A Dream Defended
The African-American Institute Reaches Ahead
as It Looks Back on Thirty Years
By Meghan Irons
Soon after Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination in 1968, a handful
of Northeastern's African-American students gathered in an off-campus apartment.
For months they had been negotiating with the university to hire more black
faculty, boost black student enrollment, and establish better support services
for entering African-American students. But on that April day, the students
were tired of talking. They wanted action. And they were prepared to retaliate
if the university did not respond to their demands.
"We had done our research," recalls Rick Johnson, LA'69, cochair
of the Afro-American Student Association, as the student group was then
named. "We knew where all the electrical outlets were. We knew where
the computer terminals were. We had built coalitions with other groups
and we were going to disrupt all the traffic on Huntington Avenue. There
were some people talking about looting and pillaging. We knew it wasn't
right. But people were angry and they wanted to vent."
The students' plans never came to fruition. President Asa Knowles hastily
approved their demands. There were thirteen requirements in all, ranging
from enrollment targets to curriculum reform. But perhaps the single most
important, because it served as the catalyst for accomplishing the rest
of the students' goals, was the establishment of an African-American center-a
campus haven for black students and black concerns.
Now, thirty years later, the John D. O'Bryant African-American Institute
is one of the largest black cultural centers in New England and one of
the few remaining support systems of its kind on the East Coast, providing
academic, cultural, and personal support to students of African descent.
A symbol of Northeastern's commitment to diversity, the institute was responsible
for establishing the African-American studies department and for ushering
more minority faculty, administrators, and students onto campus than ever
But the journey has hardly been easy. In its three decades on campus,
the institute has had thirteen directors, more than twice the number of
presidents the university has had in its entire 100-year history. From
day one, the center has been dogged by criticisms about its mission, purpose,
and goals. Where once it served as the only resource for black students
on campus, the African-American Institute today is competing with other
student services on campus. Some question whether there still is a need
for the institute at all.
"One of the key points we saw when we were here was that the institute
was something for us," says former student activist Joseph Feaster
Jr., LA'72, L'75, now a member of Northeastern's Board of Overseers. Though
still a supporter, he wonders whether the center needs to rethink its mission:
"Back then it was the institute or nowhere. The question now is, with
the advent of those other resources, what added value does the institute
The institute's supporters believe that an important role remains. They
say the center provides more comprehensive services for African-American
students than exist anywhere else on campus. Institute employees are not
only counselors, advisers, and friends, but also are advocates for black
students who feel alienated on a predominantly white campus.
"The campus has changed substantially, but a lot of things have
not changed," says associate dean Lula Petty-Edwards, the institute's
current director. "I just received a note from a student who said
he was called the 'N-word.' I grew up in Mississippi and nobody ever called
me that. Students then, and now, have found themselves in an environment
that's still struggling to reconcile the issue of race. We'd like to think
we have advanced simply because of what we've experienced and because of
time. Maybe we have moved to some degree, but I don't think we've 'arrived.'
And until we arrive, a place like the institute will still be necessary
at a white university."
The controversy and sense of quest surrounding the African-American
Institute befits the times in which it was founded. The civil rights movement
was in high gear in the late '60s, at the same time that the antiwar and
women's movements were sweeping the country. Black students who had trickled
into predominantly white institutions were agitating for change. Following
the lead of their peers at San Francisco State University and the University
of California campuses at Berkeley and Santa Barbara, African-American
students at Northeastern, caught up in the spirit of black consciousness,
heeded the call for more student activism. In a show of solidarity, they
formed coalitions with students from other institutions, built alliances
with community groups, and bonded in citywide organizations.
"We were students who felt that things can change," says Mable
Weathers-Benton, LA'71. "It was student idealism. We were all affected
by the kinds of things going on in the country."
A watershed for many Northeastern students was a New England Black Student
Organization conference on black power, held in March 1967 in Boston. The
conference intensified student activism and prompted attendees to return
to campus to push for change. "It was very powerful to see the number
of black students there and to hear what was happening on other campuses,"
remembers former student activist Elmer Freeman, UC'77, now the executive
director of N.U.'s Center for Community Health Education, Research, and
Service. "We came out of that room with a broader agenda because we
knew other folks were doing similar kinds of things."
Back at Northeastern, students formed the Afro-American organization
and began planning. But their cause wasn't universal. Even in the 1960s,
many black students were not interested in the civil rights movement. Some
were intimidated by the confrontational style of their brethren in afros
and dashikis. Until King was killed, that is. His death shocked previously
uninvolved students into activism.
"Not every black student was a politico," says African-American
studies associate professor Robert Hall, a student activist at Harvard
in the 1960s. "Negroes that we didn't know were coming out of the
woodwork. That's when the formal demands came."
It was known as the "Nigger Tree." Anyone who was black at
Northeastern during the 1960s knew where it was located (in front of the
Ell Building) and what it meant. Black students owned the tree. White students
avoided it. The tree was a meeting place for black students, where comradeship
was exchanged over casual conversation and news.
