By Steph Haeg
February is Black History Month, and as such, I’ll be dedicating every column I write this month to the illustrious, fascinating and often overlooked contributions of black students to the history of this university.
In 1968, there were 25 black students at SJU, and they organized together to found the Organization of Afro-American Students (OAAS), a precurser to today’s Black Student Union (BSU). In the Dec. 16, 1968 issue of The Record, right below the article “Racism Found Prevalent at SJU,” there is another article that describes the OAAS’s official purpose. Open only to black students, either African American or international, they stated that their intention was to “assisting black students in overcoming the shock of entering a predominantly white community.” They also hoped to raise campus awareness, celebrate black culture and to combat racism.
They campaigned for a Black Cultural Center, which they were granted, but it was located in the basement of the Great Hall, which frustrated many of the OAAS, who felt that they were not being taken seriously by the faculty and staff.
In an interview for the SJU alumni magazine for the fall 1970 issue, OAAS president Homer Brown said that he hoped that the presence of the Black Cultural Center would broaden the minds of white Johnnies and get them to understand and empathize more.
“I think we’ve done enough to try and understand the white point of view these past 200 years,” Brown said. “I think it’s their turn now.”
In November of 1970, OAAS submitted to SJU President’s Office “A Proposition Concerning Black Survival”. This document laid out several demands including $10,000 to be allocated to the OAAS, to allow them to purchase materials to promote the Black Cultural Center and for them to be granted an annual budget “to enable them to sponsor educational and social events.” At the time, the combined campuses had about 2,200 students, approximately 121 of whom were black.
The SJU President’s Office attempted to delay, as the proposition was unsigned, so it was impossible to know how many students were being represented. In response, the students declared a sit-in at the President’s Office. Twenty students from both campuses entered the office, bringing with them food and boards to barricade themselves inside. When the police were called, nine of the students (five Johnnies and four Bennies) refused to leave, even when a court order for them to remove themselves from the premises was obtained. The police entered and arrested the students non-violently, after which they spent the night in jail.
When the case went to trial later that month, they were charged with and pled guilty to contempt of the court order. Normally, the sentence for the charges would be a 90-day suspended sentence, but due to the circumstances, Judge Paul Hoffman sentenced them to a 30-day suspended sentence, and sent a letter to both CSB and SJU, requesting that this sentence not affect the students’ academic statues.
In response to this action, CSB and SJU both enacted policies about peaceful protest which remain to this day. The Executive Governing Board of SJU declared that there were clear needs for the African American community on campus, but that there were not funds available to meet the demands, and instead urged the presidents of CSB and SJU to raise the funds for the black community independently of the budget.