Against the backdrop of the 1960s—an era of urban unrest, assassinated leaders, and tectonic social and cultural shifts—a handful of African American students on AU’s campus formed one of the first black student unions based at a predominantly white university. They called themselves the Organization of African and Afro-American Students at the American University, or OASATAU (pronounced oh-SAH-toh).
While a black campus movement gathered momentum across the country, the students at AU focused on their local needs. They came together to ease the loneliness of being a tiny minority in a white milieu, to demand relevant black studies courses and more African American faculty, to request a budget for community work, and to create a campus culture that embraced their cultural and academic interests.
In this series of 11 oral history narratives, excerpted from interviews with OASATAU founders and members, black alumni look back on their early activism and reflect on its relevance for these times. Read some of their stories below—and check back for updates on August 17.
Norman Early, SPA/BA ’67
I kind of grew up all over DC. When I graduated from high school, Calvin Coolidge, I went to my stepfather and said, “Well, I would like to go off to college.” He said, “Do you have your money?” The answer to that is no. That very same day, I was feeling pretty despondent, a guy named Kent Amos—he’s a very forward-thinking African American businessman in the city, we were in track together at Coolidge—called me up out of the blue and said, “Hey Norm, have you decided where you’re going to college yet?” I said no. He said, “Well, you know, Coach [Jack] Linden over at American University would be interested in having you come over here and run some track.” It was amazing. We talked about it and they were happy with me, I was happy with them—and off I went to AU in the fall of ’63.
Photo: Norman Early, student government president 1966–1967 (yearbook photo)
I [had a job] working on the buildings and grounds crew—we rode around in trucks. We moved furniture during the summertime, we cleaned desks, you know, the whole bit. We worked alongside other athletes, most of whom were not African American, and we actually formed quite a bond. There were a number of individuals who were great—and then there were others who were what you would expect when you’re an African American and you’re breaking into that kind of setup. I knew what prejudice was all about before I got to AU.
And then, yeah, we had a pretty diverse track team. We went down to Virginia one time, and Butch Bell was out on the track, he was moving, boy—and somebody yelled out of the stands, they yelled, “Slow down, n-----!” Our coach Jack Linden said, “You know what? We’re going home, let’s go.” He got all of us together and we left.
Most of the guys on the trucks were in a fraternity. A lot of them were in [Alpha Tau Omega]. I indicated to them one day that I thought I would pledge ATO. They kind of looked at each other, and one of the guys said, “Nope, you won’t be pledging ATO.” I asked why not, and they told me that it was segregated. I said, Oh—welcome to the 1960s, and I said okay.
So I knew I wanted fraternity life as a part of my college experience. I’d met a lot of wonderful guys who were in [Zeta Beta Tau], which is a primarily Jewish fraternity. And I still am a ZBT. As a matter of fact, I go to events almost every year.
I always had the feeling that I could do something as well as or better than the next person. Even when I was at American University, before I ran for student government president, I was running for various other offices, like sophomore class president, just because I enjoyed doing my best with and for other people. I was vice president during my junior year, then I was president in the senior year.
One of the things I thought was good was that, by having an African American in that position [for the first time], things that I thought were detrimental to student life were starting to be changed—I’m talking mostly about interpersonal relationships. I can’t say that there was a lot of activism going on while I was there. I think that we were trying to walk before we could run—that was pretty critical for us at that time. But we had a lot of friends at the other schools.
One of the things that we developed was a scholarship fund where four or five schools in the [DC] metro area put at least one act into a variety hour-type thing. As time went on, those schools formed relationships with one another. It got to the point where the student government officials were hanging with student government officials from other schools. A lot of it, believe it or not, went on between Howard and American University—which are very dichotomous, those two schools.
Martin Luther King’s influence was something that we all came under because he was such an amazing person. I think everybody would go to sleep at night hoping that nothing ever happened to him, and then one day it happened.