But after King's death, the students who met under the tree decided
they needed a place of their own. They wanted a center that would be their
own world of blackness on a campus of whiteness. There would be a library
with books on the black race, black counselors to guide black students,
black teachers to teach black students, and a black staff to run the place.
The students wanted-and received from the university-total control to hire
staff, run a budget of nearly $150,000, and develop new programs. Although
the university funded the center, it would become a student-run operation.
"It wasn't that we didn't want help," says Weathers-Benton.
"But we were suspicious of the white administration. Part of it was
that we had to pay student fees and [yet] we had trouble getting money
from the student government. They didn't recognize us as a legitimate student
group. We felt we had to have our own place, our own budget, everything."
The students' vision for the center was twofold: it would be both community-oriented
and student-centered. To accomplish both ends, they occupied dual sites,
renting space at a Roxbury community center called the Norfolk House, where
the institute's library and academic resources were housed, and locating
the administrative offices in the Forsyth Annex (the current location of
the Latino/a Student Cultural Center).
Within two years, however, the institute had reached a crisis point.
A divide had opened between students and institute staff over the political
direction that should be pursued. Meetings on whether the institute should
focus more on students or on the surrounding community broke down into
shouting matches and near fistfights. "It was just a matter of a split
on direction, goals, objective, personalities," recalls Feaster, who
served on the center's oversight committee. "All of those things began
to take their toll. There were strong opinions, very, very strong opinions."
"The people we hired had their own agenda," adds Weathers-Benton,
another committee member. "They didn't listen to us."
The crisis came to a head when Charles Turner, the institute's first
director, quit in 1971. Although Northeastern's African-American student
population had grown during Turner's two-year tenure, few black students
participated in the institute's academic programs, much to his frustration.
When some on the oversight committee pushed for a marketing campaign to
reach students, Turner, a longtime community activist, stepped down. "I
didn't think I was the right person to build those relationships,"
he recalls. "My focus was to build a relationship with the community.
It was not my desire to make it more attractive to students."
By the time of Turner's departure, student enthusiasm for the institute
had waned. Many of the original founders had graduated and moved on. "Sometimes
when you push and push for what you want and you finally get it, you may
not know how to deal with it," Benton says. "You still try to
take on control of it, even if it takes on a life of its own."
Gregory Ricks stepped in as associate dean and director in 1972, the
institute's third director in four years. Playwright and poet Ntozake Shange
had been fired after less than a year as head. The institute was faltering,
struggling to either retain its ties with the surrounding community or
attract Northeastern students. Underutilization was a persistent problem,
despite the institute's consolidation and move into its present location
on Leon Street. In 1971, the university threatened to close down the place,
At twenty-three, Ricks was a recent graduate of the Massachusetts Institute
of Technology with a master's degree in city planning. He had successfully
directed the African-American Institute's remedial summer program for entering
freshmen. Minority student affairs dean Roland Latham, one of three high-level
black administrators at Northeastern at the time, saw promise in Ricks.
In spite of the institute's problems, Latham felt it was a good program
that only required proper administration.
In his six years at the helm, Ricks brought focus and direction to the
institute. Concentrating on the academic development of the more than 700
black students then enrolled at the university, Ricks established the African-American
studies department; the Ujima program, an affirmative action effort for
black freshmen with low SAT scores; and tutorial and counseling programs
for students. Most important, Ricks made the institute part of Northeastern's
That was no small feat. "It was tough balancing the resources,"
he says. "There were some students who didn't want any white people
in here. People like me understood that, but I also understood that the
institute should be integrated into Northeastern."
In 1978, Ricks left his position to become special assistant to Kenneth
Ryder, whom many former students credit for supporting the institute as
a senior administrator and then as president. But in the decade after Ricks's
departure, the institute floundered under the leadership of nine directors,
who had differing philosophies and agendas, some say. "It became a
revolving door," Ricks says. "It was a combination of who was
hired [and] the times. Plus there was a backlash [against] black studies
programs in the 1980s. Some people felt those programs had seen their day.
Also, there were budget cuts, lower enrollment. People saw it as an added
frill that did not have much use to the university."
Former institute librarian Verdaya Mitchell-Brown, the center's unofficial
historian, says leadership under those conditions took a special commitment.
"You don't know what it is like to talk to black folk on one hand
who want to change things, and then go to the other side of campus and
deal with people who are totally resistant to change," she says. "So
you are in the middle. You are taking heat from black folks and white folks.
It is a hard place to be strong."
J. Keith Motley, now dean of student services, had used the center as
an undergraduate and graduate student in the late '70s. He was dismayed
at the neglect of the institute during the '80s. Floors went unswept, bathrooms
were not cleaned, and cracks in the sidewalk in front of the building grew
unchecked. The only time some students visited the center was to use the
bathroom on their way to and from the nearby parking lot, he recalls.
