The Black Student Alliance Celebrates its 50th Anniversary

Campus organization launched to provide support and sense of community for African-American students continues its legacy fifty years later

By Chelsea Burwell

2017-2018 executive board of the Black Student Alliance
Photo by Ndeye Ndiaye (C'18).

The 1960s marked one of America's most pivotal and tumultuous decades, as the civil rights movement garnered global attention and racial tensions reached fever-pitch heights. According to a Gallup poll conducted in July 1965, almost 50 percent of Americans believed race relations would worsen between whites and African-Americans. Ultimately, half the country was right, when three years later on April 4, 1968, the prominent face of the civil rights movement—Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.—was assassinated, and subsequent riots spurred across the country.

That same year, with African-Americans only accounting for a sliver of the overall student population at predominantly White institutions, Georgetown University's small yet influential African-American student community used the political hotbed to their advantage in creating the Black Student Alliance. Led by Bernard White (C'69)—the first African-American to play for the University's basketball team—the BSA was created to uplift Georgetown's small community of Black students, while allowing them to address the educational, social, and cultural shortcomings they faced on and off campus.

"What's really important and what fueled my ongoing involvement as an alumnus, was that strident view of insisting on equity was something that was actually encouraged by the Jesuits. They never tried to stifle my point of view, but they did enlist me to take on more leadership roles. They taught me to speak truth to power."

"When I arrived, I was one of 30 African-Americans in an undergraduate community of 6,000 students," reveals Conan Louis (I'73), who served as the organization's president in 1971-1972. "Coming from a high school in New York, where I was one of two African-Americans, the atmosphere at Georgetown wasn't as much of a cultural shock to me as it was to my peers. But, with only 30 Black students on campus at Georgetown, I don't think people gave us much thought, except that we were very active politically."

Considerably vocal about the conditions of African-Americans on campus and in the surrounding Washington, D.C. area, early members of the BSA organized events geared toward politics and social awareness, including a forum with some of the District's African-American politicians. In addition, several 1960s archive issues of The Hoya, Georgetown's student newspaper, chronicle the sentiments of many Black students in a regular column titled "Black Student Alliance Voice," giving Black students a platform on pressing issues.

In spite of students' criticism about race relations on and off campus, Louis says that the university never tried to dismiss their grievances.

BSA president Conan Louis, the Black House
Former BSA president Conan Louis (I'73) [center] talks with friends outside of the Black House, originally located at 3619 O St. NW.

"I was one of those rabble-rouser, militant types," he reveals. "What's really important and what fueled my ongoing involvement as an alumnus, was that strident view of insisting on equity was something that was actually encouraged by the Jesuits. They never tried to stifle my point of view, but they did enlist me to take on more leadership roles. They taught me to speak truth to power."

Launched in the same year as BSA, the Community Scholars Program was created in direct response to the issue of limited access to higher education in Washington D.C.'s Black community. Support from the Black Student Alliance ran deep, as several students belonged to both entities. According to The Hoya, in 1971, the BSA raised more than $2,700 for the Community Scholars Program, which worked to garner more financial support from external sources.

One of the seminal moments of BSA was its work toward increasing Black student retention and establishing a stable and safe space for minority students. With no prior appointment made, the founding members of the organization waited outside of the office of former university President Fr. Robert J. Henle, S.J. with their, as Louis calls them, "list of demands," including recruitment of Black faculty, students, and administrators.

"Of the 23 Black students in my class, only eight graduated due to financial and acculturation issues. Doing something about the academic retention of African-American students was at the top of our list, as well as recruiting professors and administrators," says Louis.

Out of this impromptu meeting with the president, organization members were able to secure a permanent meeting space and haven for Black student scholarship and fellowship—The Black House. Originally located at 3619 O. St. NW, this site became a hub for studying, social gatherings, and even a pit stop for Black commuter students in between classes.

"These spaces were virtually central to the everyday survival of all the Black students on campus," shares Louis.

Also, a search committee—on which Louis served—was established to find the director of an organization that would oversee the well-being of students of color; this would later become the Center for Multicultural Equity and Access.

"In a city where gentrification forces out populations of color, both the Black House and BSA largely stand for the purposes of saying, 'Yes, we're here, and yes, we matter!'"

Fifty years later, the impact and necessity of entities like BSA are still felt on the Hilltop. Former president of the organization and recent graduate Lauren Smith (C'18) echoes similar feelings about the organization's resonance at Georgetown.

"I truly couldn't imagine my Georgetown experience without BSA. It's absolutely crucial in this day and age where so many marginalized groups are being victimized by our government."

She adds that the changing landscape of Washington D.C. makes community even more important. "In a city where gentrification forces out populations of color, both the Black House and BSA largely stand for the purposes of saying, 'Yes, we're here, and yes, we matter!'"

2017-2018 executive board of the Black Student Alliance
The 2017-2018 executive board of the Black Student Alliance. Photo by Ndeye Ndiaye (C'18).

Promoting an increase in programming for Black students, faculty, and staff at Georgetown, the Black Student Alliance is continuing the organization's legacy of addressing and amplifying the African-American experience on the Hilltop. In the past year, BSA has also hosted panel discussions, film viewings, and professional development events for its members.

As college marks a formidable time of identify affirmation for many students, Smith says she hopes that BSA continues to be a safe space for authenticity and community like it was for her at the beginning of her time at Georgetown.

"I hope that underclassmen can benefit from this place being as starting point to finding their footing here. No matter what other spaces make them feel uncomfortable, they can always know that within BSA or the Black House, they have the freedom and power to be themselves."