into law school, and now he had quit one semester shy of receiving his degree.

“[BSU members] came to me and said, ‘Art, you don’t have to do this.’ And I said, ‘No, I have to.’ I helped start the organization and I wasn’t going to forsake anybody at this point,” he notes. “What I’m proud of was the fact that we stuck together. This was a hard time. Some people wanted to say, ‘Let’s just go back to school’ and throw up our hands, and we couldn’t do it. Trust me, it was not a bluff. We weren’t playing chicken at that point; I was gone. We were all thinking about where we were going to finish school — we just felt that strong.”

 Students in 1969 stand outside the Hogan Campus Center after deciding to leave Holy Cross

After turning in their student IDs and announcing their decision to leave Holy Cross, students wait outside Hogan Campus Center for their rides to an uncertain future. Photo courtesy of Holy Cross Archives

On Sunday evening, Dec. 14, Fr. Swords announced to a packed Hogan Ballroom that the suspensions of all 16 students would be reversed. He noted he agreed with the BSU and that the procedures for identifying the students led to what he later termed in a letter to alumni and parents, a “de facto mathematical disproportion of the Blacks who were identified.”

“I’m so proud of what happened there,” Martin says. “That really gelled the organization. It gave us, not a purpose, but it solidified who we were.

“We went through it, we came through it,” he continues. “Fr. Swords had a hell of a decision to make: damned if he did and damned if he didn’t. A lot of alumni said, ‘Let the n—— go.’ He made the right decision, and I respect him for that. He stood up. I think the school is better for what we did.”

An Opportunity for Education

“We came from different places and we had different ideas, but we came together,” Martin notes of the BSU’s early days, and it’s a movement that continues within the organization each year on Mount St. James. In addition to its ongoing advocacy for the recruitment of more black students and faculty, over time the BSU has become a force for education, culture, the arts and engaging the campus in dialogues on challenging issues.

Members have written and published magazines and literary journals and staged plays, film screenings, music and dance performances, sharing, expressing and illuminating the black experience. The group has attracted dozens of national figures to campus from the fields of civil rights, politics, entertainment and social justice, from Coretta Scott King and Maya Angelou to Alex Haley and Opal Tometi, co-founder of Black Lives Matter.

Black Week, an annual highlight of the 1970s and 1980s, was a key event for the organization, merging the arts and education; in the 1990s, it was renamed African-American Experience Week. “We tried to help others in the community get a sense of what our culture is,” says Jennifer Edwards, M.D., ’81. “We had Black Week every year: events, poetry, speakers — it was open to the whole campus.” Since 2008, the group has programmed a series of events across February, celebrating Black History Month.

Yet education wasn’t limited to a single week or month; the group seized opportunities for discussion whenever they could. Daryl Brown ’09 was a community liaison for the BSU when he helped organize a 2007 open forum about the Jena Six — six black teenagers in Jena, Louisiana, who were charged with beating a white student. Supporters argued that the arrests and charges brought were excessive, and that white teens involved in similar incidents were not treated comparably. In protest, an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 people marched on Jena in September 2007, one of the largest civil rights demonstrations at that time. Brown and the BSU hosted an event and encouraged all students to attend to examine the matter.

“It was a good opportunity for people who had come from completely different walks of life to see issues that have plagued the black community for hundreds of years,” Brown says. “It was an opportunity to be a part of something that raised awareness across campus: to open a forum where everyone was comfortable to speak, to share what they’ve experienced and, more importantly, what they haven’t experienced. To see the white students really embrace what we were doing and the cause we were standing up for was great.”

Brianna Maynard ’19, current co-chair of the BSU, echoes Brown: “I want to provide spaces for intellectual dialogue to bring issues for people of color on campus and in the country generally to the light. Students over the years have told me crazy things other students have said and done to them on campus. I think this is largely due to being uninformed and afraid to ask questions to reverse that. Something I hope to accomplish in my last year with the BSU is to bring more nonstudents of color into conversations with us to close this gap! A little understanding can go a long way, and I think it could definitely transform this campus for the better.”

 Current members of the BSU stand at the 50th Anniversary Celebration

Current members of the BSU at the 50th Anniversary Celebration. Photo by Dan Vaillancourt

Such education didn’t always happen via formal events. In Edwards’ experience, she found she carried an everyday obligation, whether she liked it or not. “Education became something that even if you didn’t want to do it, you had to do it, especially if you’re living on a floor with several people and they’ve never seen a black person before. Sometimes some of the questions were a little strange: ‘Is your blood red?’ ‘Why is your hair like that?’ ‘Can we touch it?’ Sometimes it was hard to be the ambassador 24-7.”

She arrived on campus in 1977, just five years after Holy Cross went coed and nine since the creation of the BSU. “The extra [burden] of being a woman of color was even greater because our numbers were even less than the men,” she notes. “We were a minority within a minority. Some of the comments were that we were taking the place of a man that needed an education and some were based on color. I remember being approached Day 1 of a class and offered tutoring before even knowing what my capabilities were. I was told from the beginning that most of us would not make it to graduation — on the first week of school. There was also some ignorance and some fear.”

The latter was demonstrated when Edwards accidentally touched the hand of a white male student in the cafeteria: “[He] jumped, stared at me very frightened and walked halfway down the line so as not to be next to me,” she recalls. “We experienced some subtleties and then there were things that were not so subtle.”

