Some members of OASATAU posed for a yearbook photo in 1968, with portraits of Amiri Baraka, Malcolm X (El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz), and Frederick Douglass. First row, seated, from left: OASATAU cofounders Joseph Harris, Moussa Foster, Atiba Coppock. Middle row: Leon Langford, Barbara Gardner, Roberta Gill, Cecelia Vilakazi, Paula Rhodes, Fern Davis, Wanda Dabney. Top row: Unidentified, Gordon “Rashid” Stiles, Ron Burley, Leslie Epps, Mark Stevens, George Sitgraves, Larry Stone.
On April 4 of 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was gunned down in Memphis and Washington burned. Some refer to the central city events as riots, others as a rebellion, still others as an uprising; how we talk about what happened, the language that we use, depends on our vantage point and understanding of the context.
Against the backdrop of the mid-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 for short (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 musical, literary, and other interests.
“Fifty years later, AU now has an Antiracist Research and Policy Center,” says director Ibram Kendi, “which is seeking to build on the antiracist activism of those students and establish AU as one of the premier intellectual spaces in the world that is challenging racist policies—and to try to create equal opportunity, which is precisely what those black students were seeking to do 50 years ago.”
This year also marks the half-century anniversary of AU’s Frederick Douglass Scholarship. The program brought to campus the first large influx of black students from local high schools, empowering OASATAU to pursue the goals of its manifesto: “. . . to improve the climate of this university for Black students in order to make it more conducive to the pursuit of a satisfying lifestyle for African and Afro-American students.”
“It’s a journey, of belonging, that we still navigate,” says Fanta Aw, vice president of Campus Life and Inclusive Excellence. It’s a journey to respond to the lived experiences of incoming students and to better connect the university to the diverse communities of the nation’s capital.
To celebrate this journey, OASATAU founders and members look back on their early activism and reflect on its relevance for these times.
Flies in the Buttermilk
In the mid-1960s, a small number of black students—“Negroes” was the term then—arrived at American University. One of them, Norm Early, SPA/BA ’67, campaigned for president of the Student Association. It was 1966, and he won. For the first time, AU had a black student government leader, but his victory did little to alter the sense of social and cultural isolation felt by many.
Gerald Lee, CAS/BA ’73, WCL/JD ’76 (Judge US District Court) I was a high school student in Washington, DC, in 1968, working for a group called Youth Pride Incorporated. It was a job training program for inner city residents. [Former DC mayor] Marion Barry and Mary Treadwell formed a relationship with AU and started the Pride American University Project. The idea was that American University had basically been an oasis up on the hill [with] very little connection with the black community in Washington, in terms of matriculation of black students from the [local] high schools.
When [we] learned of the Pride program [at AU], several of us high school students asked if we could take the test to see if we could get into college. So when we took the test, they picked us up at the corner of 16th and U Street, which in those days was the ’hood, and put us in the back of a truck and drove us up to AU. Now we’d never been to that part of the world before. I recall riding up Massachusetts Avenue, seeing these manicured lawns and mansions, and asking, “Is this Washington, DC?”
We had to take the bus from Barry Farm, which is about an hour and a half ride, twice a week. We took classes from six o’clock to eight o’clock. Now [this] was not a remedial sandbox program—the university agreed to let us take classes with college students.
I remember we walked into our first class—there were only three people in that room with dark skin. And that was us. We decided we weren’t going to sit in the back; we were going to sit right up front. So, I looked around and had this feeling you get sometimes and wonder if you really belong, wonder if you’re smart enough, can you really do this now that you’re here.
And ultimately, in one of the classes we had to write a paper, and I got an A. And I said to myself, “I can do this. I’m in college—I can do this.”
Marita (Bernette) Golden, CAS/BA ’72 (Author, Journalist) I remember taking the bus up to AU. The only other black people on the bus were domestics who were going up to those Northwest neighborhoods to clean houses, and they would look at me with a lot of pride because they knew I was going to AU. So there was that bittersweet thing.
There was also knowing that I was at this school that literally seemed to be a world away from the rest of the city. When you were at AU, you were in Upper, Upper, Upper Northwest. You were in an enclave or some rarefied world—and there was a tension around that.
Atiba (Bertram) Coppock, CAS/BA ’69, CAS/MEd ’70 (Educator, Consultant) All the cleaning staff was black, all the lunchroom folks were black, so black folks were seen as basically in their place being supportive of privileged white kids at American.
