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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 before.

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 have?"

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, Ricks remembers.

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 campus life.

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 the center.

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 percent.

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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