From Compton to Claremont to Kalamazoo, Eileen Wilson-Oyelaran PO ’69 has been a trailblazer in the field of education her entire life. What started as activism in her teenage years only grew stronger as an undergraduate at Pomona College, carrying through in her years in Nigeria and as president of Kalamazoo College.
The impact of her work continues to reverberate through Claremont more than 50 years after she graduated. Alongside John Payton PO ’73 and Danny Wilks PO ’71, she made it possible that the Black Studies Center came into existence in 1969.
The journey getting to this point was a long one riddled with opposition, and it came to fruition the September after Wilson-Oyelaran graduated. But she didn’t stop there.
‘A base of power for Black students’
In 1967, Wilson-Oyelaran was one of the founding members of the first Black Student Union at the 5Cs alongside John Payton PO ’73 and Danny Wilks PO ’71. She was also one of only two female students involved in the founding.
“I was so mesmerized,” Wilson-Oyelaran told TSL, recalling her attendance at Stokely Carmichael’s “Black Power” conference at the University of California, Berkeley Oct. 29, 1966.
“After coming back from that, it felt like it was essential to work with the Pomona dean of admissions to talk about the challenges around the recruitment of students of color. It was critically important, not just for the college, but for the nation.”
Since then, core BSU members like Wilson-Oyelaran, Payton and Wilks advocated for a more inclusive environment at the 5Cs for current and incoming Black students.
The trio delivered a list of 10 demands on behalf of the BSU May 1, 1968. Among the demands was the creation of a committee for minority student admissions, investment in Black literature at the Huntley Bookstore and the institution of the first Black Studies curriculum at the 5Cs.
Within one month, the administration created the Administrative Council Committee on Minority Student Relations to address BSU’s housing and education concerns. But this was just the beginning of the fight for racial equity at the 5Cs.
On Jan. 27, 1969, the BSU submitted its first proposal for the creation of the Black Studies Center to the Office of the Provost.
“Many Black students feel they have nowhere to go. [The BSC will be] a base of power for black students [and] black faculty,” Wilson-Oyelaran said at the meeting, according to a TSL article from Feb. 18, 1969.
BSU’s proposal included implementing a Black studies curriculum ranging from Swahili language learning to “The Economic History of Africa,” to be taught by Black professors and maintained by Black staff.
“One of the major issues involved in the [BSC] is whether the Pomona faculty trusts their Black colleagues,” Wilson-Oyelaran said in the 1969 article. “The models of other courses are inadequate if one expects to relate to Black students. Claremont has never had to deal with Black people, and we are not nice little models, as you know.”
While awaiting a response from administrators, the BSU faced faculty opposition to implementing the BSC.
“We went to each of those campuses to present [the BSC plan] and the faculties were culturally very different,” Wilson-Oyelaran said. “We were really strategic about who spoke on what, and on what campuses. We had to think about where our allies were and what kind of power they had.”
Pitzer College’s Dean of Faculty John Rodman was one individual supporting the BSU’s proposal. While awaiting a response from the provost, he drafted an alternative proposal for the future of Black education at the 5Cs.
“This kind of separation of a [Black Studies Center is] ultimately undesirable,” Rodman said in his Ethnic Studies Center proposal January 1969. “The long run cost [is] neglecting to educate whites [and it is] unscholarly one sided.”
In February 1969, the Board of Trustees of the Claremont Colleges voted against the proposal to create the BSC.
But that wasn’t the end of the fight.
“John, Danny and I recognized each other’s strengths and each other’s weaknesses, and we worked together as an amazing team who grew very close.”
Several 5C student associations and faculty from across the consortium sent letters of support to the Office of the Provost, eventually changing the decision in favor of the BSU’s proposal. The BSC was eventually approved in March and built in September.
Wilson-Oyelaran further campaigned to establish the first curriculum — both a major and minor — for what would later become the current Africana Studies department.
She emphasized how much of what she accomplished was a collaborative effort between her, Payton and Wilks.
