In honor of Black History Month, our Laurentians Inspire series for the month of February celebrates Black Laurentians who have made a difference and left their mark on St. Lawrence.
“The BSU helped us all stay attached to what the issues were—being Black in America, being Black students at an American institution, and being Black, period,” says Don Pearman ’74, an original member of St. Lawrence’s Black Student Union (BSU), a student organization established in 1969 to celebrate, support, and advocate for Black students at the University.
In the late 1960s, the St. Lawrence campus was embroiled in much the same political and social upheaval that had swept university campuses across the entire country, including anti-war activism, the Women’s Liberation Movement, and the Civil Rights Movement. African-American students represented a very small percentage of the student body, but this small group was critical in organizing and advocating for St. Lawrence to address the serious racial disparity on campus and in the community.
The BSU helped us all stay attached to what the issues were—being Black in America, being Black students at an American institution, and being Black, period. —Don Pearman ’74
During the 1967-68 academic year, the Committee on Minority Student Groups was formed, revising its name to Representative Committee on Black-White Relations the following year. Comprised of students, faculty, and administrators, the committee was tasked with proposing solutions to the racial inequities at St. Lawrence and assisting with the challenges facing Black students in the North Country. The Black students’ proposals, which included demands to increase Black student recruitment efforts, to increase scholarships and financial aid, to establish more Black and multi-cultural-focused curriculum, to increase recruitment of Black faculty, and to finance events with more Black artists and speakers on campus, were met with resistance by the administration and disappointment by the students.
Addressing the frustration, Judy Knight ’71, a student on the Representative Committee on Black-White Relations, posed an important question. “What can St. Lawrence do for us?” she asked. “We are here to be educated, not to educate.” Her sentiments reflected the burden felt by the small Black student contingent at St. Lawrence. Despite assurances from St. Lawrence’s leadership at the time that the University would “continue to promote an environment conducive to acceptance of the Black student as an integral part of the campus community,” negotiations broke down. Many of the students withdrew from the Representative Committee on Black-White Relations as tensions on campus ran high.
The students channeled their frustrations with the administration into new strategies to support the Black Laurentian community by forming the Black Student Union. The BSU was officially chartered in the 1969-70 academic year as a student-led organization with a mission of fostering an environment that celebrates Black culture and community on the St. Lawrence campus. Pearman says the BSU would not have happened without the work and commitment of many students in the years prior, including Louis Ray ’71, who Pearman remembers was a formidable negotiator who was deeply respected by the administration at the time.
Designated housing immediately followed in spring 1970, and by the fall of 1970, Five University Avenue was opened as a men’s residence for the Black Student Union with two-thirds Black student occupants and the other one-third occupied by white students who were approved by the BSU. A designated Cultural Center, as well as multi-cultural lounge areas, were established across campus for BSU events and meetings. Pearman was among the initial nine students on the first official BSU membership roster.
In 1973, when Pearman was nominated as the second president of the BSU, he says he couldn’t say no. One of his first goals as president was to aid the admissions office in bringing more Black students to campus. “We didn’t know what we were doing, but we knew what was right,” says Pearman. The establishment of the BSU allowed for a direct conduit between students and the University admissions team, giving prospective students a more authentic view into what it was like to be a Black student at St. Lawrence. Pearman and the BSU’s efforts yielded another 10 students of color the following year, proving the partnership a success.
We all just want Black students on this campus to feel like they have a home; to feel like they have a community wherever they go, and to be a part of a family on campus. —Kalila Calame ’22
For Pearman, the BSU also provided both a physical location and an intellectual and social space for Black students to gather and build a community within the broader campus community while continuing to advocate for change. Diamond McAllister ’22, a current member and resident of the BSU Theme House, now located at 52 Park Street and accepting all genders, believes that having the house remains important for the same reasons.
“This is our space, a space just for us,” Diamond says, recognizing that BSU is more than just the physical location but also an important way for students to connect, do homework together, have social gatherings, and share ideas.
According to BSU’s current president, Kalila Calame ’22, the goals of the organization are largely the same as they were 52 years ago, however, the number of student voices has expanded. The establishment of new student groups such as Carefree Black Girls, Men in Color (MIC), The Black Laurentian Initiative (BLI), and other ethnically and culturally diverse student groups have added more voices and unique perspectives to the mix of Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) advocates on campus.
“More and more diverse student voices are under the Black Student Union,” says Joshua Morrison ’21, a member of both BSU and Men in Color, who clarifies by saying, “I don't want to call it an umbrella. It's more of a partnership.”
More and more diverse student voices are under the Black Student Union... I don't want to call it an umbrella. It's more of a partnership. —Joshua Morrison '21
“I think that, since BSU was the first of its kind, it allowed these newer clubs, like Carefree and MIC, to emerge,” says Kalila. “BSU has fostered the opportunity for more people to go into their own groups. Carefree Black Girls can talk about problems for Black women, and MIC can talk about problems specific to Black men. But then, at the end of the day, or at the end of the week, we can all come together and talk about our collective problems, our collective feeling as Black students as a whole.” Joshua believes the additional clubs and organizations are a positive development because “these communities are multifaceted in both their efforts and their identities, and we all are creating a richer St. Lawrence experience for everybody.”
Not unlike the struggles of the BSU founders 52 years ago, Kalila, Diamond, and Joshua recognize there is much more work to be done, and emphasize the need for equitable funding for all student groups, as well as the continued effort to recruit diverse students, provide more scholarship and financial aid, and hire more BIPOC faculty and staff.
Kalila says, “We all just want Black students on this campus to feel like they have a home; to feel like they have a community wherever they go, and to be a part of a family on campus.”
About the Author
Sophie Margola ’21 is a business in the liberal arts and English double major, with a focus in literary studies. Born and raised in western Massachusetts, Margola captains the Saints riding team and assists with the team’s social media content. Special thanks to the BSU members, then and now, who assisted with this article.