Moussa (Musa) Foster, SPA/BA ’70 (Educator) I felt like a fly in buttermilk. I was stranded in a wasteland in affluent Spring Valley. The only Negroes we saw up here were janitors. I mean, it could be me or my parents.
My roommates and I and a close friend looked around, in 1967, and realized that we needed to come together for the sake of our own protection and for our own affinity. We could go days without seeing another African American on campus—and yet we knew they were there.
Larry Stone, SPA/BA ’72, WCL/JD ’75 (Lawyer, International Consultant) When I got there, I bumped into a couple of guys. They introduced themselves, told me there was a group of them and that they have meetings periodically. We all met at Mary Graydon, and we continued to see each other on a regular basis. We talked a lot about black social issues—the focus was on awareness. We had intramural sports, and we played baseball and basketball and football. It was more like a sense of camaraderie, a sense of not being alone.
Leslie Epps, Kogod/BS ’69 (Accountant) That was security for us—campus became our stronghold.
Tyrone Harris, CAS/BA ’72, WCL/JD ’75 (Lawyer) As a black person at American University, you were dealing with a microcosm of the United States. There has always been a duality to being African American in this country: you have to have one foot in the black community and one foot in the white community. It was the first time I had to negotiate having a foot in the white community.
Now everybody didn’t learn to navigate that duality. Some of them turned to drugs, some of them turned to alcohol. You’re talking about kids who are 17 and 18 years old. A lot of them are away from home for the first time. My first year at AU, I lived at home. I’m saying to myself, This is a big frigging deal here, and I need as much support as I can get.
“People Get Ready”
As African American students began to connect with each other, they debated and developed the mission—and the name—of the new black student union. Doubling down on their demand for a bona fide black studies program of interrelated interdisciplinary courses, they rejected what Moussa Foster called the administration’s “bargain basement” offering of a token few separate courses.
Atiba Coppock It was that idea that you had to fit in to a [white] culture. We were focused on the cultural and nationalist aspects of what being black was about, being African-centered—and culturally what that meant. You had to know about black books, you had to know about your own history.
Joseph Harris, CAS/BS ’70 (Physician) African people have a history that defines us. The journey to coming to that started with having a black student union. One of our major goals was the education of everyone about African people. We started requesting, and demanding, that everyone have exposure to the history and culture of African people, the same way we have exposure to the history and culture of European people.
It’s not like black folks are the ones who started this notion of ethnic identity—Europeans have always emphasized their ethnic identities, nothing wrong with that. I’m saying that African people and others started to emphasize their ethnic identity and their accomplishments. That’s what was missing.
Atiba Coppock Until you have a critical mass of black folks, you can’t have a critical mass of black consciousness. 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.
“Agitate! Agitate! Agitate!”
Joe Harris [There was] a meeting with the provost in the president’s office that made the Washington Post—“Polite Negro Demand Gets AU Pledge.” Essentially it was a lobbying effort about the importance of having everyone exposed to this information in a systematic way, in what we called a course curriculum.
Moussa Foster Let me tell you, that was something we had to live down among the other black students in Washington. We had close friends who were among the leaders of BSUs [black student unions], including the notable and the late Peggy Cooper Cafritz, founder of the Duke Ellington High School for the Arts. She was the head of Georgetown’s black student union. But it was hilarious. For a year, everywhere we went it was, “Oh no, here come those polite Negroes from American University.”
Now some people would look at the picture [in the Post] and say, “Oh my God, they took over the provost’s office.” We weren’t all expected to be in the office. The tension in that meeting was so thick you could cut it with a knife. We felt that the era of negotiating one on one was over, and we had a list of demands, which included African American studies and more [black] teachers. We also asked for a budget for the organization so that we could do community work. So we were heard out, and we told our stories, and we collected ourselves, and we marched back to the student center.
Awoke and Organized
Atiba Coppock The numbers [of black students] were increasing, but they had to be organized, and they had to have some sense of purpose. Everybody didn’t necessarily feel the need to join OASATAU, but black kids did benefit from it. We did have James Brown on campus, Muhammed Ali, we invited Eldridge Cleaver—he came and spoke.
We didn’t seek to integrate anything, like the fraternities or sororities, although there were people who did. It was basically the organization strategies of the Civil Rights Movement that we were building on. We learned coming in that when you approached the power structure, you had to be clear with what you wanted to do—and that what you wanted had to be achievable goals.
