‘Faculty and student silence means nothing less than passive consent’: Chronicling the fight for a Black Studies Center in Claremont

Students at Scripps College marched in support of the creation of the BSC. (Courtesy: Ella Strong Denison Library)

The 1960s were an eventful time for Black students at the 5Cs. Until 1967, they didn’t have a Black Student Union, which eventually came to fruition largely because of the efforts of Eileen Wilson-Oyelaran PO ’69, John Payton PO ’73 and Danny Wilks PO ’71. 

But the formation of the BSU was just the first hurdle the trio got over. Advocating for a Black Studies Center was an arduous process that brought on more opposition than support throughout the struggle. 

The BSU submitted its proposal for an autonomous BSC on Jan. 27, 1969. The group also proposed a curriculum offering 33 courses across literature, history, art, Black studies, philosophy, political science, psychology, sociology and anthropology, and pushed for the first Black studies major at the 5Cs. The proposal included a list of necessary staff to be appointed by members of the BSU to ensure diversity and plans to completely restructure admissions at the 5Cs to recruit more Black students. 

“The BSU of the Claremont Colleges was created to meet the needs and express the desires of Black students at these colleges,” the BSU stated in its proposal for the BSC. “It will be a function of the Center to deal with any problems Black students might incur during their attendance at the Claremont Colleges, includ[ing] discrimination in housing or employment, and academic difficulties requiring tutoring or counseling.”

During the course of faculty deliberation between the presidents of the 5Cs, the BSU was not consulted or invited entry. 

On Feb. 10, 1969, the 5C Independent Faculty Senate held a private meeting to discuss the Black Student Union’s proposal for the first Black Studies Center.

From the start, several members of the 5C Independent Faculty Senate were opposed to the creation of a Black Studies Center and had alternate ideas. On Feb. 19, 1969, the Office of the Provost stated that instead of creating a Black Studies Center, they would institute a committee consisting of 11 to 15 members, including the provost and chairman of the Board of Fellows. 

The aim of the committee would be to explore alternative long term solutions for the 5Cs in providing for Black and Mexican American students, to report back to the 5C presidents in April 1969.

“After 200 hours of meeting with faculty support, on the verge of making [BSU’s] dream visible, the entire effort was crushed,” a statement on behalf of the BSU said after Curtis’s announcement. “By preventing a yes, they can only be saying no: No n—— allowed. Faculty and student silence means nothing less than passive consent. No n—— allowed. Is it unanimous?”

The provost’s rejection of the BSC was a setback to the BSU’s progress. Earlier in May 1968, the BSU had proposed 10 demands to administrators to increase Black student enrollment, academic curriculum and integrate the student body, which administrators responded to by creating the Administrative Council Committee on Minority Student Relations in June 1968. 

The BSU envisioned the BSC being an academic and social space to introduce a Black studies curriculum taught by Black professors, maintained by Black administrators and enjoyed by Black students.

Eileen Wilson-Oyelaran PO ’69 recalled in an interview with TSL that while awaiting the Provost’s decision, the BSU remained adamant in convincing 5C faculty.

“We went to each of those campuses to present [the Black Studies Center] and the faculties were culturally very different,” she said. “We were really strategic about who spoke on what and on what campuses. What we had put together had to be intellectually solid.”

Throughout February of 1969, the BSU presented their proposal to each 5C President, various student clubs and independent faculty committees to earn their support. The United Council of the Claremont Colleges, Scripps faculty and the Independent Faculty Senate sent letters of recommendation to the Office of the Provost.

“We, the faculty of Scripps College, recommend that an autonomous Center for Black Studies be established in the Claremont Colleges as soon as possible,” Scripps College faculty stated in their recommendation addressed to the Provost Feb. 14, 1969. 

The faculty of Scripps College wrote a letter in support of the creation of the BSC on Feb. 14 1969. (Courtesy: Ella Strong Denison Library)

For members of the BSU, their own words needed to be heard by the Claremont community.

“The white myth of integration is a nasty and vicious,” John Payton PO ’73, a founding member of the BSU, said in a Feb. 18, 1969 TSL article. “The values of society are white. [Pomona] was a white institution made to train white people for a white world. We’re not just going to go along with that and try to force Black people into that mold. Much must change to make life at Claremont relevant to the Black students attending school here.”

Danny Wilks PO ’71, BSU’s president at the time, echoed Payton’s support for the necessity of a Black Student Center at the 5Cs, according to the same TSL article.

“I do not feel a part of Pomona College because there’s nothing here that relates to me. Students stiffen in Frary Hall as Black students walk in,” Wilks said. “[But] every time we look around there’s a new building going up. It is not a question of money, but rather priority. How important is Black education to you?”

While the idea of a BSC was being rejected by some groups across the 5Cs, faculty at Pitzer College and Claremont McKenna College proposed alternate plans to the Office of the Provost as Independent Faculty Senate meetings continued through Feb. 1969.

Pitzer Dean of Faculty John Rodman wanted to address issues of racial inequity at the 5Cs by introducing an Ethnic Studies Center. He explained how an Ethnic Studies Center could mitigate the alleged negative effects an autonomous BSC could have in alienating students who were not Black. 

“This kind of separation of a [Black Studies Center is] ultimately undesirable,” Rodman said in his Ethnic Studies Center proposal. “The long run cost [is] neglecting to educate whites [and it is] unscholarly one sided. The goal of the Ethnic Studies is to convey a more realistic view of what American society is.” 

Claremont McKenna College professors Martin Diamond, Mills Fisk and Harry Jaffa had yet another idea. The Diamond-Fisk-Jaffa proposal recommended developing a Black-American studies program which offered students the opportunity to take individual courses, minor in Black-American studies, or in special cases, major in Black-American studies in addition to a “regular discipline.” 

Under the Diamond-Fisk-Jaffa proposal, the Black-American studies program would appoint one new Black-American scholar as dean of Black-American studies. 

“We reject the concept of a peculiarly autonomous Center for Black Studies,” the Diamond-Fisk-Jaffa proposal stated. “We recommend that an intercollegiate program of Black-American Studies be established. All courses and appointments connected with the Black-American studies program shall be devised and made […] under the regular procedures of the Claremont Colleges.”

Provost Mark Curtis announced plans to launch the first Black studies program in February 1969 after intense student activism. (Courtesy: Ella Strong Denison Library)

After intense pressure and activism from students and faculty, Provost Mark Curtis reversed course and announced plans to launch the first Black studies program in February 1969, introducing eight courses in literature, economics, art and history.

“The presidents recognize that the planning for a center of Black Studies must be carried on in cooperation with the Black Student Union,” Curtis said. “[The Presidents] are anxious to find ways that the BSU and the colleges can work at this task together.”

The colleges planned to appoint four more Black faculty, adding to the 5Cs’ existing four Black professors, and expand Black history collections at Honnold Library, now known as Honnold Mudd Library. 

“As Provost of the Colleges this year, I am pleased to make this announcement on behalf of the colleges to intensify their efforts to increase enrollment of minority students,” Curtis said in his letter. “A major effort to attract larger numbers of black students to Claremont has begun to show results.”

 

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