Campus and Community

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Come Together

UWSP’s Black Student Union celebrates 50 years of honoring and sharing black culture

Jeanne Nagle | Campus and Community | February 23, 2021

Fifty years ago this month, a new student organization burst onto the Wisconsin State University-Stevens Point campus without much fanfare—but with plenty of purpose.

The arrival of Black Student Coalition, now known as the Black Student Union, was announced in an open letter that appeared in The Pointer on February 8, 1971. The reason for the group’s formation was made plain in its opening sentence: “We, the Black students of WSU-SP, in an honest effort to express our needs and aspirations in a meaningful way to the college community, have formed Black Student Coalition, an organization through which these needs may be attained.”

Half a century later, the BSU is still going strong as a vehicle through which the voices of UWSP’s black student body can be heard. The group also makes a point of fostering unity and understanding by sharing black culture across campus and throughout the Stevens Point community.

Asked recently about the genesis of the coalition, Brenda Lee ’72, who signed the original announcement letter as the organization’s first president, cuts right to the heart of the matter. “We created BSC out of a sense of shared identity,” she says, “and to lessen the sense of being strangers in a strange land.”

In the late-1960s and early ’70s, changes in educational opportunities brought about by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 were still rippling across the nation, as well as the WSU-SP campus. In accordance with the act’s antidiscrimination policies, the university had established Upward Bound, a federally affiliated program designed to help first-generation and low-income students prepare for and enroll in college. High schoolers, largely from Milwaukee and Chicago, were recruited to take part in the program at Point, resulting in black students attending the university in greater numbers than ever before.

Adapting to college life can be challenging no matter who you are, but students of color at WSU-SP in the 1970s faced additional hurdles. Subtle and overt bias, on campus and within the Stevens Point community, complicated matters. The BSC was formed, in part, to help ease the transition. Lee describes the group in those days as “a safe haven” wherein black students could gather, share a meal or simply engage in conversation with others who understood how they felt. (Not surprisingly, those same qualities also are part and parcel of today’s BSU.)

The group also was designed to affect change, whenever and wherever it was deemed necessary, on behalf of the black student body. As the group’s president, Western New York-native Lee was the designated representative when it came to communicating with the university’s administration on such matters.

“As was the norm for that time, we had a host of ‘demands’ specific to UWSP, as well as a part of the statewide BSU coordinated action,” she says.

Archived university publications indicate that the inclusion of black history and culture throughout the university’s curriculum, as well as better responsiveness to friction between black and white students on the part of the administration, were among those demands.

“Ultimately, we received funds for an annual Black Culture Week, for recruiting African American students and for BSC activities,” says Lee.

The first edition of Black Culture Week on campus occurred Feb. 6-12, 1972. Events included a kick-off dance, film presentations, panel discussions, student “rap sessions” and an art show. “Roots” author Alex Haley also arrived on campus to speak on “The Saga of Black History.”

Other notable Black Culture Week guest speakers that first decade of the BSU’s existence include civil rights icons Coretta Scott King and Dr. Ralph Abernathy, Olympic champion Maya Rudolph, “60 Minutes” correspondent Ed Bradley and actor LeVar Burton.

Also in 1972, a group of 10 BSC members helped expand upon the work of the Upward Bound program that brought many of them to the WSU-SP campus in the first place. They volunteered to spend part of their winter break recruiting black high school students in their respective hometowns. “Most of the contacts were made in Milwaukee, Beloit and Chicago,” a story in The Pointer reported, “and according to Miss Lee, the project met with quite a bit of interest from prospective collegians.”

Equally high on the BSC agenda was outreach, which stressed being part of the solution rather than merely calling for change. In 1976, BSC membership reached out to the Stevens Point Police Department and the mayor’s office to help ease lingering racial tensions in town by creating black awareness within the community. One measure toward that goal was the proposal that a black or multiethnic community center be established in town.

Briefly called Brothers and Sisters in Unity for a time in the 1980s, the Black Student Coalition officially became the Black Student Union the following decade. Although the name had changed, the group’s mission had not—a mission that remains intact today.

“BSU has been able to provide the UWSP community, both on campus and off, with knowledge and resources that enable others to learn more about black culture and ways to become a more culturally competent community,” says William Green ’96, UWSP’s Multicultural Resource Center coordinator and current BSU co-advisor. Green served as BSU president during his days as a student at Point.

According to Green, current members also coordinate class presentations, organize and participate in group volunteering opportunities and offer peer-to-peer enrichment sessions on campus.

“Additionally, the themed dances put on by BSU members, and the several events throughout the school year such as slam poetry, bake sales and karaoke nights, are very popular among UWSP students,” he says.

One of the most popular BSU activities is the annual Soul Food Dinner, which dates back to the group’s inception. Attendees from across campus and within the Stevens Point community are treated to traditional African-American fare such as fried catfish, jambalaya, black-eyed peas, collard greens and sweet potato pie, followed by an after-dinner program highlighting black culture.

“It was our little way of doing something on this campus to make people aware of where we come from and what we celebrate,” said then-BSU co-president Ashley Ward in a 2008 interview.

COVID-19 has effectively put the kibosh on campus activities for the foreseeable future, but that didn’t stop the BSU from staging a version of its annual celebration in honor of Black History Month this year. On Wednesday, Feb. 24, the group sponsored a Zoom event featuring student presentations and a black-owned business panel Q&A. Participants even had the option of purchasing day-of prepackaged meals, available for pickup in the DUC, to help give the virtual event a traditional Soul Food Dinner vibe.

Beyond promoting a positive image of black culture and heritage, the BSU has logged an impressive track record at the personal level as well.

“I know what the BSU did for me as a student leader,” says Green. “The club allowed me to network and acquire leadership skills. I established friendships during my time participating in the BSU that I maintain today.”

And among the organization’s founding members—several of whom came to Point through Upward Bound and similar programs—one accomplishment could be said to rise above all others. “The greatest success,” Lee says, “was we graduated.”

Now that’s something to celebrate.

 

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