Editor’s note about “Illuminating 5C Black legacies” Black legacies in Claremont, a timeline to the Black Studies Center and beyond Before Inside-Out and PAYS, Danny Wilks PO ’71 brought activism into the community ‘Faculty and student silence means nothing less than passive consent’: Chronicling the fight for a Black Studies Center in Claremont From Claremont to the Supreme Court: John Payton’s PO ’73 search for knowledge and justice From Black student admissions to Black-centered curriculum, Eileen Wilson-Oyelaran PO ‘69 paved the way

Illuminating 5C Black Legacies

TSL dug through a century of archives and conducted oral histories to rediscover the stories of the BSU trailblazers who fought for Black inclusion on campus.

Editor's note


Winston MC Dickson PO ’1904 the first Black student at the 5Cs earned his degree from Pomona College


Arthur Williams PO ‘1919 graduated almost two decades after Dickson’s arrival


The next known Black student to attend the 5Cs was Williams’s daughter Eileen Williams PO ‘48


The first two Black students to attend Scripps College enrolled in 1958 but transferred after one year


More Black students began to roll back into Claremont by 1958, starting with Willie Benton Boone PO ‘62

Spring 1967

First intercollegiate BSU founded by Danny Wilks PO ’71

May 1, 1968

BSU presented 10-point demands to the presidents of the 5Cs

May 30, 1968

5C presidents respond to BSU, offered a pledge to increase diversity efforts

Jun. 1968

Administrative Council Committee on Minority Student Relations created to implement diversity pledge and three sub-committees focusing on admissions, housing and curriculum

Aug. 27, 1968

BSU demanded additional language in housing policy to prohibit housing discrimination on the basis of “race, creed or national origin

Nov. 5, 1968

CMC approved a $2 tuition increase to fund a scholarship centered on minority students

Nov. 6, 1968

BSU held a “funeral” march, sit-in demonstration over racist candidates in national presidential election

Dec. 10, 1968

Black Panther co-founder and activist Bobby Seale spoke at Bridges Auditorium

Jan. 6, 1969

5C Provost Mark Curtis announced a ten course Black studies program, doubling to eight Black faculty, and Center for Education Opportunity to increase POC student admissions at 5Cs

Jan. 27, 1969

The BSU proposed the autonomous Black Studies Center to bolster Black enrollment, staff employment and curriculum

Jan. 1969

Ethnic Studies Center alternative to BSC proposed by PZ Dean of Faculty John Rodman

Feb. 1969

Trustees at the Colleges approved the creation of the Human Resource Institute, which would include a Black Studies Center and a Center for Mexican American Studies. A center for urban studies was proposed as well

Read more

Feb. 1969

Trustees at the Colleges approved the creation of the Human Resource Institute, which would include a Black Studies Center and a Center for Mexican American Studies. A center for urban studies was proposed as well

Read more

Feb. 1969

CMC professors Harry, Fisk and Jaffa rejected the Black Studies Center in favor of a proposal that offered a Black-American studies minor and hired one additional Black professor

Feb. 14, 1969

Scripps College President and faculty offered emphatic support of BSU’s Black Studies Center proposal and supported its immediate construction

Feb. 18, 1969

BSU members Eileen Wilson PO ‘69, Danny Wilks PO ‘71 and John Payton PO ‘73 attended an open faculty meeting to voice their grievances over faculty inaction and the delay of the BSC

Feb. 19, 1969

5C Provost released a faculty resolution that created a student-faculty advisory committee to address student grievances and find alternatives to the BSC to present in April 1969

Feb. 21, 1969

Eight BSU members stormed out of Provost’s office in protest of the Provost’s committee resolution

Feb. 25, 1969

Anonymous letter released to condemn the Provost’s committee creation as a blatant rejection of 5C black students

Feb. 25, 1969

Harvey Mudd, Pitzer, Pomona and CMC faculty issued individual letters of recommendation in support of the Black Studies Center Proposal

Feb. 25, 1969

Pomona’s Carnegie Hall and Scripp’s Balch Hall are bombed by an unknown perpetrator. 5C administration moved 65 Black and Latinx students off campus to protect students from being falsely accused and for fear of possible retaliation

