Just over 70 years ago, Allen Ballard ’52 and Stanley L. Jackson ’52 became the first black students to enroll at Kenyon. Two decades later, in 1969, the Black Student Union (BSU) was founded. Over the next few years, its founders took strides — establishing a lounge for black students, petitioning the school to enroll more black students and hire black faculty — that would ultimately transform black students’ experiences at Kenyon in the decades to come.
Now Kenyon is celebrating 50 years of the BSU on campus. This past weekend, alums, students, faculty and administrators gathered together to commemorate this anniversary with a series of events, panels and ceremonies that highlighted the groundbreaking achievements of past BSU members.
Though BSU reunions occur every five years, Chris Kennerly, associate dean of students and director of the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (ODEI), believes that this one is especially significant because it coincides with 50 years of coeducation at the College.
“The 50th is a significant number in everything we do. When you turn 50, that’s magical; [when you] celebrate 50 years of anything, that’s a celebratory time,” Kennerly said. “But I think this was special because there was also the intersection of women at Kenyon and in that first class of women at Kenyon there were three African-American women, [all] of [whom] became founders of the BSU.”
For others, however, the weekend was a reminder of the diversity Kenyon still lacks. Tariq Thompson ’21 said that attending the events made him realize that the norm of predominantly white spaces at Kenyon is not something he should feel obligated to be comfortable with or blindly accept.
“I convinced myself that I was comfortable in these [predominantly white] spaces, even though I realize now that I’m not,” Thompson said. “And so I think the whole of BSU weekend, having so many people that look like me and can speak to my experiences … just felt very uplifting.”
The BSU was established during the 1969-70 academic year, chiefly due to the efforts of Ed Pope ’70, Eugene “Buddha” Peterson ’70, Gary Hayes ’71, Roland Parson ’71 and Keith O’Donnell ’72 during the previous year. In January of 1969, a list of demands from 10 black students was hand-delivered to President William Caples. According to the Founders’ Reflection in the BSU50 booklet, the “Statement of Policy on Black Students at Kenyon College” requested an “increase in black student enrollment, black studies and black faculty.”
However, the president refused to meet with the founders, leaving it to Dean of Students Thomas Edwards to negotiate with the students, who worked to establish a BSU lounge on the second floor of Peirce: “In 1969, once Dean Edwards persuaded the president and faculty in opposition that our demands were reasonable, he found the space that today is perhaps the most centrally located student space on campus … That gave us the opportunity to establish ourselves as a Black Student Union. We had a ‘place.’ For many years, the lounge was known by black student as ‘THE PLACE.’”
While many of the founders’ demands have been met, it may be surprising for some to know that the first black woman faculty member to earn tenure is Professor of Sociology Marla Kohlman, and that the first black faculty member to be promoted to full professor is Associate Provost for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Ted Mason.
At the same time, “Buddha” Peterson, a founder of BSU, said that President Decatur’s appointment represents a conclusion to this chapter in BSU’s history. “When I heard that Sean Decatur was going to become president, I personally came out here to watch him be inaugurated,” Peterson said. “I said, this makes it come full-circle from the start of BSU. And what we asked for was more attention to black students, black students’ courses and we wanted black faculty. And guess what? We have that.”
Kennerly said the 50-year reunion has been in the works for a while. In fact, a committee, consisting of BSU leadership, BSU alums, the executive board, Kennerly and two faculty, began officially planning the reunion in January of this year, although conversations had begun long before that. Kennerly says his office received help in planning from a variety of groups, including the Office of Alumni and Parent Engagement and the Office of Communications.
For the most part, Kennerly said the weekend was a considerable success. Alums in attendance ranged from members of last year’s graduating class to those who attended Kenyon as early as the 1960s and early 70s. The oldest alum in attendance was Victor Sparrow ’66.
The Saturday evening dinner and recognition ceremony had the largest turnout, with at least 140 people in attendance. At the ceremony, multiple BSU alums were recognized for their past contributions to the campus.
Other events included a tailgate at the Homecoming football game, two panels, an open mic, late-night celebrations, a church service and a farewell brunch at Cromwell Cottage, the home of President Decatur.
For many, the highlight of the weekend was Michelle’s Alexander’s talk on Friday night at Rosse Hall. Alexander, author of the New York Times bestselling book The New Jim Crow, received a standing ovation from Friday’s audience. Her talk covered a multitude of issues, ranging from the prison-industrial complex to concerns about police cybersecurity and discussions of race in academia.
“I’ve never seen so many black people on campus before,” Thompson said, describing the crowd at Alexander’s talk. “Especially with the decision for BSU to take up the first four rows. Honestly in my memory I can’t remember white people there. Because it was like I looked to my left, to my right, [and] it’s all black people, all talking, engaging in conversation, making comments. So to have so many of us in one room, and [to] feel like a space was actually ours, [that] was something that I didn’t know that I needed to feel.”