Yeah, we had [John F.] Kennedy, we had King, and we had Bobby [Kennedy]. That was a lot to absorb in a fairly short period of time, and it was not something that I wanted to become accustomed to, that’s for damn sure. Those three people all had tremendous values and all had tremendous heart. That was just something that you had to take in.
I was going to law school so that I could work for poor people and for minorities through the Reginald Heber Smith Community Lawyer Fellowship [Reggie] Program. It was a program, at least as I see it, for young activist lawyers to get involved [in legal aid programs], and I got assigned to Denver. That was the reason I came to Denver—because Denver had black folks who had never heard of discrimination. They didn’t really feel that this was something that touched them. When you come from DC, you know it touches you.
The Reggies—we had gone to Howard University the summer before we started law school, and we were trained to kind of be super legal-aid lawyers. I can’t speak for everybody else, but we had a mind that we were going to expose minorities, poor people, to things that they had never been exposed to.
I wasn’t a H. Rap Brown kind of militant, but I considered myself to be more militant than folks who had not had the Reggie training. I considered myself to be more militant, period, after the training. It was philosophical, but it was also practical. We were doing things that had not been done before, like I handled a lot of the police misconduct stuff for the black community. We started to change that—and we did change that, to the point that when I [became] the district attorney here in Denver, the cops said, “Wait a minute, this dude is on the other side.”
You look back—and one of the things that happened before King got shot is, you would think about the state of almost unrest, and before you know it the man is shot. You see a lot of that happening now—the unrest as a result of rhetoric and the fact that I think a lot of people were looking for an opportunity to express what they are expressing now. We’re a divided country right now, and I am not very hopeful.
Norman Early was the first African American district attorney of Denver—and AU’s first black student government president.
Leslie Epps, Kogod/BS ’69
Where I grew up on the south shore of Long Island, the schools were totally integrated. I was playing football in high school, and my thoughts were to go to Syracuse to play football and be the next Art Monk or somebody like that. But I got injured my junior year and the doctor told me my football career was over. So American was a particular choice because they did not have a football team: that way I wouldn’t miss it!
Photo: Flag at half-mast honors King outside deserted campus building (Eagle)
I think I was the only black male admitted into the [Kogod] School of Business my freshman year. My first set of roommates were white. Atiba Coppock and Moussa Foster were my roommates after my first year. The fourth person in the quad suite was a white kid that was an upperclassman, and he stayed off campus with his girlfriend somewhere, so we basically had the suite to ourselves.
I got activated [politically] when I came to campus. We had a black student government president, Norm Early, he was a student athlete. His involvement in the campus politics kind of made us aware. And just being in DC—we kept our ears and eyes open to the news and what was happening during those times, with Vietnam and everything. People were thinking, Am I going to get drafted? Am I going to Vietnam? Things like that.
I think the first time that I was ever conscious of being discriminated against was after my freshman year. I was working for a marine supply company up in Baltimore. We did piecework making cargo nets and rope ladders and things like that. Everybody got their check the same day, and there was a place where you could go cash your check where this restaurant was that had a carryout [section]. Blacks could cash their checks—but they couldn’t order food at the carryout.
I didn’t want to fight [about it]—I wanted to figure out a solution. And my devious mind said, Well, okay, you can’t serve me here at the carryout—let me walk around to the restaurant. I walked around to the front of the restaurant and sat down, and ordered, and ate. My coworkers came back afterward and asked me, “Where did you go to eat?” I said, “I went to that restaurant.” They said, “Well, didn’t they stop you?” I said, “No.” I wasn’t going to be deterred by my first bout of outward racism in a society that I thought was equal.
I’ve been basically living my life in increments of 10 years since I came out of AU. There were a lot of low points in my life during the course of [the past] 50 years, but because of my awareness of who I am and the people around me that wouldn’t let me fall off the map, I’ve been able to survive and thrive.
