Oregon State University’s Black Student Union was born in 1968, during a time of great intensity and uncertainty. As Black students continue to face significant prejudice in 2021, the BSU serves as a supportive home for the community.
The BSU’s Roots
In 1968, according to OSU’s Special Collections and Archives Research (SCARC) information on the years of 1967-1969, 15,791 students were enrolled at the university, and .3% of the student population was Black. The Black Student Union at OSU in that year consisted of about 50 Black students, according to the OSU Black Cultural Center’s webpage.
In 1969, with about 90 students, the BSU announced that they intended to leave OSU due to discrimination at the school. According to SCARC, this prejudice included a Black athlete, Fred Milton, being forced to shave his facial hair to follow a team policy during the off-season – the coach threatened to expel Milton for not complying. According to an article from Building the Dam, Milton and other Black students felt as if the coach’s demands were breeching on the player’s right to respect and dignity as a Black man playing for a white man and school.
As a response to Milton’s experience and other forms of discrimination taking place at the university, Black students organized a sit-in, then boycotted classes and sporting events. They also created their own newspaper to relay the concerns of OSU’s Black students, called The Scab Sheet. Their efforts resulted in multiple racist retaliations, including racist graffiti being painted on campus, and many Black students, including Milton, transferred to other schools.
In 1970, the Office of Minority Affairs was established, and in 1972, the first cultural centers for minority students were opened – the Native American Longhouse Eena Haws and the Centro Cultural César Chávez. In April of 1975, the Black Student Union established their own cultural center, christened the Lonnie B. Harris Black Cultural Center, named for the first director of the Educational Opportunities Program at OSU.
A Home for Students
The BSU continues to stand 53 years later, after facing years of adversity and struggle.
Jacqueline Hudson is a student at OSU and the BSU president. She said, “When reflecting on the history of the Black Student Union here at OSU, I am very proud to now be within this role.”
According to Hudson, the main purpose of the BSU is to “create a home” for the university’s Black community. This resource is especially important in Corvallis, where the Black population is low. As of 2019, Black people consisted of 1.3% of the city’s population, as reported by the United States Census Bureau.
Being a small group on campus, according to Hudson, is one of the main challenges that Black students at OSU face. However, she also said that many allies serve alongside the BSU and Black community on campus, which helps with this issue.
The BSU also does not only serve one demographic. “The BSU isn’t only for black students, we welcome anyone and everyone to come to join our meetings, listen, ask questions, and be an addition to our community,” Hudson said. “BSU is an educational resource for all and a home to many.”
On top of serving as a support system, the BSU also takes action when necessary.
“The Black Student Union helps each other and others on campus who may be experiencing violent or stressful situations by listening, having discussions, creating plans of action, and doing whatever we can to stand against these things,” Hudson said. “Taking actions can be done through protesting, creating petitions, using our social media and other platforms to bring awareness to the issues. Other ways we try our best to help one another is [using] personal funds to help those in our community who have been hit hard from COVID and have lost jobs as a direct result.”
She added, “We back our community and will always stand together in large numbers.”
The Fight Continues
Just as Black students faced great struggle in 1968, the community continues to face similar issues in the present – to name just one, the murder of George Floyd by a police officer in May of 2020, which caused an international uprising against racial injustice. The violent incident led OSU and Corvallis to participate in marches and demonstrations.
“I was really proud of Oregon State University and even Corvallis when I was able to see the numbers that turned out for the BLM marches,” Hudson said. “Seeing the sheer number of people who showed up to support my community.”
However, Hudson also said that more work can be done for the Black community in the area.
“One of the biggest ways to show support and show up for the black community would be simply joining us in our meetings, listening to the stories we share, the struggles each individual faces, and being supportive when we ask for help,” Hudson said. “I cannot speak for the entirety of my community solely, because we each share similar but very different experiences. However, I can relay how often we welcome anyone to join us in our meetings to simply hear what it’s like in our community, and the various experiences we face on a day-to-day basis. From this step, those who come with curiosity and the desire to learn about our community can be there to help when and if needed.”
She added, “There will always be more that can be done in order to support the black community.”
To learn more about the OSU Black Student Union, visit their Facebook page here.
By Cara Nixon