The Founding of the Black Student Union at Denison in 1969

BSU students gather

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The year 1969 was transformative for Denison University. It was the first year in the school’s history that African American students had matriculated in double-digit numbers. The freshman class of 17 women and six men joined the previously enrolled eight African American students to not only add color to the college, but also a distinct personality, flavor, and liveliness to the campus atmosphere. These trailblazers also would go on to create a legacy that has survived and continues to thrive 50 years hence.

Students who had been virtually invisible would soon be clearly noticed. Issues that never had been addressed would soon be confronted, and problems that were often minimalized or ignored would soon have the attention of the entire campus.

These 31 students were from the eastern, western, northern, and southern parts of the country with varying backgrounds, but a desire for unity was shared among all and viewed as important, urgent, and necessary.

When it became clear that there were concerns and needs that were not being met, these students began to assemble and discuss individual and collective issues. Whether it was a question about the fairness of a grade in a course, fear for safety, racial tensions, lack of sensitivity, or understanding by classmates, they talked about it.

These students decided to create a formal collective to change the trajectory of the black experience on Denison’s campus. They knew that in order to be seen, heard, and taken seriously, they had to stick together and move as one. They began to meet regularly, sometimes talking into the wee hours of the night, discussing plans to actualize the changes they wanted to see. Among these plans was the closing of Doane Administration Building.

These trailblazers also would go on to create a legacy that has survived and continues to thrive 50 years hence.

The students wanted respect, professors who looked and thought like them, courses that included their history and culture, and to become an integral part of the Denison community. They decided to close Doane in order to be heard. They stayed up all night working on what they would say if and when they were heard. They then stayed up discussing the pros and cons of the action plan, but more importantly, deciding that whatever they decided, they MUST be united; whatever they did, they MUST do together regardless of how they felt; they MUST feel for each other. They decided to meet at the campus flagpole on the Academic Quad and move to sit on the steps of Doane Administration Building at 7 a.m. the next day.

Co-founder Beverly Byrd-Lloyd ’73 recalls her thoughts at the time. “My God! We are really serious! I knew that the men were serious. They had been especially worried about the safety of the women. They said if we weren’t safe, we couldn’t study. Numb. I remember going to my room numb from the reality of being challenged to put actions where only words had been, wondering if everyone would keep their word and show up, wondering if I would be a student this time tomorrow or an expelled student wondering whether this really was as important as we said it was. My roommate from Glen Ellyn, Illinois, knew something was going on and tried to understand. During what seemed to be an eternity, I put on my jeans, picked out my “three-week-old, first-time-in-my-life ‘fro,” and began walking down the familiar brick road. I was still numb and rather sleepy, but when I looked around and saw my sisters and brothers coming from both sides of the campus, a sense of alertness came over me. The earliest classes began at 8 a.m. It was 6:58, and we were all headed for the same place. Each step I took made me prouder and stronger. Each of our steps was a step that laid the foundation for the Black Student Union at Denison University.”

Today, the purpose of the Black Student Union is to provide support for black and multicultural students at Denison University and to commemorate the history and struggle of such groups as it makes continuing progress toward even higher goals. The organization exists not only for black students but for any person who believes in the mission of the organization. With this in mind, we focus on building community within, while doing the same for the broader Denison community.

August 14, 2019