I am married, with grandchildren getting ready to graduate from high school. I’m trying to make them aware of what’s happening in the world today so that they can understand what I went through, what my classmates went through. They don’t necessarily see the struggles because of the foundations that have been laid and the paths that have been opened for them. The most important thing I try to preach to the kids is, you have to know who you are and what you want to accomplish. Without those goals, you’re just treading water every day. Hopefully I’ve gotten through to a few of them.
Most of the kids where I live here in Bladensburg [Maryland] I’ve known since they were in kindergarten. I’ve been involved with the community on a high school level and with senior groups here. I don’t think they push in the high schools what has transpired over the past 50 years—since those riots happened. They might see a film [clip] on the news or something, but I don’t think that they’re sitting in the classrooms getting a history of what actually happened here in the nation’s capital.
We were the generation that became aware of what the struggle was going to be about—because prior to King getting killed, I don’t think America wanted to know anything about what the struggle was about. I think they viewed it as, you know, it’s just a bunch of nonviolent religious activists—until the marches started, it was Johnson’s administration. That’s when the media really started covering the events and the country became aware of what’s going on. And then when King got killed, I think it socially awoke a mass population that had been coddled by the government into thinking everything was fine.
I feel extremely proud of what we did, and I know most of my peers do too. I don’t know if there’s anything we could have done differently, except maybe change a lot more minds a lot more quickly about the state of this country.
I think we were able to establish something that the classes behind us wanted to continue: They wanted to have their voices heard. They wanted to have an influence in their communities and the lives of students at American University. We were very fortunate to have that connection [with each other]. It was us against the world at one point—and then it got to be we’re preparing and educating the next generation.
If this generation is able to speak up and generate activism within the political system that we have to deal with in this country, then that’s what they’ve got to do. And we’ve got to be able to back them. We’re a community, and we will continue to be a large family community. We want that to keep going on.
Leslie Epps worked as an accountant, most recently at the international law firm of Hogan Lovells in Washington, DC.
Moussa Foster, SPA/BA ’70
When I came to American University, my nickname was “Moose.” I had a close African friend who didn’t know what that animal was. So I showed him the Great North Woods mural in Mary Graydon, and he said, “Oh my God, brother, this is a conspiracy of the white man to shame our race. That is the ugliest animal I’ve seen in my life.” He said, “I’m going to give you the name ‘Musa.’ It’s the name we give to people of which we expect great things.” And so I took the name Musa. Then when I came to Minnesota, people were [mispronouncing] it, so a francophone African teacher of history from Guinea said, “This is the way we spell it: Moussa.” And so that’s what I [adopted].
Photo: Northwest DC neighborhood devastated after King's assassination (courtesy DC Public Library/Historical Society of WDC)
I grew up in a poor working-class community in East Baltimore. I am the son of a black preacher and a community worker who worked for the Little Sisters of the Poor, the Catholic agency for seniors. They were fundamental Pentecostal believers and they were pacifists. My personal position was not pacifist at all, and my father and I would have very long, protracted discussions about this, to the point where he was really worried that I was at risk in a racist society.
Things caught fire for me once I got to AU and was out of my parents’ household and mingling with people who were willing to debate things on a broader plane. The idea of whether or not African Americans and other people of color could actually be incorporated into an American democracy was one of the things that I was most interested in talking about and studying and testing.
Atiba Coppock, Joe Harris, and I—we were friends since the freshman class. I was probably the most outspoken. Without a doubt, I was among the more militant. That’s the reputation that I gained—and that I enjoyed, to be candid. I felt that militant meant a person who was committed to principles with less room for compromise, at least in theory. It seemed to me that the country was at a turning point, and I didn’t mind being involved in pushing to turn the wheel.
We took a chance [in organizing a black student union at AU]. There were a lot of [black] students who felt, “Oh no, we’re here as products of integration. We don’t want to give the image that we are segregating ourselves.” We didn’t ask for a black dormitory or for courses to which only black students could be admitted; we were not trying to separate ourselves out from the student body. But we felt that we needed to have the experience of our own leadership, of our own structure, and of doing for ourselves what we had previously asked others to do. We didn’t have the language to talk about affinity then, but we knew it was something that we all felt.