Motley became associate dean and director of the African-American Institute
in 1987. Over the following six years, he turned the center around, attracting
students with social programs, counseling support, and a growing library.
"My mission was to make people proud of the institute as well as to
take part in the programs and services," says Motley. "Most of
all to make Northeastern embrace it as its own."
With support from top administrators like former President John Curry,
Motley raised new funds to expand the institute's offerings. On its twentieth
anniversary, Curry gave the institute $20,000. Another $25,000 followed
on its twenty-fifth birthday. Symbolic of its revitalization, the institute
was renamed in 1993 after the university's first African-American vice
president, the late John O'Bryant. Lula Petty-Edwards succeeded Motley
as director in 1994.
Last February, during the institute's oratory competition (held annually
during Black History Month), nineteen-year-old sophomore Kadesh Simms delivered
a passionate speech on the relevance of the African-American Institute
at Northeastern. "It's a motivating institute," she said, her
voice rising. "It's a net that keeps us from hitting the ground. It's
our home away from home. There is no place that addresses and is solely
dedicated to blacks other than the African-American Institute."
In assessing its thirty-year history, Petty-Edwards notes that the institute
has survived numerous bouts of turmoil, budget cuts, reductions in staff,
and a trimming of its cultural offerings. "But we are still here,"
she says. "We still offer and still provide student-centered services-services
that I think are needed."
The institute has also come to achieve its other original goal: to build
ties with the surrounding community. Local groups often meet in the building
on weekends. Neighborhood high school students take advantage of the after-school
tutorial services. The Northeastern black student club has its office at
Located in an off-white three-story building at the southern edge of
campus, the institute for a time seemed hidden from view. The recent expansion
and beautification of the Centennial Common permitted easier access. With
a current budget of nearly $550,000 and a staff of nine, the institute's
programs and services for
students include tutorials, reading and writing classes, counseling,
and access to the university's only African-American library. The center
administers the Ujima Scholars Program; awards the Ralph J. Bunche Scholarships,
which pay tuition, room, and board for outstanding undergraduates; and
awards the Martin Luther King Jr. Fellowships, which give full-tuition
scholarships to top graduate students. Since the fall of 1997, forty-one
freshmen-just over a quarter of the total number of African-American freshmen
admitted this academic year-have enrolled in the Ujima program. Thirteen
students have been awarded Bunche scholarships and seven graduate students
MLK fellowships for this academic year.
Despite the African-American Institute's efforts, however, both the
number of black freshmen and the retention rate of black students have
fallen from previous years. Only 58 of the 224 black students who enrolled
as freshmen in 1991 have graduated, according to N.U.'s Office of Institutional
Research. The number of African-American freshmen admitted to Northeastern
has dropped from 212 in 1993 to 155 in 1997-a decrease of more than twenty-five
President Richard Freeland has voiced his determination to reverse this
trend. Indeed, applications from black students for the 199899 freshman
class have risen significantly from last year's level-up 37 percent as
of mid-April, according to the Office of Enrollment Management.
Petty-Edwards views the institute's recruitment efforts as a major part
of student diversity outreach at Northeastern. But she says the institute
should not be blamed for the high black student dropout rate, since national
figures show that many African-American students quit school-mostly because
of financial hardship.
"I think some people have looked at us as the sole retention agent
for black students on campus," she says. "We cannot do it alone.
I do not take the sole responsibility for graduation. I could not be that
arrogant or misguided to think that we can do it alone. We are an important
part [of black student retention], but we are not the only part."
Indeed, African-American students at Northeastern today frequent other
venues besides the African-American Institute and use other services: the
Curry Student Center, the Counseling Center, and tutorial services offered
to all students. Between half and two-thirds of N.U.'s black undergraduates
do not make use of the institute at all, according to institute officials.
With so much competition and underutilization of the center's services,
some say it's time for the African-American Institute to evolve. "It
needs to have a summit to bring in all kinds of people from the past to
look at its vision and its role," says former director Ricks.
Petty-Edwards does indeed intend to bring in people from the institute's
past, but for another reason. She planned a thirtieth-anniversary gala
for May 13, with the theme of "Reaching Back to Bring Others
Forward." As part of the commemoration, she is calling on 1,000 alumni
to donate at least $100 each to help fund an endowment, scholarships, library
additions, and other improvements. Donna Harris-Lewis, Reggie Lewis's widow,
announced in March that she would contribute $30,000 for the center's computer
laboratory. Petty-Edwards and other institute supporters hope that alumni
who benefited from the institute's services will help keep the institute
thriving for at least three more decades.
"Thirty years is a baby in the life span of an institution,"
says Motley. "I'd like to see where most institutions were at thirty.
The African-American Institute was developed by students who may not have
known [everything], but they knew it felt good and they knew that it was
about preserving a place for future generations. Our business is going
to be about that."
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