Les Epps The school had a freshman orientation—but we had a black orientation. We wanted to let [new students] know what was happening on campus and what they might experience.
Moussa Foster If there’s one regret that I have in terms of founding OASATAU, it is that the women who were beside us and behind the scenes were not talked to more on a programmatic level. They certainly were in the dorms—they were working with us. Our approach was more of that of a family than a parliamentary organization. Of course, in those times we were not as fully conscious of patriarchy, but it was there. We were trying to put forward an image of African American men, as well as women, but the school seemed to be more ready to talk to the men than to the women—not all of them, because we had a lot of very outspoken women.
Joy Thomas Moore, CAS/BA ’72, CAS/MA ’73 (Writer, Producer) Oh, I came ready. I was awoke. To find an organization like OASATAU there was almost an answer to a prayer, because you could direct your frustration into an organization that was just being established.
Marita Golden It was a male-dominated organization, and black women were beginning to realize that the traditional Civil Rights Movement, the Black Power Movement, had strains of patriarchy.
Pamela Harris, CAS/BA ’72, CAS/MEd ’73 (Educator) The feminist lens was not as prominent among us, because we were more in the collective reality of what it meant to be black in America and black on an all-white campus. I didn’t feel united with white women because we were women. The black solidarity was more the experience than feeling that our men were not treating us equally.
Marita Golden Moussa encouraged us to feel that AU belonged to us, that we were invested in the school, and that it was our duty to advocate and push for the changes that we were working towards. The feeling was that the school was a work in progress. We began to realize that we had a huge role to play in its evolution.
“Keep on Pushing”
OASATAU achieved several successes: It was instrumental in creating “a sense of belonging to the community,” says Fanta Aw, Kogod/BS ’90, SPA/MA ’94, CAS/PhD ’11. “The sense of belonging cannot be socially engineered. It has to be authentic, and it needs to emerge from within and from the leadership.” A second success, says Aw, was finding ways to articulate the needs of black students, to define goals, and to work effectively with the university administration.
Atiba Coppock There was only one occasion, I think, where we really scared the administration. The school was not taking us seriously in term of getting support for teachers and getting additional faculty. It was part of what was going on nationally.
Moussa Foster We led a student-wide takeover of the administration building of SPA [School of Public Affairs, formerly School of Government and Public Affairs].
Atiba Coppock We had some folks from SDS [Students for a Democratic Society] come down and want to tear the place up, and we told them that wasn’t going to happen because we had to live there after it was over, and we were just demonstrating that we could shut the place down. We were the most effective resistance group on campus.
Moussa Foster We sat down and we negotiated student parity on every university committee—this was in 1969. We had made a broad but informal coalition with other radical students, some of them so radical that they wanted to pour blood on the registrar’s records, and we said, “No, we’re also trying to graduate. We don’t want to wreck anything—we’re trying to make a point.”
We had a fairly good number of people turn out. SDS was involved, but there were also other student bodies. I believe it was just overnight. As soon as we were served a writ to quit and desist, we did. It literally was just to make a point. It was a show of student support and to get the university’s administrators to sit down with us and to talk. And they did.
And OASATAU demanded that we clean the rooms that we were in. I knew the custodial staff, and I said, they’re not gonna be happy cleaning up an extra mess. So we found brooms, and we cleaned up before we left the building.
“I’m Black and I’m Proud”
The black activists at American University were drawing inspiration from across the spectrum of well-known black leaders who were preaching different messages to national audiences.
Atiba Coppock There were different icons that we had, as black males, of people who we thought were going to be the best projectors of manhood and identity. And we didn’t see King as being unapologetically black and male—you have to remember, we were 19, 20, 21. So King may have had a message, he had a strategy, and he was leading a movement—but he was coming from the South. His message did not work in the North.
At that time, Malcolm X was the greatest orator that dealt with that historically, Frederick Douglass was the greatest orator that helped with abolition, and Amiri Baraka was a political-cultural nationalist who had galvanized our generation in terms of being able to address the ways that oppression and segregation and white supremacy had crippled us over the centuries. So those were our icons—those were people who spoke, who wrote, who left a path for us to follow.
Gerald Lee At Pride Incorporated, Marion Barry and Mary Treadwell made a point to teach us about blackness—about the idea that we can no longer be “Negroes.” If somebody was from Ireland, they called themselves Irish-Americans. If someone was Italian-American, they called themselves Italian-Americans, or English—Anglo-Americans. So they would say to us, “There is no Negroland. That’s something that the man has given us, making us ‘Negroes.’ No, we’re African Americans, and we should embrace it.”