The racial membership issue [in OASATAU] was really touchy. In our first few meetings, white people showed up—and it totally changed the agenda, people weren’t speaking. It’s difficult to describe unless you’re a person of color and you know what happens when one white person walks into a room and literally they become the focus of the agenda. It put us in a difficult place, because we had white allies and people who supported our existence as an organization.
Once we formed the BSU [black student union], Atiba and I tied for who would lead the organization—there was a vote among the students who showed up that day—and I won by a coin toss. The general feeling was that Atiba and I were not opposed ideologically, but that he would be an easier person to negotiate with than I would because I was so vociferous in my presentation. But that worked to our advantage, because we would go into a meeting with the administration and we’d have our agenda, and I would breathe fire and generally leave, and then Atiba would say, “Wow, that Moose Foster’s really something. Let’s talk about these demands.” People had no idea that we were the best of friends.
After King was killed, I did not believe that the republic would last for another decade. I said it just can’t take these kinds of shocks, because we had riots in ’64, and then in ’67, and now in ’68, and I said, it’s gonna be outright martial law. I understood why it was happening. I didn’t appreciate it—but in the sense, yes, this is what must happen. I believed that with the lack of change, and especially with the murder of Martin Luther King Jr., that that was the big trigger—that was the explosion. The rebellion seemed to be the cataclysmic event—this was going to stop things in its tracks. And it didn’t, you know?
I felt that if there was any hope for liberalism, it was gonna come from Bobby Kennedy. And I was crushed when he was shot. I think for anybody that grew up in the Kennedy era, it was just one great sigh—of horror. It seemed to be coming from all angles—the Democratic Convention in Chicago and the police riot, it appeared to be so chaotic. Yeah, it was like a mule kick.
That American University experience, it shaped my ideology. I came in as a militant integrationist—and I left as more of a cultural nationalist. I really did not believe that white America was ready to make peace. For years I investigated moving to Africa or the Caribbean or setting up communities here in this country in the South. That was sort of my passion, this idea of moving to a social space where the issue of competing with white people and incurring their wrath and their resistance would be off the table. I’d always resisted separatism. I said, I’m only a separatist to the extent that the [American] colonists were separatists, or that Gandhi was a separatist, or that Mandela was a separatist—we all want to be separated from injustice.
I see 1968 as the year that molded me into the person I was to become. I’m still growing, I’m still learning. And I wish I had more to celebrate. I’m grateful for the changes that I’ve seen. But my deep and abiding sadness is that we keep moving historically in time—and yet we don’t really seem to progress. But I’m encouraged by the stridency of movements of young people.
A retired educator, Foster’s career spanned secondary through graduate school. He taught history at the University of Minnesota.
Atiba (Bertram) Coppock, CAS/BA ’69, CAS/MEd ’70
I wasn’t here on an athletic scholarship like some of the other black males, but I had the grades to get in and I was able to get loans. And because I had played basketball and a lot of different sports in high school, I wanted to continue that. I was a walk-on on the basketball team. The other thing I did—they had a chamber group and I played string bass my freshman year.
That’s what [black kids] needed to do if you wanted to go to college—try to prove that, if you came from a city like Newark [New Jersey], that you weren’t from the “ghetto,” that you weren’t the first one in your family to go to college. And I wasn’t.
Photo: Rally organized by OASATAU at Mary Graydon Center the morning after King's assassination (Eagle)
Coming to the South, I was given a talk [by my grandmother]: You had to be careful. There were things going on outside of DC that made you understand that things were different than in the North. We were all aware that to be black and male, you had to walk a certain kind of line. At that time, black people, primarily men, were being shot down in Prince George’s County [Maryland]. And if you went in the wrong direction off campus, you would be stopped. Black folks weren’t supposed to be in that area after a certain time, but if you stayed on the path, you know, at worst you’d be seen as hired help going home from your job.
