Making Their Voices Heard The Black Student Forum has been pushing the University to improve inclusivity since its conception in 1969.

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asper Augustus Ferguson, BC ’37, was Boston College’s first black student. While other universities in the Boston area had been accepting black students since the 1800s, BC accepted Ferguson in 1933. In the next 10 years, BC graduated six other black students. While Georgetown University hired its first black faculty member in 1868, BC hired theirs in 1949.

During the middle of the 20th century, racism and bigotry were extremely prevalent throughout the United States—and BC felt the impact. While some students and faculty members insisted that Jesuit values didn’t line up with segregation policies, apathy toward AHANA+ students on campus remained prevalent. To combat this, students and faculty pushed forward on certain initiatives. In 1966, through the Office of Economic Opportunity, BC hosted “Upward Bound,” a program that brought black juniors and seniors in high school to preparatory workshops on campus. In 1967, a group of 12 students started “Alternative,” a program to bring attention to racial violence. And in 1969, the Black Forum, which would later become known as the Black Student Forum (BSF), staked its place as a club on campus.

Since opening its doors in 1863, Boston College has broadened its student body from just white Irish Catholic men to women and AHANA+ students, taking strides to make the campus more inclusive. Still, many students feel as though the University can do more for the black student population, as was shown in the 2017 Silence is Still Violence demonstration, in which over 2,000 students and faculty marched to protest racism on campus. Hosted by the Undergraduate Government of BC and FACES, the march was an example of the initiatives these organizations, and others, have taken on campus to have the voice of the students heard.

Since its inception, BSF has been providing a voice to AHANA+ students on campus and has been pushing BC to be a place of inclusivity. In an article in The Heights in January of 1969, members of the Black Forum described the club’s goals.

“The Forum … is designed to develop its members’ level of consciousness regarding the politics of this campus and the Roxbury community, knowledge of Black achievements in art, literature, and music, social sensitivity, and awareness of Blackness,” a representative said in the article.

After its inception, the Black Student Forum approached the University with a comprehensive list of eight demands, partially focusing on improving the current curriculum to include a Black Studies program. The demands included hiring several full-time black faculty, joining other consortiums to help finance black graduate students, and accepting a minimum of 50 black students to BC’s Class of ’73.

Since then, the Black Student Forum has expanded upon these goals, aiming toward educating its members and encouraging collaboration within the community.

Community, collaboration, and communication are exactly the platforms that Armani King, MCAS ’20, ran on for the position of BSF president 50 years after the organization’s initial creation. After joining BSF in her sophomore year, she went from freshman liaison to treasurer to president. King and the 13 other members of the executive board, including Ellana Lawrence, CSOM ’22, have kept the original goal alive—as well as expanded and tailored it to the needs they see pertinent now, such as keeping a good flow of communication between the entire black community on campus.

“It’s really important that we’re on the same page … that we’re still a community, that we can also make the rest of the black students on campus feel like they could have a home or somewhere to go,” Lawrence said.

King stressed that her goal for collaboration focuses on the importance of cooperation within the black community on campus. Black students comprise only 4 percent of BC’s student population, which causes overlap between the other black student clubs, or “diasporic groups,” as King referred to them—making communication among the black student population a relatively quick process, she said. 

Before King and before decades of formative shared experiences on campus, the students who established the BSF were just finding their voice and stepping into their role of advocacy.

The Black Forum organized a rally in February 1970 alongside 500 other students, both black and white. Carl Lewis, the then-president of BSF and BC ’72, called for the University to acknowledge their side of the story.

 “We are tired of the lies, we are tired of the insults, and we are not going to take it anymore,” Lewis said.

The rally was brought on by the introduction of the Black Talent Program in the spring of 1968. The University had allocated $100,000 towards the Black Talent Program with the goal of increasing admission of AHANA+ students and providing them tools through a tutoring program to help them acclimate to BC.

The BSF did not see the program in the same light. Recognizing it as BC’s first act of “tokenism,” the BSF called it a disaster. And in 1969, the organization expressed concern about the University deducting money that was supposed to be used for recruitment and tuition for secretarial fees, maintenance costs and other trivial expenses.

In an article written by The Heights about the 1968 spring rally, Marilyn Smith, a student who spoke at the rally, echoed the concerns and frustration of the black students on campus at that time.

 “They brought us and didn’t do a thing about us after we got here,” she said.

The next day, the BSF held a sit-in to bring attention to the demands it had for the administration. The demands called for a separate house for the BSF, a separate dormitory for black students on Upper Campus, a mandate for 10 percent of the incoming class to be minority students by 1974, and the elimination of the consideration of aptitude test scores for entrance into BC.

Though it had only just started, the BSF made sure its voice was heard, establishing itself on campus and the roots for the morals its members still stand by today. And after the first rally, it had no plans to slow down.

By 1979, the BSF was fully up-and-running at BC, as highlighted in a 1979 article by The Heights, where club members walked the paper through the different subsections of the organization. Already comprised of four committees—the Fundraising Committee, the Lecture-Series Committee, the Special Interest Committee, and the Social Committee—the BSF aimed to add two more sections. The first was the Tutorial Committee, which would be dedicated to tutoring students in the Boston area, and the Black Drama Group, which would promote awareness about social concerns through black playwrights.

During this time period, the BSF continued to promote its message through rallies, participating in a national rally in November of 1979 at the U.N. building in New York. Colliding with National Black Solidarity day, the rally showed unity among people of African descent throughout the world, according to the article by The Heights. At these two rallies, white students marched behind black students, allowing the voices of the black community to be front and center. 