And then there was “I’m Black and I’m Proud”—James Brown, and Aretha Franklin’s “Young, Gifted, and Black.” It kind of took over and became, We’re no longer “Negroes” or “coloreds”—we were black now. Proudly black. Unapologetically black. And it was transforming.
Atiba Coppock Nobody was militant when we got there. We were nice colored boys and we became militant, [which] meant being assertive. We learned how to speak up for ourselves, we were pushing the known boundaries for black people. We were good Negroes—but all of a sudden, we became black. And that became very threatening.
The faculty and administration really had no clue. They would assume that we wanted to be integrated into the larger society and that whatever cultural experiences were going on [on campus] were sufficient for us.
The Revolution Will Be Televised
When King was assassinated on April 4, 1968, three dozen US cities erupted, including Detroit, New York, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, and Washington, DC. Overnight, activists at AU lost much of their idealism and optimism about American society. And they faced stark choices: shelter in place on campus, leave town, or try to bring help to devastated neighborhoods.
Atiba Coppock I was on campus that day. I knew that there were going to be riots because there had already been riots in Newark—I had seen the riots in Newark the summer before.
Gerald Lee The day King was murdered, my dad was out teaching me how to drive, and the news flash came on. We just stopped the car. The immediate feeling was one of anger, sadness, a deep feeling of unfairness. How could they kill this man who was a preacher, who was advocating nonviolence, who had turned the other cheek, and had done so much in the South? If they could kill him, they could kill all of us. And so the anger turned into rage.
Everybody was mad as hell. They lit up Minnesota Avenue. They burned down H Street. They went downtown and smashed windows. They were like, You just can’t do this to him—he was not a Black Panther who carried rifles, I mean, he was a good, decent man. There was a new attitude out there. It was a sense that, We’re not going to take it anymore. We’re not going to be put down anymore. We’re not going to get in the back of the bus anymore. We’re not going to be denied jobs. We’re going to raise hell, and we’re going to do something about it.
Joe Harris The city was already starting to go up in smoke. All the universities closed, and I remember leaving AU, going south on Massachusetts Avenue, where it was bumper to bumper going north. People were trying to get out of town as fast as they could, and the so-called corridors—the H Street corridor, the U Street corridor, the Seventh Street, 14th Street corridors—were where all the looting and the fires were starting to take place as part of the riots.
People were pretty much on their own trying to get out of town. As a matter of fact, I remember a black student who lived in Baltimore, Baltimore—going to the airport to get a plane to Baltimore.
Atiba Coppock The white students at American thought that Moussa and I were going to bring black folks from the “ghetto” up Massachusetts Avenue and burn down American University. People knew who we were, and because we were able to organize things that benefited everybody, nobody was afraid of us—until the riots. Then they just assumed that we were going to tear down American University, you know, just because we were black and we were going to be out of control.
Moussa Foster When news broke that MLK was murdered, we had an impromptu rally on the steps of Mary Graydon Center. We had megaphones and whatnot, and I just announced that this was it—and that we might be plunged into some type of civil conflict, but that I was leaving American University and going down into the central city.
Les Epps The word spread very quickly. There was a group of us that were off campus. We had access to a police band radio where we could hear the movements and the orders of the [National Guard] troops coming down Nebraska Avenue from Chevy Chase. I hear they had to come past AU’s campus to get downtown. We wanted to be sure that everybody in our organization was safe and our campus was safe.
Moussa Foster I immediately went down to Howard University and became a member of their emergency relief team. I was on duty around the clock. I was able to get people to rescue folks who were in the burning areas and to bring food and emergency supplies.
That’s one of the unspoken and largely unwritten stories of cooperation during this time. Mostly people talk about the burning and the looting, and they don’t talk about how we were given—through the efforts of the student body at Howard University—an opportunity to connect with liberal suburbanites to get these supplies into the areas where they were needed.
I remember bringing food and water to the staff of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee [SNCC], they were at 14th and U. We passed a group of National Guard, and we told them what we were doing. And once we got out of speaking range, they shot at us—they shot over our heads.
That for me was a crystallization. I said, okay, I can’t believe that I’m being shot for bringing some food and water to these people who were trapped in the SNCC building. I felt deflated—not defeated, but deflated. I said, well, there’s no approach that’s gonna work here with white America.
