Campus, News

Umoja through the years — a home for Black students at BU

Boston University Umoja at the 2019 Culture Cookout
Members of Umoja, Boston University’s Black Student Union, at the 2019 Culture Cookout. Umoja brings Black students from different colleges together and is still expanding 54 years after its founding. COURTESY OF DELICE NSUBAYI

Umoja, Boston University’s Black Student Union chapter, was founded in 1967 as an organization and home for Black students on campus. More than 50 years later, Umoja has evolved into what is now an ever-growing umbrella organization that brings together other Black student groups at BU.

The structure of Umoja allows students from different colleges and organizations to meet and form connections that would have otherwise been difficult to develop, and fosters what some members call a “sense of home” for Black students.

College of Arts and Sciences sophomore Brianna Linden, a member of Umoja’s Advocacy Committee, said the group gives Black students a chance to interact with people they rarely could otherwise.

“It definitely presents opportunities for us to meet with and engage with other Black students,” she said, “that maybe we had no idea existed because BU is large.”

CAS sophomore Emmanuel Messele, Umoja treasurer and member of the Public Relations Committee, said his favorite part about the organization are the engaging events and opportunities that facilitate introductions with students he wouldn’t get to see because they were in other schools.

Umoja’s mission as an organization, he noted, is about bringing people together –– “Umoja” means “unity” in Swahili –– and the organization aims to do that while promoting the cultures of its members.

“We really connect with all of the Black student organizations on campuses under different categories,” Messele said, “to help be that unifying factor that connects us to both the administrative side of school but also help preserve Black culture.”

Andrea Taylor, a senior diversity officer at BU and a co-founder of Umoja, recalled the history of the organization from its beginnings in the ’60s.

Edward Coaxum Jr., a student in the School of Law, was the chapter’s first president.

Taylor, a 1968 College of Communication alumna who served as president and CEO of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, said she worked alongside Coaxum as a co-founder of Umoja.

Taylor and Coaxum dated while at BU, married after graduating and had three children and five grandchildren together before separating in the ’80s.

Just a year after its inception, on April 25, 1968, Umoja achieved major success in fighting against racial injustice at the University by organizing a sit-in protest at 147 Bay State Rd., which was at that time the office of the BU President Arland Christ-Janer.

“We took over the building and had a set of demands,” Taylor said, “and were prepared to occupy the building and be disruptive in a nonviolent, peaceful sort of way to gain attention and to have an opportunity to dialogue with the administrative leadership at the University.”

Among the demands were the increase in the number of Black students admitted and enrolled at BU, financial aid to support their admission, tutoring centers, the inclusion of a course on Black history, a library dedicated to African American studies, and an AFAM coordinating center, according to a Boston Globe article dated May 5, 1968.

The protestors locked Christ-Janer out of his office for 12 hours and successfully had all but one of their demands met –– the renaming of the School of Theology after Martin Luther King Jr., who had been assassinated just weeks earlier on April 4, 1968.

Taylor said it is “striking” the same issues of racism and inequity in academia that were fought over 50 years ago continue to be issues faced today.

“We need to be constantly reminded as a society that having an educated population making opportunities available for people to achieve their full potential is an ongoing challenge,” she said, “and it’s worth fighting for and protesting about in every generation.”

The current fight against systemic racism swelled this past summer and was taken up by Umoja and BU’s Student Government, which raised over $140,000 in June for several social justice organizations fighting for racial equity.

Messele said the fundraiser was an example of Umoja coming “full circle,” as the organization also fundraised for activist Angela Davis’ legal defense in 1970.

“Social justice is definitely one of our most emphasized focuses,” Linden said, “because issues that affect the Black community affect everyone in the Black community, so therefore anything that we can do to help will be done.”

Umoja is currently working with StuGov on an anti-racism training module for faculty and students that would function similarly to the AlcoholEdu for College and Sexual Misconduct Prevention Training programs incoming BU students are required to complete.

“We want to make something more interactive,” Messele said. “What we’re going to do now is cast the members to really act out certain situations which we think are common and that could really be beneficial to freshmen or someone entering into the college environment.”

He added they want to provide a practical example for how students can combat the racism around them.

“What does being anti-racist to that regard look like?” he said.

Umoja President Stephanie Tavares, a CAS senior, wrote in an email that Umoja is also looking into launching a Umoja alumni history project in collaboration with BU’s Alumni Relations, a historian from the AFAM Department and BU Today.

While specific details about the project aren’t available yet, Taylor said she believes “it’s very appropriate.”

“To think about some kind of a deliberate and intentional effort to capture the history of that timeframe,” she said, “what it meant then and what the implications are for the future.”

The Umoja alumni history project, the summer fundraising campaign and the antiracism training are just some of the many ways students can engage in social and racial justice causes. But the effort is and must be ongoing, Taylor said.

“The struggle for equity, social justice, racial justice, inclusion, diversity, all of those things that were very much a frame for what we were doing back in the ’60s remain still a challenge,” she said.

Taylor noted that while steps have been taken, there is still a lot to be done in the fight for social justice.

“We’ve made progress,” she said, “but we still have much more opportunity to come together and work.”

Black History Month celebrates and honors Black culture and history, and for Messele, it is especially important for “preserving and creating an image of Blackness that we can control.”

“Black history doesn’t start off in chains,” Messele said. “The history that we learn in school and in high school and when we’re younger definitely makes it seem very focused on the slave trade.”

Messele cited his belief that the culture and origins of Black people should be the real focus of Black history.

“I think true Black history looks at how we came from different tribes, different kingdoms in Africa or how Black history is very diasporic,” Messele said. “It’s important to help shape our future and allows us to look into the truth of our past.”

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