The BSF has tried to prioritize cooperation with the broader student body over the years through events. Such activities highlighted in a 1979 article written by The Heights included a Halloween roller disco party that invited all students on campus to come and be a part of the conversation surrounding social awareness and involvement.

As the ’80s rolled around, the university saw a decrease in AHANA+ enrollment. Frustrated, the BSF wrote a LTE of The Heights in 1983, hoping to draw attention to the decline and the reasons behind it. In the letter, the organization called out the University for not offering better financial aid packages to minority students, preventing their matriculation. They also mentioned that unlike other universities, BC does not have specific prospective literature geared toward black students, a sentiment that echoed some of the demands they gave the University in 1969 and 1970.

The LTE went on to say that the BSF wrote a letter to then-University President Rev. J. Donald Monan, S.J., voicing their concerns. In response, the group received silence. Not only did Monan not reply to the letter, but neither he nor a member of his staff made an attempt to attend a weekend event sponsored by the Admissions Office and the BSF that welcomed prospective black students to campus, the letter said. 

The BSF was ready to take tangible action toward increasing black student enrollment—in 1984, along with the Undergraduate Government of BC, the group proposed a comprehensive plan for a guide for incoming black students. Coined The Black Student Guide to Prospective High School Students, the booklet was going to accompany the already existing Boston College Guide, which gave prospective students an overview of life on campus. The reason? The BSF knew that, due to the high population of white Irish Catholic students on campus, the current guide as it was wouldn’t provide a scope that allowed incoming black students to understand what life would be like for them on campus.

“We are not trying to dissociate black students from white students,” then-UGBC AHANA+ executive assistant Gary Jackson, BC ’84, said at the time. “What we’re trying to do is create a larger cross section of students at BC.”

The 1983 LTE wasn’t the last time the BSF took action in the face of silence from a BC president. In October 2017, after Black Lives Matter signs were defaced in Roncalli Hall and a racist Snapchat created by a BC student circulated across social media, students organized the Silence is Still Violence march, which was attended by thousands. During the rally, people chanted “Where is Leahy?,” as University President Rev. William P. Leahy, S.J., had neither made a public statement on the issue nor attended the event.

The BSF, along with other diasporic clubs on campus, prioritized supporting students in the wake of these incidents, King said. She explained that the BSF created an email template for students to send to teachers explaining why they might need to miss class. The club thought this would be a helpful tool for those who found themselves unable to reach out to teachers, she said.

A year later, in 2018, after former student Michael Sorkin wrote racist epithets in Welch Hall, Leahy did not release a statement, which again caused uproar from members of the student body. King remembers listening to then-interim Vice President for Student Affairs Joy Moore speak during the town hall meeting after the incident. 

“[She] said this wasn’t the first time something like this happened, and it’s not gonna be the last time. … I was like that is the most true thing said at the panel,” King said. “And that was also part of the reason why I checked out.”

Lawrence, an event coordinator for the BSF, joined the club in the fall of 2019. She plans events for the BSF, not unlike the roller disco party of 1979 or the rally in New York, that members of the BSF Social Committee carried out. Lawrence said that her role isn’t just to plan BSF events, but to leave an impact on campus—to do something connected to the forum’s name that will matter long after she and King are gone, such as Black Family Weekend.

Lawrence, King, and the other members of the BSF executive board have been working toward creating the best product they can for the 46th annual Black Family Weekend, which is taking place on the weekend of April 28. Black Family Weekend invites parents of black students to campus for a weekend of events, such as the Black Family Weekend Fashion Show. The work that has been put in is monumental, King said, explaining that she’s been in the Office of Student Involvement to figure out funding for the event almost every day for the past two semesters.

King and Lawrence are just two of the many students that have worked toward creating and planning these events that advocate on behalf of black student body at BC since 1969. They explained that, for the BSF to run smoothly, the most important work happens behind the scenes.

“[When] I work behind the scenes, and I actually put forward a good program, [that] will be more fulfilling to me,” King said, “I feel like that’s what I’m excited for, like that feeling I get when everything’s all said and done.”

Both Lawrence and King agreed that BC can do better at providing open and safe spaces for its black student body. There’s plenty of small, often overlooked steps that need to be taken forward, Lawrence said. Small microaggressions that might fly under the radar of white students include the University’s practices regarding inviting musical artists to campus, they said. Lawrence, a member of the Campus Activities Board, said that the board can’t invite musicians who have a criminal record or whose music has curse words in it to perform, which cuts out a large demographic of black artists. 

King recognized the community the BSF has provided for black students on campus, calling the club her home.

“Not to be corny … BSF is just like my thing on campus to be honest,” King said. “You know, like, I dropped my dance group, I dropped mock trial, this was just for me. And I feel like it was just the place where I could grow my own self, my leadership skills and me as a person, but then also [grow] the community as well.”

When the Black Forum issued its list of demands in 1969, the University responded by implementing the Black Studies program—later renamed African and African Diaspora Studies—which became a major last year. Over 50 years later, there’s still a lot to be done, King and Lawrence said.

“What needs to be improved [is] the level of cultural competency, understanding, and just making this environment more welcoming,” Lawrence said.

Photos Courtesy of Tom Nelligan / Heights Archives, Tom Chin / Heights Archives, Dan Natchek / Heights Archives, Ikram Ali / Heights Editor

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