Feb. 26, 1969

The 5C administration and Provost unanimously approved the Black Studies Center

Feb. 26, 1969

Provost retracted a special advisory committee created to find solutions to increase enrollment and enhance Black and Latinx student experience at 5Cs

Feb. 28, 1969

BSU released a policy statement calling for the autonomy in the management of the BSC

Mar. 4, 1969

BSU organized a boycott against the Office of the Provost to protest faculty delay in implementing Black Studies Center

Mar. 4, 1969

500 students storm the office of Scripps College President and Provost of the Colleges Dr. Mark Curtis in protest of his objections to the demands for an autonomous BSC

Mar. 6, 1969

A Scripps student and faculty member announced a picket line demonstration in support of the BSU policy statement for the construction of the BSC

Mar. 7, 1969

Faculty and Students Together (FAST) hold their first meeting in Walker Lounge on how to support the Black Studies Center

Mar. 9, 1969

A committee of BSU-appointed students, as well as faculty and administration is formed to begin planning the implementation of the Black Studies Center

Apr. 3, 1969

The Intercollegiate Committee announced an action plan of the BSC to increase enrollment, reallocate housing, and develop Black Studies curriculum

Read more

Sep. 1969

In collaboration with the 5C Faculty, the construction of Black Student Union’s autonomous Black Studies Center is completed

Read more

Reporting by Jenna McMurtry, Averi Sullivan, Reia Li, Katherine Tan, John Paul Ferrantino, Elina Lingappa, Maxine Davey, Valerie Braylovskiy, Mariana Duran, Elli Lingappa, Rya Jetha, Wally Bargeron, Abby Porter, Julia Schwartz, Samson Zhang and Siena Swift

Black students at the 5Cs have a long history of advocating for accomodation and acceptance in their college experience. For over a century, Black students have stood at the forefront of political activism, inclusionary academics, and affinity spaces and events to enrich life at the 5Cs. 

But those students have often not been recognized nor rewarded for their contribution to the 5C community, frequently met with opposition and challenges from faculty and students in their journey for representation. In the face of continual adversity, the Black student body has continued to uplift each other in search of community at the 5Cs. 

Bringing Black students to Claremont

The first Black student at the Claremont Colleges was Winston MC Dickson, who graduated from Pomona College in 1904. Aside from him and Arthur Williams PO ’1918, no significant Black student enrollment would occur at the Claremont Colleges for at least another four decades.

There were virtually no records of Black students in Claremont in the early days. A 2016 article uncovered how Willie Benton Boone PO ’62 believed he was the first Black male to graduate from Pomona College and “had gone around telling everyone that [he] was the first Black male to graduate from Pomona College.”

At the time Dickson enrolled, the racially homogenous college looked a lot different than it does today. None of the other Claremont Colleges existed and only around a hundred students attended Pomona. 

Down the road a few years later, renowned poet and activist Langston Hughes gave a lecture at Scripps College in 1939. Yet, the college would not host its first Black students until 1958.

For the first two Black students that enrolled at Scripps that year, the college experience was an isolating one. Both Adrienne Alma Jones and Gayle Cunningham transferred after one year to pursue their education elsewhere. 

For the year Alma Jones attended Scripps, she served as first-year class president, but only remembered two other Black students who had attended Claremont Men’s College, now Claremont McKenna College. 

Like Jones, the late civil rights attorney John Payton PO ’73 recalled how when he first came to Claremont in the mid-1960s, there may have been just two other Black students at Pomona, and hardly any others attending the surrounding Claremont Colleges. 

In 1969, the Los Angeles Times reported that there were 85 Black students and 50 Mexican American students among the 4,200 students at the Claremont Colleges. 

It was Black students themselves who took matters into their own hands to address the low number of minority students on campus. 

The Black Student Union, established in 1967, was instrumental in the changes that took place over the late 1960s and 1970s. It proposed the creation of the Black Studies Center and called for a 33 course Black Studies curriculum with options to major and minor at the center, appointment of new Black administrators and staff to run the center and inclusion of an admissions office to recruit black students. 

The 10-point proposal put out in 1969 also called for increased minority enrollment, Black faculty members, housing reforms and an autonomous Black Studies Center directed at teaching the humanities through Black narratives.