AU was very insular. You could go off the bubble and you’d be in the real world. For example, we would go off campus to get stuff to eat, because even though they had plenty of good food, it still wasn’t black food. So being part of the basketball team, we would go down to 14th and U Street—there was a place called Wings ’n Things, and we’d get chicken wings and bring it back to the dorm.
It was a very vanilla campus—the music was, too. We were paying student fees, but none of the acts that were coming through were anything that we wanted to see. When I first got to AU, they had a local go-go band that was great, but after that it wasn’t rhythm and blues or funk. And that reflected the student body and it reflected the types of organizations that were there. The faculty and administration assumed that we wanted to be integrated into the larger society and that whatever cultural experiences were going on there were sufficient for us—and they weren’t. We initially saw OASATAU as a means to make the social arena culturally more comfortable, more expansive.
We were focused on the cultural and nationalist aspects of what being black was about—being African-centered and culturally what that meant. It helped us to be more aware of our heritage. [Adopting my name] was part of a cultural consciousness. Atiba is the name that was chosen by my wife for me, and Nsenga was the name I helped choose for her.
We thought that the education we were going to get [would be] very expansive, but it was very Eurocentric and very stifling. What we wanted was a black studies program that would have been degree granting, but that wasn’t going to happen because we didn’t have the competency to do that so we went for the next best thing—to leave a cultural mark so that it was easier for black students to succeed here and not have to give up their identity. We used OASATAU as an incubator for black leadership, male and female.
What AU taught us in terms of leadership was, if you could articulate your position, then there was a mechanism to get what you wanted. We weren’t about tearing anything down, we weren’t about being expelled from school for something stupid. We had had talks with other radical groups, white groups, and our position was simply this: When we went home, when we went off the campus, we were still seen as blacks and the majority of the world saw us as inferior. They could shave off their beards and blend into the society—and we couldn’t. So we understood that we would have to make the best of what we had here.
Even with the influx of folks coming in from DC with the Frederick Douglass Program, the administration still didn’t have a good grasp on black folks. They still had certain attitudes about who we were and what black people were about—and that’s something that people are still dealing with, you know, the intersection between the privileged class, race, gender. I mean we were just “colored folks” to them. The fact is, we let [the administration] think what they wanted to think. That kind of racist attitude we didn’t take personally—as long as we got what we needed. We were able to push the boundaries because we were able to articulate our concerns.
We helped people see that you didn’t have to be thuggish. You could use very clear, calculated strategies to get what you wanted. You had to model the kind of person our parents and grandparents had wanted us to be but couldn’t necessarily articulate it in a way that made sense to us at the time. So that’s what we represented: we represented a time and we opened up the door for people to succeed. One of the things that we prided ourselves on was that we were going to provide a platform for leadership to succeed us—and then we were going to get out of the way.
I think that we gave as much to the university as they gave to us. In fact, I think we gave more—because we gave them an opportunity to understand how to nurture black students. We knew we weren’t going to be accepted into the white community just because we had a degree from American—or from any university. We knew we were the first generation knocking down certain barriers that would make it easier for the next generation.
I never stopped my militancy—I just found new ways to address those issues. The assault on black lives, the diminishment of black life, hasn’t stopped. The struggle continues. I feel that there will be change in the next 50 years, but it’s going to be slower than what I had hoped for. And you can’t rely on anybody else to do it for you.
Coppock taught special-needs students at the elementary and college levels and was a government contractor in the area of substance abuse.
Joseph Harris, CAS/BS ’70
I started at American University in the fall of ’66. The conversation at that time was about black folks being on a white campus. It wasn’t a white campus—it was American University. There happened to be more white people there than black people. I think that gets overstated and I want to be careful with the words. Otherwise we’re saying we were privileged to be among these special people and that made us special in a way. That’s crazy.