“The change we were trying to make had to be grounded in a strong intellectual formation,” she said. “John was an amazing writer and an incredibly deep thinker. Danny was an outstanding speaker who could galvanize a crowd. He had incredible charisma. I was the bridge. John, Danny and I recognized each other’s strengths and each other’s weaknesses, and we worked together as an amazing team who grew very close.”
Where it all started
Despite being only 19 years of age when the intercollegiate BSU came into existence, Wilson-Oyelaran wasn’t new to carrying the torch for the Civil Rights Movement. Raised in Compton, California, she felt destined to follow her parents’ footsteps — both were Black student activists in the 1930s.
“My parents’ generation were who are historically referred to as ‘race people,’ meaning that they were groomed to take responsibility to make things better. That was not labor, that was your damn responsibility,” she said. “I, and many of my peers, came out of those kinds of families — that’s who we were. We didn’t know how not to be. It’s a whole different mindset.”
Wilson-Oyelaran became an active member of the youth group of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People while in high school. At 16, she joined Compton’s Council of Human Relations, volunteering in community service, organizing Black socials and picketing in front of Compton’s Woolworth to express solidarity with the desegregation movement in the Southern United States.
“At that time, [the youth NAACP] was trying to bridge young people in the community with kids from all three of the high schools in Compton. Dominguez High School was still solidly white, Centennial High School was significantly African American and Compton High School was the only school that was 50-50,” she said.
To Nigeria and back to Claremont
Right after graduation, Wilson-Oyelaran spent 18 months in Africa. She had been awarded the Watson fellowship to study in Ghana, Nigeria and Tanzania and compile curriculum materials for students in the U.S.
“It was a very transformative experience. We lived in an international student hostel with African students from all over. Within three weeks, I met three other women and the four of us are thick as thieves 52 years later,” she said.
“I was really fortunate. I think the opportunities that I had to step away from the psychological challenges that are deeply embedded in institutional racism in the U.S., have been really important for my psyche. I think I’ve been able to step out in ways that saved my sanity.”
But just as soon as she had left Claremont, she found herself back at her alma mater soon enough.
Payton had called her in 1973 while she was still in Africa, asking her to take up the position of director of Black admissions at the Black Studies Center. She promptly took up the offer.
“We had worked so hard to get some of those things institutionalized, just trying to fix the place,” Wilson-Oyelaran said. “There’s a sense in which it’s incredibly gratifying to see some of the students we were able to recruit and what they’ve accomplished.”
After working alongside Payton in admissions for four years, she noticed a decline in the appetite for social change at the 5Cs.
“By the mid ‘70s, there were ways in which the colleges were pulling back from the commitments they had made to us for recruitment in the late ‘60s,” she said. “We had a very successful pre-freshman summer program for Black and brown students, but the college wanted to pull back on its commitment, despite the clear evidence of its success.”
“But this work, as my dad used to say, is cyclical — like an inchworm — one step forward and two steps back.”
Shortly thereafter, Wilson-Oyelaran moved back to Nigeria in 1977 to pursue a career in teaching at the University of Ife, where she stayed for 14 years. She served as chair of the Psychology Department and worked with UNICEF as a consultant for early childhood development. All the while, she was parenting four children with her husband Olasope Oyelaran.
Wilson-Oyelaran returned to the U.S. in 1988 to become an administrator at North Carolina Wesleyan College, after which she joined Winston-Salem State University, and finally Kalamazoo College.
Her ties to Pomona are still strong, and as a member of Pomona’s Board of Trustees she remains active in the development of the Black community at the 5Cs. She still believes there is much more work left to be done.
“When you read the concerns of current students, yeah, it almost reads like a document we wrote,” Wilson-Oyelaran said. “On one hand, we had no faculty who looked like us, there was no curriculum for us to study that looked like us in the curriculum and concepts like allyship simply didn’t exist. We were doing the work and in the absence of any of the theoretical frameworks that you all have now.”
“So, I know what Claremont was like in 1969, and concretely, it is so much better [today]. Yet on the other hand, the sense of not feeling at the core of institutions … still prevails. We’re still not there yet, and that’s what makes it so cyclical,” she concluded.
“Yet on the other hand, the sense of not feeling at the core of institutions … still prevails. We’re still not there yet, and that’s what makes it so cyclical.”