Terrifying for Edwards and a friend was the walk they took one early morning on the way to work their shift at Kimball: “We took the shortcut through the cemetery because we lived in Mulledy. A group of white males was behind us. ‘Roots,’ the Alex Haley miniseries, was on television that week. The night before was the scene of the black woman slave [Kizzy] being raped by white slave owners. They said, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to get us Miss Kizzy today?’ Frightened, we ran to the cafeteria, very shaken. I have wondered what would have happened if we hadn’t run fast enough.”

A Long-Lasting Impact

The BSU was founded as a safe space and shared community for black students 50 years ago and that bedrock remains strong, continuing to fill an ever-constant need. “The BSU was a safe haven that already existed,” Edwards says. “They were actively working toward educating the community in terms of diversity, they were trying to work on getting things done. The BSU was a saving grace. I don’t know if I would have remained at Holy Cross if it were not for the BSU.”

Adds Maynard, “It has been comforting to know that at least once a week I can destress with a group of my peers who understand campus life from my perspective.”

Principal, the wayward prospective student who literally discovered the organization one spring night, calls the group “an integral part of my support system at Holy Cross.”

“I was able to develop immediate friendships with students who shared similar circumstances and frustrations,” he says. “We were able to learn coping skills and take emotional care of each other. The BSU was there for me in ways my other schoolmates could not be. It wasn’t that my experiences were terribly difficult, it was just nice to know that there were others like me who shared them and that I was not odd or different as I sometimes felt in classrooms and dormitories.”

The organization forges strong connections between classmates and even alumni separated by decades. Notes Kona Khasu ’92: “My Holy Cross BSU connections remain my tightest life connection besides my family. Being a BSU member itself is a source of pride and purposefulness for me. I came into a tradition where the group and membership provided for intangibles for each other in ways Holy Cross majority students take for granted.”

 Two former members of the BSU watch a documentary during the organization's 50th Anniversary Celebration

Two former members of the BSU watch a documentary during the organization’s 50th Anniversary Celebration. Photo by Dan Vaillancourt

“When I started my business as an asset manager, BSU alumni were among my first clients,” Principal says. “They were willing to take a chance with me. I can’t forget that.”

Mentoring and networking are encouraged, and grateful recipients, such as Brown, are now looking forward to their opportunity to do the same.

“Harry Thomas ’78, the retired ambassador, has been a mentor and influence,” Brown notes. “One of his last placements as ambassador, he invited me to his swearing-in ceremony in Washington, D.C. It really meant a lot and inspired me to continue to push forward the mission, to strive to be the best, so hopefully I could be who Harry is to me to someone else.”

Edwards’ challenging experience as a woman of color at Holy Cross in the late ’70s/early ’80s “broke, in some ways, a little of my belief in myself.” She began studying psychology and premed, but dropped the latter “because I started to doubt my ability to be able to do it. Something happens when you come to a place that says you may not even graduate. Something happens when you hear you’re gonna need tutoring when you’re top three in your class coming out of high school. Something happens when you are hearing subtle messages you really shouldn’t be here. One professor even went so far as to tell me, ‘You people belong in vocational school.’ When you are exposed to that on an everyday basis, those things start to wear on you.”

However, her resilience — coupled with the support and encouragement of her BSU family — pushed her to finally accomplish, after graduation, her dreams of becoming a doctor. A desire for healing and a belief in mentoring compelled her to attend her 25th reunion, the first time she had stepped foot on Mount St. James since she departed, diploma in hand.

“I said to myself, ‘Nothing changes unless someone says something. Nothing changes unless we’re reminded of history,'” she says. “For the 25th reunion, I told my story and it was healing for me because as I told the story, there were other people who were responding and saying, ‘That story is similar to mine.’ There were women from other classes who said, ‘That story is similar to mine and I graduated after you. I wish I had known.’ And that is when I knew it was time for me to start giving something back.”

 Former members of the BSU pose together during the BSU's 50th Anniversary Celebration

Former members of the BSU pose together during the BSU’s 50th Anniversary Celebration. Photo by Dan Vaillancourt

A Role for The Future

The racial climate in the United States is eerily similar to that of 50 years ago — a fact that is lost on few. Martin says the organization — founded as a community and advocate for social justice and awareness — needs to fill a continued and critical leadership role today.

“It’s a sad thing, but the Black Student Union is just as important now as it was [then],” he says. “Racism is still alive and well in America and that’s sad. I’m 70 years old; it’s been 50 years since I started the BSU and things have not changed. For a while, the racism has disappeared and now it has raised its ugly head — and it’s a damn shame. This generation has to be prepared to take that on. They’re going to have to be the leaders, they’re going to have to deal with this and they’re going to have to be the tip of the spear. They have to understand: The work has to be done. I never would think, 50 years later, that I would be having this conversation about racism in America.”

“Nothing changes unless we remember and learn from history,” Edwards notes. “Politics teaches us that. We’ve forgotten history; that’s why we’re repeating it again.”

Which leads to Martin’s hope for the group’s future: “To become a force and stay a force of positive change and image on campus.” Its mission, too, remains similar to the one he led five decades ago. “[We set out] to try to combat this, bring some of the racism to heel and understand it’s not over yet,” Martin says. “It’s a sad state of affairs, but it’s not over. I’m hoping the Black Student Union will be strong enough to deal with that and take on the leadership role they have to take.”


Written by Melissa Shaw for the Winter 2019 issue of Holy Cross Magazine.

About Holy Cross Magazine
Holy Cross Magazine (HCM) is the quarterly alumni publication of the College of the Holy Cross. The award-winning publication is mailed to alumni and friends of the College and includes intriguing profiles, make-you-think features, alumni news, exclusive photos and more. Visit magazine.holycross.edu/about to contact HCM, submit alumni class notes, milestones, or letters to the editor.

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