During the height of the civil rights movement 55 years ago, two students at the University of San Francisco made a historic bet. The bet — that it was possible to build a black student movement on a predominantly white campus — manifested into the creation of the first recorded Black Student Union (BSU).
The name “Black Student Union” became a movement. Operating under the same title, black students in institutions across the nation have united to keep the bet and the solidarity it fostered alive for decades.
After years of acts of racial discrimination and bias across campus and the nation, the title has traveled to Elon University.
The organization serving as a community for black students at Elon, formerly known as the Black Cultural Society has rebranded itself and its initiatives this year with the name Black Student Union.
A necessary change
Senior Alexandre Bohannon, BSU president, recalled a time a freshman student walked up to him and said, “I want to make a change on Elon’s campus, but I just think my voice doesn’t matter.”
To Bohannon, the moment was just one of several in which he has encountered the effects of racial discrimination at Elon.
These sentiments culminated with national events surrounding race and acts of discrimination on campus during his time at Elon. Race relations incidents occurred in 2013, when a student drew racially and religious offensive symbols on two students’ whiteboard, and in 2014-2015, when multiple racial slurs were directed at students. There have been a host of similiar instances in recent years.
In a similar vein, sophomore Alonzo Cee, BSU’s special events director, said he is often asked about how it feels being a person of color at a predominantly white institution while he serves as a campus tour guide.
“I would love to be able to tell [prospective students] that we have a spectacular community here that will accept them straight away, but it’s something we are continually working on, and that is the truth,” he said. “BSU is trying to help expedite that process.”
Bohannan said while the name-change was necessary to expedite this process, it doesn’t mean that the organization is retracting its 45-year-long history as the Black Cultural Society.
“We have learned from our history as being BCS and we will continue to keep many of those traditions alive,” he said “But with the organization’s recent reputation for having a lack of unity, and with everything going on nationally and on campus, there was a need for change and rebranding to make a statement.”
To Bohannon, the word “society” doesn’t quite capture the purposeful power that the word “union” does. But of all the connotations associated with “union,” the one that he feels matters most is “unity.”
Cee agreed and said BCS was lacking in its ability to provide unity.
“BCS last year was a home for the black community, but in my opinion as a first-year student, it did not seem that inviting,” Cee said. “The connotation behind BCS wasn’t very positive, at least according to people who have been at Elon longer.”
To Cee, “union” promotes a firm statement about solidarity — something he said he thinks is necessary on a campus where there are more than black students on a campus of more than 6,000 students.
“We want BSU to be a space where we come and celebrate all different identities and intersections of what is under the spectrum of ‘black,’” Bohannon said. “Our goal is to educate the greater community but also provide an avenue for unity and solidarity for black students.”
Bohannon hopes the newly branded BSU will also serve a more centralized role as the umbrella organization for all other black organizations on campus.
Other changes in the organization include a restructuring of executive staff roles and positions, as well as the creation of several member-led committees.
While changes are in store, Bohannon hopes the organization can continue collaborating with departments and other groups on campus.
New events and initiatives coming
From a “Black Student Success Week,” which culminates in a pool party to future rallies to their most popular event, the Fashion Show, BSU has already executed and will continue to plan themed educational and cultural events throughout the year.
Cee urges the entire community — not only those who identify as black or people of color — to participate in these events, since the educational component is what he believes can create a more accepting community at Elon.
“There are people who are there for the cause and are willing to learn, but there are a lot of people who silence our voices and are just coming to events just to feel good about themselves,” Cee said. “That’s why education is so important.”
Some of the events Cee is leading surround topics including diversity, racism, micro-aggression and the N-word.
Bohannan also previewed an “Intersection Series,” a program featuring discussions around holding intersecting identities within the black spectrum. This, he hopes, will highlight the diversity among black students at Elon.
A brief snapshot of Black Cultural Society
BCS was established in 1975, 12 years after Glenda Phillips Hightower became the first black student to attend Elon and the same year John Roscoe became the first black individual appointed to Elon’s board of trustees.
Its purpose, written by inaugural chairs Rodney Evans ’75 and Don McLaughlin ’76, was to “promote understanding and a sense of unity among Black students; encourage Elon College to achieve a greater awareness and appreciation of the culture and achievements of Black people; attack with vigor all injustices and inequalities that may exist on the campus of Elon college with respect to Black people; and support and assist in any way possible the communities immediately surrounding Elon College.” Membership was open to all regularly enrolled full or part-time students.