Throwback Thursday: Remembering the Roots of Black Student Organizations during Black History Month at Augustana College

Hosting a symposium is not a new phenomenon at Augustana College. Many students, faculty, staff and community members poured into classrooms and lecture halls to learn about and discuss current topics at our Winter Social Justice Symposium only two weeks ago. Gender, race, class, politics, and religion were topics of our latest symposium panels, but what of symposiums of the past?

In honor of Black History Month and to remember the efforts of Augustana’s black community this “Throwback Thursday” has been dedicated to the Black Student Union, called the Afro-American Society in its early years. Students Acie Earl and William Norman began the 1968 school year in hopes of organizing a student group to “express pride in blackness and tradition and history of our people,” because, as noted in one of the first published Afro-American Society publicity materials, “the future at Augustana for Black students is becoming brighter.” A few short years after their founding, the students of the Afro-American society were hosting sit-ins (pictured below), demanding a learning environment free from racism, and calling on the campus for justice. In just the first year of the Afro-American Society’s presence on campus, the founding members managed to change both conversations about justice and the campus curriculum.

C-F03635, Students at a 1972 sit-in protest in the office of President C.W. Sorensen, Augustana College Photograph Collection

This optimism and enthusiasm drove the efforts of the few dozen students and their advisor, Dr. Harold Bell—an assistant professor of Political Science and colleague of future college president, Dr. Thomas Tredway. Acie Earl and William Norman went on to be elected as the first president and vice-president of the Afro-American Society at Augustana College. Their leadership demanded hard work on behalf of their organization: priority number one? To sponsor a meeting of the minds in the form of an all-campus symposium.

In the spring of 1969, the founding members of Augustana’s Afro-American Society were hard at work to host a symposium to engage students and faculty alike with the topic of Black Power. From the founding of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in 1960 to the late 1970s, the Black Power Movement was a symbol of the advancement of black causes and of self-reliance for the American black community. In hopes of bringing a constructive, academic conversation closer to home for most students, the Afro-American Society sought to bring the contemporary events of the Civil Rights Movement to our very campus. The group set its sights high on several key personalities of the American Black Power movement. With the date of the symposium set for February 7th-8th 1969, important and controversial characters such as Dick Gregory, a civil rights “crusader” and black social satirist, Roy Innis, the Director of the Congress of Racial Equality, and the Rev. Jesse Jackson of the Southern Christian Leadership Convention (SCLC) made their way to Rock Island, Illinois.

The Black Power Symposium not only brought faces of the national movement to Augustana’s campus, but controversy as well. Late Augustana College president Clarence Woodrow Sorenson’s papers, housed in Special Collections, reveal a measurable level of discomfort and tension among Quad Cities residents surrounding the symposium; emotional letters from parents and community members reveal concern, frustration, support, and anxiety about the Confrontation ’69 symposium’s guest speakers (see MSS 6, C.W. Sorenson papers, box 99). President Sorensen refused to officially affirm or deny support for the Black Power Symposium until only days before the event. In his statement in the February 5th 1969 Observer, Sorensen writes, “students see the urgent importance of this topic, Black Power. They wish to see, in person, some of the key personalities in that field”. And so the Afro-American Society did just that—with “Confrontation ‘69”

Admission ticket to ‘Confrontation ’69’ Augustana College Spring Symposium on Black Power, Augustana College Vertical Files: Black Student Union – 1960s Events.

For a new campus organization, bringing a symposium to fruition was no small feat. In a letter to the editor of the February 12th 1969 Observer, psychology student, Bob Turner, reminds the campus community that thirty-five “hard-working black students” made Augustana realize “its attempts to remain aloof from the cold, cruel concrete world are over.” Actively engaging with issues of the day created an environment for meaningful dialog on campus and caused students to “shed [their] apathetic shell and don the colors of creative participation in the college and the community,” explains Turner at the end of his letter. To read the rest of Turner’s impassioned letter—and other opinions about the Black Power Symposium— click HERE for a link to Special Collections’ digital archives of the Augustana Observer. Not only was “Confrontation ‘69’” well attended by students and community members alike, but demands for a more diverse curriculum were honored and new English and history courses were offered on Black history the following academic school year.

The Afro-American Society poses for their first group photograph in the 1969 Rockety-I, Augustana’s college yearbook.

By combating intolerance and controversy with conversation, Afro-American Society members made a name for themselves as leaders on campus. Forty-six years later, the group still holds a presence on Augustana’s campus, though the name has since changed to “Black Student Union.” Current president Darien Marion-Burton believes that the Black Student Union has the responsibility, as both a social justice and a cultural organization, to advocate for African American students and for marginalized students. Today, meetings of Augustana’s Black Student Union focus on engaging the campus in relevant social justice issues and promoting black cultural pride. “We want people to know what we stand for,” Marion-Burton explains. Amid increasing conversations and controversies surrounding the role of race in American society, he roots of Augustana’s black student groups are recognized and celebrated by contemporary forces that promote diversity and tolerance on campus.

In what ways can the efforts of past student achievements still be seen on campus today?

For more information on the Black Student Union visit Special Collections and ask for MSS 44: Black Student Union Event posters or Special Collections’ Black Student Union subject files to learn about the group’s early years on campus.

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