In a Feb. 19, 1969 TSL article, Payton weighed on the severity of what was at stake if the colleges did not respond to the calls to establish the BSC.

“It is still necessary to state that present faculty and staff, with very few exceptions, are equipped to evaluate our performance and situation only from a white middle class orientation,” the proposal read. 

“However liberal and humanitarian they may be, let it be understood that we did not come here and merit merely to study academically, but to also bring back to our respective communities’ methods of alleviating the problems that now exist.”

Payton, Eileen Wilson-Oyelaran PO ’69 and Danny Wilks PO ’71 were a tenacious trio who were instrumental in advocating for the Black Studies Center to be established. Wilks founded the BSU as a first-year student in 1967. 

Wilks’ peers recall how his activism and push for inclusion went well beyond the confines of the Claremont Colleges. He was instrumental in establishing programs that served the larger Inland Empire community, including the Pomona Day School and Chino prison education. Both programs were headed by BSU students. 

Valerie Coachman Moore PO ’74 recalled how her strong sense of activism was a product of her upbringing.

“You can hear the level of emotion and conviction, which wasn’t created at Pomona College. It was part of my growing up. It also gave us a chance to talk with other people and understand different ways of … implementing strategies to bring about change,” she said. 

While Coachman Moore said the student-activists focused on “recruitment, retention, academic success of support, mentoring, connecting,” they also knew how to enjoy themselves while getting the work done.

“We [had] lots of fantastic parties and fun,” said Coachman Moore.

As the years went on, the BSU kept hitting major milestones in terms of enrollment and institutional support. Sue Ross PO ’72 recalls some 40 Black students attending the 5Cs when she entered Pomona as a first year in the fall of 1968. By the time she graduated, the number was closer to 80, with roughly one third of those students attending Pomona. 

Ross added that while she does not recall any encounters with racist students, the surrounding community was not the same. 

“There was a local Nazi-Klan group in in the area around the campuses,” Ross said, adding that they “occasionally [came on]…[and protested] because they thought [administration] were giving too much stuff to the Black people. But, it was kind of rare that we would actually interact with them.”

Although there was a substantial increase in Black student enrollment at the consortium, retention of those students was the next hurdle, a challenge that many students felt administration could have done more to address. 

Brenda Jones PO ’73 recalls that during her first year, Black students made up around 10 percent of the student body in her class, across all five campuses. But by the time graduation rolled around, half of the Black student population that had enrolled with her as first-years had transferred to other colleges. 

In comparison, the most recent numbers for classes unaffected by the pandemic admissions cycle fall short of the diversity standards once set fifty years ago. 

According to the schools’ 2018-2019 Common Data Sets, Black students in each 5C’s class of 2023 represented 3.7 percent at CMC, 4.8 percent at Pitzer, 10.2 percent at Pomona, 2.6 percent at Harvey Mudd College, and 5.2 percent at Scripps. 

Lower retention rates among Black students have also drawn attention in recent years.

To bring tangibility to the BSU’s 1969 proposal, Payton took charge of broadening the college’s diversity. He redeemed outreach efforts to bring in more students from minority backgrounds, most notably when he directed the college’s Black student admissions efforts, alongside Wilson-Oyelaran. 

Although Jones entered Pomona when the BSC was in its infancy, she was amazed at how successful students like Payton and Wilks were in establishing the center. 

“It’s really amazing to think [that at] this very elite school, the students before me [were] able to make such a strong footprint in terms of Black activism, Black scholarship, to the extent that one might expect to see from a large school like Howard [University],” she said. 

A Daily Report article from April 1969 stated that the BSC had been allotted a budget of $290,000 to begin implementing its programs for the upcoming fall semester. In today’s money, that sum rounds out to be $2.2 million, demonstrating the success of the student-driven movement.

But the hard fought efforts of BSU student-activists did not come unopposed. 

Members of administration and faculty attempted to undermine the students’ efforts with a counter-proposal to the BSC that tried to limit the scope of resources that would focus primarily on the needs and academic interests of Black students. 

Hitting opposition

As the BSU started picking up traction in its movement to establish the BSC, tensions were high on campus. 

