Teaching partnerships between incarcerated people in California and the 5Cs might seem like a recent development. But in the late 1960s, student members of Pomona College’s Black Studies Center developed an educational program for prisoners in Chino, led by BSU founder Danny Wilks PO ’71.
Wilks, who enrolled at Pomona in the fall of 1967, was considered a courageous and fiery leader with a great fashion sense by his peers. Sue Ross PO ’72, a former classmate of Wilks, remembered him by his memorable persona.
“He was one of our key leaders, a skinny guy with a huge afro,” Ross said. “But [he was] a sharp mind, who was willing to speak out.”
As a student, Wilks played a crucial role in laying the groundwork to establish the intercollegiate Black Student Union and served as its first president.
Wilks was also substantially involved in advocating for the establishment of the Black Studies Center, which was finally implemented in the fall of his junior year.
To other Black students studying at the 5Cs at the time, after their creation, the BSU and the Black Studies Center quickly became safe spaces and sources of community.
William Taylor PO ’73 recalled that during his time at Pomona, he didn’t feel that Black students and their culture were accepted and that he often felt disconnected from reality. To him, the two organizations that Wilks helped create were an antidote to these feelings of alienation.
“The BSU and the Black Studies Center physically became like a home away from home,” Taylor said. “It was called the Black house and we would go there and sometimes eat, go to events together like anti war protests or other protests in LA. That was our safe place.”
In addition to his work at the Claremont Colleges, Wilks believed in activism that could transcend the classroom and continuously sought ways to give back to the broader community.
Working with John Payton PO ’73 and other members of the BSU, Wilks created the Chino Institution Project in the fall of 1969. Wilks and his peers formulated a cohesive educational program for convicts at the Chino Institution for Men, now known as the California Institution for Men.
Their program offered courses to more than 200 inmates to help them fulfill their General Education Degree requirements and learn about the Black experience in the United States. 5C students, BSC faculty and guest lecturers taught these courses to the incarcerated.
The Chino Institution Project, however, was just one the various undertakings Wilks was involved in. Some of his best known contributions to communities within the Inland Empire are also found in the Pomona Day School— a collaborative effort modeled on the freedom schools that were springing up in the South— according to his classmate and peer Brenda Jones PO ’73.
The Pomona Day School consisted of academic preparatory programs for local youth through weekend and after-school support programs led by Wilks and his peers at BSU. The school’s mission was to further the notion that Black narratives belonged in class curriculums, and the BSC funded the Saturday trips to Pomona city schools.
“We wanted to do things like teach Black history and find innovative ways of teaching basic concepts in a way students could understand and that related more directly to ways people learned in the Black community,” Ross said.
At its peak, the school became a five-day-a-week school and classes were held for at least six weeks during the summer of 1970.
The day school was a “multi-layered process,” Eileen Wilson-Oyelaran PO ’69 said, in which college students worked with high school students who in turn would mentor the next generation of incoming students below them.
Another one of Wilks’ friends, Valerie Coachman Moore PO ’74, spoke highly of his contributions and ambitions. Wilks’ dedication and passion for his education programs inspired other students to think about the significance of what they could contribute to their communities, she said.
“[Wilks] was instrumental in helping us understand that the work on campus mattered outside of campus as well,” Coachman Moore said. “[He helped us understand] that we were talented enough to be able to support students.”
Taylor also attributed his success at Pomona to student leaders like Wilks and Payton.
“Having upperclassmen like Danny and John made a huge difference in terms of my feeling that the environment was safe for me and that it was possible to succeed at Pomona,” Taylor said. “They were sort of proof that it was possible to succeed and thrive.”
“[Wilks and Payton] were sort of proof that it was possible to succeed and thrive.”
Much like Wilks was an inspiring figure to other 5C students, Wilks’ mother Gertude Dyer Wilks was an inspiration to him and his projects. A lifelong activist in East Palo Alto, she founded the Nairobi Day School in 1966 and expanded it into a K-12 program that incorporated classes on Black history and culture. Taylor added that inspiration for the day school’s vision can be traced back to Wilks’ mother.
Today, the legacy of Wilks’ work is found in many places on campus. The BSU, which Wilks helped establish, continues to be a source of community and support for students. Meanwhile, the Black Studies Center shifted into the intercollegiate department of Africana Studies and the Office of Black Student Affairs in 1979.
More indirectly, Pomona’s Draper Center, Harvey Mudd College’s Upward Bound Tutoring program, and Pitzer College’s Inside-Out program are contemporaries of the Pomona Day School and Chino Institution project.
These projects are based on the same principles that inspired Wilks back in the late 1960s, which were, according to Wilson-Oyelaran, that “the intellectual work needed to be informed and grounded by experience in the communities.”
Ross emphasized that it was important for current 5C students to continue embodying the activist spirit that Wilks and his peers channeled.
“There’s a flexibility you have as a student that you’re not going to have for the rest of your life,” Ross said. “There’s an ability to to raise issues and protests without the kinds of incriminations that will happen later in life, as you get tied into other big institutions.”
Ross urged students to keep advocating that institutions present a diverse curriculum to ensure that the U.S. doesn’t fall back into repression and racism through recently proposed educational bans.
“Draw on the lessons of the past, look at what we did and how we did, and go on and do it better,” Ross said. “You can do it better and make this country a better place.”
Jenna McMurtry PO ’24 currently serves as a news editor for TSL.