by Madeleine Thompson
Forty-five years ago, in 1969, Ruben Edward Pope III ’70 hand-delivered a statement of policy directly to the president of the College at Cromwell Cottage to indicate the intention of several of the few black students on campus to found the Black Student Union (BSU) and to express their wish that Kenyon begin to focus on issues of diversity. The College officially recognized the BSU in 1970 and by 1972, it had seven members. Since then, it has only grown. Last weekend, roughly 30 BSU alumni and 35 current members, along with faculty members and other guests, reunited to celebrate the organization’s history. Events included a 5k run, a reception at the home of President Sean Decatur, several career-related seminars for current students and a panel called “The Kenyon Experience Through the Generations.”
Associate Dean of Students Chris Kennerly said one of his favorite parts of the weekend was the rededication of the BSU’s lounge on the second floor of Peirce Hall. Previously named for Ujima Imani, which means unity and faith in Swahili, the BSU decided to rededicate the lounge to honor Pope, who passed away in April. “Having Ed Pope’s family and church family there — that was to me one of the most moving things about the weekend,” Kennerly said.
Decatur, who hosted a reception at Cromwell Cottage and gave the keynote address at last Saturday’s dinner, said he was especially moved by the stories alums told of being at Kenyon in the 1970s and ’80s. “One image that sort of stands out … was the notion that all of the black students on campus could fit in one car,” Decatur said. “In a sense, though, the excitement of the moment came a couple of years later when six new students came to campus and all the sudden, it wasn’t a one-car unit.”
BSU President Tomas Grant ’16 echoed the sentiment, adding that a lot of effort had gone into planning the reunion. “We actually started planning in October of 2013,” Grant said. Ultimately, he felt the hard work paid off, saying he had received positive feedback from nearly every attendee.
The weekend also saw the announcement of the newly endowed Pope Scholarship, which will provide funds for students of color at Ohio high schools to come to Kenyon. The scholarship’s fundraising goal is $250,000. Eugene Peterson ’70 was in charge of getting the word out about the scholarship and raising initial funds.
“A bunch of us guys from [the Class of 1970] started sending emails around,” Peterson said. “That fund will be combined with other monies, so we could as soon as next year see a Pope scholar on campus. … One of the things that [Pope] was concerned about was the need for Kenyon to do a better job of recruiting African-American students from the greater Ohio community. … Hopefully, maybe the first student will come from Granville High School, which is Ruben’s alma mater.”
BSU Vice President Kye Duren ’16 agreed that the anniversary celebration was a success, but said there was more work to be done at Kenyon to increase diversity. “I would like to see Kenyon be a place that is a great educational background for multicultural students in general where they can also feel supported,” Duren said. “I’d also like … Kenyon to be a place where we can all share our stories openly and have everyone heard and understood.”
Kennerly, too, thinks there is still room for progress to be made. In the next 45 years of the BSU, he hopes that there will be “a critical mass of black students” that lessens the need for the organization. “Just because we have admitted more students [of color] that doesn’t mean that the community is 100 percent,” Kennerly said. “We need to be more welcoming. … We’ve done lots of work, obviously, but there’s still more to be done, I think more so on the level of socioeconomic diversity.”
One recent step that was taken towards increasing diversity was the formation of the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (ODEI), of which Kennerly is the director. Peterson hailed the creation of the ODEI as “courageous and important.”
“Thank goodness for President Decatur, who came and recognized the need to expand the inclusiveness of the College,” Peterson said.
Peterson added that the reunion weekend “exceeded everybody’s wildest expectations,” and expressed his thanks for the hard work put in by Kennerly and the other organizers. “We had some doggone good partying going on, too,” he said. “That’s part of the Kenyon tradition … and we didn’t shrink from any of that.”