On Feb. 26 1969, when several 5C presidents were expected to vote on the BSU’s proposal for the BSC, two bombs exploded, one at Scripps’ campus and the other at Pomona’s. 

As the bombs unsettled the campus, Black students found themselves facing unwarranted suspicion for the bombings. In fear that they would become targets for retaliation in the days following the explosion, college officials gave police protection to about 65 Black and Latino students students who they shifted to an off campus location.

When Provost Mark Curtis initially rejected the BSU’s proposal to create the BSC, more than six hundred students marched to his office to protest his decision. The mass mobilization, led by the BSU, succeeded in overturning the decision and securing an agreement to build the BSC the fall semester of 1969.

On May 9, trustees at the Colleges approved the creation of a Human Resources Institute which would include the Black Studies Center and a Mexican-American Studies Center, with a proposed third center for urban studies. 

Eventually, after years of organizing, the BSC was established at Pomona in 1969. 10 years later, the BSC separated its department of student affairs from its academics, evolving into the OBSA and the Intercollegiate Africana Studies Department, which still exist today. 

Without the efforts BSU students instigated in the ‘60s, there would not be the same resources supporting students on campus today. Their efforts paved the way for other resource centers to be established down the road, such as Chicano Latino Student Affairs and the Queer Resource Center. 

Finding their path

When it comes to what can be attributed to the success of the movement, Wilson-Oyelaran said it stemmed from necessity. 

“[We did it] because we damn had to.” However, Wilson-Oyelaran added that it often takes a “crack … [or] … paradigm shift” to create the space where such progressive changes can flourish. 

Pomona emeritus professor of politics Lorn Foster, who began his tenure teaching at Pomona in 1978, recalled how the previously divided campuses coalesced into a unified identity under the BSC, as it became a safe space some students identified with more than their home college. 

“A number of students found themselves not really incorporated into their particular college setting and more of an identity toward the study center than than their home institution,” Foster said. 

Jones underscored the important aspect of how, for many students, the BSC became the first time they saw themselves represented in the field. She added that if it were not for having been taught by a Black media studies professor, she might never have pursued a career in journalism.

After being awarded the prestigious Watson fellowship, Payton worked his way to lead the NAACP LDF, while Wilson-Oyelaran worked her way into academia and Jones established herself in a decades-long career as a journalist.

In a 2009 speech Payton gave on whether the US has become a “post-racial society,” Payton touched on the existence of educational inequities to explain that the country has not, demonstrating the significance of the work BSU started when they tackled reforming the education system at the 5Cs. 

Coachman Moore emphasized that many of these resources that students benefit from today, like OBSA, did not come out of thin air. Instead, they were created by students who had to seek them out, oftentimes completely on their own.

“I had to find my studies,” Coachman Moore said. “I had to create those components that were germane to all of the other programs in terms of who I would be studying with.”

Coachman Moore had to pilot the first study abroad programs in Africa, and added that the addition of the Swahili table at Pomona’s Oldenborg Center for Modern Languages and International Relations came as the product of BSU members’ efforts. 

For many students, the services provided at the BSC offered a safe space and support system they could not find elsewhere on campus. 

Ross described the BSC as an “antidote when dropped in a sea of whiteness,” while Kern Reese PO ’74 said the establishment of the BSC rendered essential channels of communication and guidance between students and faculty. 

“When you have folks that can empathize with you and relate to you, it makes your existence, your transition or whatever you’re going through a little easier. And that’s what the Black Studies Center represented for us,” Reese said. 

Scripps ​​assistant professor of Africana studies Maryan Soliman said that students today still reap the benefits of the progress made by the students in the sixties.   

Since she was brought on at Scripps, there has been “a popularity in the courses and in the [Africana studies] major and minor compared to before my time here. 

Soliman credited the increased interest to “the Black Lives Matter generation,” and more students “wanting to be taught their history, and really appreciating that a department like Africana studies exists.”

As she reflected on the immense value the Black Studies Center, OBSA, and the Africana studies department has brought to the 5Cs, Soliman added that students today can do their part in preventing the erasure of history by documenting these kinds of movements as they arise today.

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