Photo: Joe Harris, foreground, and Atiba Coppock, left, at a rally (yearbook photo)
It was an entirely different era. I tell people, “Think of it this way: Imagine a time when almost no one had a colored television, it was black and white television—and the country [was] described racially in terms of black and white. No one ever talked about Native Americans, nobody ever talked about Latino populations or any of the groups of people that were from Asia. They were truly Ralph Ellison’s invisible men and women, even more than blacks were. [Everything] was black and white.
There were two things that were going on that were on parallel tracks and that should have had more of a relationship to each other. For black people, it was the Civil Rights Movement—or better still, we should call it a human rights movement, because if you’re getting burned alive and lynched and your house is getting bombed, that’s not civil rights: that’s domestic terror and your human rights are being attacked.
The antiwar movement was the big thing. And I hate to generalize, but it was what most white kids were relating to—[kids] who were becoming radicalized or better aware, and many of them were understanding that it wasn’t just about the war in Southeast Asia. It was also about the war here. The more enlightened parts of the antiwar movement were starting to appreciate that.
There were groups of people who shared this common concern that things were just not right in the country and they needed to be fixed—and we needed to be part of that fixing. The cliché was, “You’re part of the problem or part of the solution: push, pull, or get out of the way.”
Dr. King—he was evolving out of just human rights to understanding that not only were there issues with how the government treated people of color here—but that was closely linked to how this government was treating people of color in Southeast Asia. Suddenly he wasn’t the “polite Negro” requesting the right to vote in Alabama: now he was this radical attacking his government for its foreign policy in Southeast Asia. Even Martin Luther King got radicalized.
King had just been killed in Memphis, and we held a rally on the steps of Mary Graydon. This is the first time I spoke in public as a member of OASATAU. I laid it squarely on the feet of white racism in the United States. I just said, Look, if Dr. King, a man of nonviolence, is only stating the truth that secondhand citizenship is unacceptable, that you can’t expect people of color to lay their lives on the line for this country repeatedly and come home to be lynched and burned and treated like animals—that’s just not going to work. He wasn’t calling for armed insurrection. He wasn’t using the phrase “by any means necessary.” He was very clear about strategy and methodology, and he was very clear about goals. I said if that man is assassinated for speaking the truth and calling for a peaceful transition, then we’ve got a problem here and we’ve got to change our approach. It was a real transformational moment for me in terms of what was going on and how I needed to respond to it.
For me, it’s not about being militant. I mean you grow your hair long, you wear a dashiki. Do you spend all day talking bad about white people? Does that make you a militant? A true militant would be spending all of his or her time educating everyone, but specifically his or her own community about who they are and what they are. And more importantly—this is what keeps getting lost—helping them to learn how to be successful in this world.
The Black Panthers started what the government took over as the school lunch programs—the Panthers started that. That’s what I mean by being a real militant and doing something important—feeding kids and educating kids. We bought books for some of the kids in the high schools in Washington. I think we went over to Wilson High School with several copies of The Autobiography of Malcolm X.
I think any anniversary is a time to reflect. It’s a very different world now than the world of ’68—and the world, I think, has gone in the wrong direction over the last 50 years. It may be that it wasn’t what we thought it was, and it’s just become more apparent that that’s the case. One of the beauties of that era was the intellectual stimulation. People were having honest conversations, and people were listening.
I think the legacy of OASATAU was the beginning of the change in the thought process about how we perceive this world and how we perceive ourselves—and how others should perceive us and perceive themselves. And it’s moved forward, it’s pushed back, it’s moved forward—and we’re in a very bad period now. In many ways, we are not trying as hard as we used to to get along. Everyone’s in their own silo, and they sort of peek out to see what’s going on.
I’m sure many well-intentioned people, many of whom happen to be white, feel like they’re damned if they do and damned if they don’t. Every effort they make is treated like some kind of patronizing, condescending effort. That’s the kind of stuff we need to get away from, this labeling and judging. Good-faith effort that comes from the heart should be seen as that.
Harris is an obstetrician-gynecologist with a subspecialty in maternal fetal medicine.