Joe Harris The fear of many whites was that the black hordes—first, they’re going to burn their community, then they’re going to come all the way out to suburban Maryland, and all the way out to suburban Virginia, all the way up to American University Park, and start looting and burning and killing. You can’t find in any of those riots any significant deaths of white people, but that was the assumption.
Frederick Douglass Scholarship Program
In its early days, OASATAU partnered with university administrators to create a minority scholarship program. The first students accepted under the Frederick Douglass Scholarship Program began arriving on campus in the fall of 1968, four months after King’s death. They found mentors waiting.
Moussa Foster The program gave a structure not only to the largess that the school might feel, being a predominately white institution, but also gave a commitment to seeing these students matriculate.
Ty Harris We were the first class of Frederick Douglass Scholars. I came from McKinley public high school, Larry Stone came from Anacostia’s public high school, we had kids from Cardoza, we had people from Dunbar, we had people from Eastern, we had people from Coolidge. The focus was, let’s get kids from DC public schools to come to American University so that American University can become more a part of and more relevant to the Washington metropolitan area.
Gerald Lee There were 25 of us in the program. I think all of us were the first generation to go to college and earn a degree. Here’s this whole group coming at the same time. We all had the same goal of earning a degree and making our way in this big, white university. It was a full ride—room and board, tuition.
Larry Stone This is the most they had ever seen. In ’67 you had a handful of people, and in ’68 and ’70, boom, you’ve got a whole class of people coming in. So the school was opening up.
Gerald Lee There were people ahead of us in OASATAU, like Joe Harris and Moussa Foster and others, to guide us and say, “Take this class but don’t take that one,” you know, “Avoid this professor but take this one.” They were like our big brothers and big sisters who kind of took us under their wings.
Those four years gave me a sense of empowerment, a sense that I had as much to offer as anyone else. I’d sat in the same classrooms and worked shoulder to shoulder with students from all over the country, and they had nothing on me. After a while it occurred to me: if you can compete here, you can go shoulder to shoulder with anybody in the world. It’s like a training ground. The leadership of the black students that I know all graduated, most have graduate degrees. We all went on to do good things.
Ty Harris Now the reality is, during the time that we’re talking about, we had the best black student union in the country. I would put our black student union up against any in the country. We had our own radio show, we had our own newspaper [UHURU], we had Curtis Mayfield in for a concert, we had a breakfast program in the city, we had our own bus, we had our own [black cultural] floor. Nobody was better.
“The Fierce Urgency of Now”
When he spoke these words at the 1963 March on Washington, King was reminding a divided nation that we are stronger when we march forward together. A half century later, they still resonate, alongside the legacy of OASATAU. “At AU, just like at other campuses across the country, black students and black faculty and diversity initiatives largely owe their presence to those black student activists of the late ’60s, early 1970s, who really were able to ensure that the campus created a critical mass of black people and of black ideas,” says Ibram Kendi.
Ty Harris I think the legacy is that these individuals were put in a very, very difficult situation. They were—we were—pioneers to a certain extent. And what we tried to do was make things better for the people who were coming behind us. In other words, you gotta pass the baton. If you don’t do that, then whatever wisdom, whatever knowledge, whatever lesson was learned in a generation dies with that generation. And that’s a perfect recipe for extinction—because history does repeat itself.
Larry Stone 1968 was a year of change. Looking back, it was really a great time to be alive: the personalities, the cultural development, the self-expression of black people—it was really great to be a part of that. One of the results? A lot of us became lawyers, judges, intent on doing something to make the world a better place.
Marita Golden It’s just the evolution of activism. For each generation, racism—systemic and individual—is a fact of life in this country. And because it’s seemingly permanent, and it’s woven into the structure and the DNA of the society, each generation will find it manifested in a different way. Slavery didn’t end, for example, so much as evolve into peonage, and lynching, and sharecropping, and other things. We’ve always had black people being shot by the police disproportionately, but we never had video cameras. We never had a movement specifically to address that. So each generation of activists has to deal with the way that these systemic issues manifest themselves.
Joseph Harris I think our legacy is what that campus looks like now, both institutionally and demographically. I think we were a part of something—not the only part maybe, and not the most important part—but we were a part of changing the dialogue, changing the mindset of who we are as African people.
Gerald Lee The new generation that I work with are much more egalitarian than we were. They’re much more inclusive, they’re much more respectful of the rights of LGBTQ [people] and people from different countries. That gives me great hope. I hope that they will continue on that path and make it a point to be inclusive.
Ty Harris The new president [of AU] appears to be a person who is committed to diversity and inclusion. So I am hopeful. This is all a window in a snapshot in time. And what I learned from it was, these windows don’t stay open forever. They have an expiration date, they have a shelf life. You gotta get in there, you gotta get done what you need to get done—because tomorrow is not promised.
Riot or Rebellion?
“Professor Ed Smith taught us that words matter,” says former student and trustee Gerald Lee. So what’s the right term to use to describe the eruptions and devastation in America’s cities in the wake of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination?
Gerald Lee The mainstream media calls it riots.
Marita Golden It depends on who you are and what your perspective is. I say rebellion, because I think that the riots were the act of a people who felt erased and invisible. In rebelling against that invisibility, they engaged in an act that spoke volumes, saying: “I am here, I will be heard.” Riot has a pejorative sense; [it] implies there’s no rhyme or reason. Rebellion implies, yes, there is a rhyme and a reason.
Joe Harris How you label it defines how you interpret it. An uprising is what people do in a country where they change things permanently, as in they change the government. It’s a big overstatement, I think, to call it an uprising in that sense. They were domestic riots. It was the only tool that people had to express their anger and frustration about the status quo.
Moussa Foster I use the word rebellion because the point of the action was not directed at another community. If I use the framework of an urban rebellion, it’s to try to get people to see they were responses to structural inequities and not just personal revenge.
Atiba Coppock They were both. We burned down our own communities—that was the riot part. But it was also the uprising. People were sick and tired of stuff, and they struck out at those things that they thought were symbols of the oppression that they felt. They were all that: they were riots and they were rebellions, and they were ways in which we voiced our discontent.
As the 1960s became the ’70s, and as the ’70s advanced, the needs of black students changed and the dialogue shifted.
“I think it is critical for people to believe in the possibility of change,” says Ibram Kendi. “And I believe that if it does happen, AU will certainly be standing on the shoulders of those black students of 50 years ago.”
OASATAU became the Black Student Alliance in 1987 to reflect a redirected focus on inclusivity and visibility. UHURU—the original group’s newspaper, whose name touted “freedom” in Swahili—spawned the broader reaching, multicultural-themed Mosaic in 1996. The Blackprint—an online and glossy print journal created in 2016 by the American University Association of Black Journalists, a student chapter of the National Association of Black Journalists—“doubles as a safe space for people of color at American University,” as stated in its mission statement.
In 2009, AU built on the success of the pioneering Frederick Douglass Scholarship by establishing the Frederick Douglass Distinguished Scholars (FDDS) program. It offers the largest merit-based scholarship in the university’s history and gives preference to first-generation students.
In 2012, the university created a Center for Diversity and Inclusion (CDI), designed to serve as a resource for students, staff, and faculty, and to make the experience of diversity an essential part of an AU education. The center also serves as a barometer to gauge how the university is adapting to changing demographics.
Also in 2012, the Black Alumni Alliance (BAA) became the official worldwide network of more than 6,600 AU alumni who identify with black or African-heritage diaspora communities. The BAA partnered with other alumni affinity groups to launch the annual Multicultural Alumni Reunion in 2013, now a hallmark of All-American Weekend. Since 2015, the BAA’s endowment of an annual book award enables recognition of an undergraduate—with connections to black, African-heritage, or Caribbean communities—who demonstrates superior leadership, community service, or academic performance.
Fifty years ago, black students claimed an informal space for themselves—the “soul corner,” they called it—in the Mary Graydon Center. Today, students of every color share a formal space with a real name in the same building: the Hub for Organizing, Multiculturalism and Equity (HOME). With the opening of HOME in 2017, the university realized the vision of former Student Government president Taylor Dumpson, SPA/BA ’18—the first black woman at AU to hold that office.
“The real work happens with moving from diversity to inclusion,” says Fanta Aw. “I think we’re in a historical moment right now where higher education has the opportunity to lead.”
In January of this year, AU president Sylvia Burwell introduced a two-year Plan for Inclusive Excellence. “American University,” she said, “can only thrive when we affirm the dignity of everyone, when we demonstrate cultural competence, when everyone—especially students, faculty, and staff of color—feel included.” Burwell issued a call to the entire campus community: “I hope you will engage in it, read it closely, and find your own role in it.”
We all belong to the AU community, says Aw, which means we each have a role to play, a responsibility to engage, and an opportunity to be part of the solution.