Gabriel Greschler and Mardy Harding
Editor in Chief and News Editor
Twentieth century Pan-African activist Marcus Garvey once said, “A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.”
Garvey need not worry. These roots were omnipresent at USF’s Black Student Union’s 50th anniversary celebration on Nov. 9, titled: “Bending the Arc Toward Justice: 50 Years of Black Student Activism at USF.” The panel featured BSU members stretching all the way back to the organization’s start.
The event, which took place in Fromm Hall, marks the start of a year-long celebration of BSU’s 50 years of contributions to the University. The panel was followed by a dinner at which Mayor London Breed spoke.
“A lot of folks were unaware that we had actually hit that 50 year mark this year, so we wanted to make the larger campus know just how long BSU has been here actively trying to make a difference,” BSU Vice President Taylor Terry said. “Just all the ways in which, for years and years, Black Student Union executives have come before us and really paved the way for what USF is for black students on campus today.”
The panelists represented an organization that was born out of tragedy. Just days after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968, a group of black students, including panelist Joseph Marshall, met in what is now Toler Hall. This meeting sparked the formation of USF’s Black Student Union.
The panelists reminded the audience just how tumultuous a year 1968 was, a true landmark in American political history. Along with MLK, Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated, and there were riots at the Democratic National Convention concerning the party’s stance on the Vietnam War.
Earlier that same year, the first officially recognized BSU was established at San Francisco State University. The organization for the representation of black students would quickly spread up and down the west coast.
“[MLK’s death] was just a blow to their community at USF while they were there and just how small that community was, it very much inspired them,” Terry said.
Marshall described BSU’s early days as consisting of demands to a university that was ever-resistant. The organization wanted more black faculty, more black student representation on ASUSF Senate and the establishment of ethnic studies programs. (Marshall is now co-founder and executive director of Alive & Free, an SF-based support program that helps youth avoid violence, drugs and dropping out of school, among other initiatives.)
“In the early years of BSU, we took care of each other,” said panelist Timothy Alan Simon, an early member of BSU who graduated in 1979.
The organization’s presence on campus ebbed and flowed over the years. Sanya Hill-Maxion, who graduated in 1984 and is now a judge in Stockton, Calif., spoke about the challenges of her time at USF, specifically referring to the policies of President Ronald Reagan. “It was the ‘80s,” she said with disdain.
While the Reagan years saw many firsts for African Americans in positions of leadership, including Willie Brown, the first black mayor of San Francisco, Reagan’s presidency spawned the concept of “reverse-discrimination,” and, in higher education, affirmative action came under fire in multiple Supreme Court cases.
Hill-Maxion’s mother, Patricia Hill, is a professor emerita in the University’s English department.
By the time panelist Sherie Gilmore-Cleveland came to USF in the late ‘90s, BSU had just two members. “We were a dormant organization,” she said.
Gilmore-Cleveland, who went on to get her Master of Science degree from USF in 2005, offered not only reflections on the past, but advice for the current class of BSU members.
“[It is] important to get involved in power structures,” she said, referring to USF’s student government, ASUSF. “Have any of you run?” she asked the room. A few students nodded their heads. “Continue, don’t stop,” Gilmore-Cleveland said.
Currently, BSU has 117 members, according to Vice President Terry.
Most panelists agreed that many of the demands of BSU haven’t changed over the last 50 years. “I think what was echoed most in the panel is that everybody felt that they were reinventing the wheel every single year, as opposed to very much taking up where the fight was left,” Terry said.
University of Southern California doctoral student Sarah Toutant was the youngest panelist, having graduated from USF in 2016. She also addressed the students in the room. “You pay the University to go here. Remind them that,” she said. Toutant, also a former BSU president, then told a story about a racial slur that was written on a black student’s door during her tenure.
“There is no space for hate in higher education,” she said.
Terry said by having a range of decades represented on the panel, they hoped to tell the story of USF’s BSU as accurately as possible. “I think it’s really powerful for folks to see an intergenerational representation of what BSU was, and the purpose around what BSU was meant to be in its original founding all the way up until Sarah’s presidency, and beyond, too,” Terry said.
Senior Anthony Norman, who is a current member of BSU, described Toutant as a maternal figure. Being able to hear her speak, he said, was his favorite part of the night. “Seeing her drop knowledge,” Norman said with a grin. “I’m proud of my mom.”
“I SHOULDN’T BE THE LAST”
The powerful female leaders of the night did not end with Toutant. Later, at the Black Student Union 50th Anniversary Celebration Dinner, Mayor London Breed spoke. Having come from her own event at which she was honored as an alumna of USF, she turned her attention towards the student leaders in the room.
“Even though I’m the first [female] African American mayor of San Francisco, I shouldn’t be the last,” she said to a roaring applause.
Terry said it was powerful to be in the room with the mayor, knowing they share common ground through their school. “I think that it was, in many ways, a full circle of again just how far black students can come from student government or this student organization and just how far we can go in what our future’s like,” she said.
Throughout both events, Terry emphasized a sense of family. “There were such high levels of love that were present there, and the feelings of triumph and success, especially with the establishment of the Black Achievement Success and Engagement program,” she said. “That’s not really what the event was about, but folks were present in that space knowing that not only is this the 50th year of BSU but this is the first year of that program.”
Looking forward, Terry said the Black Student Union will continue to celebrate this 50th anniversary throughout the year with events such as the Black Culture Dinner, a celebration of Kwanzaa and “an event called ‘Expressions’ that highlights the many talents of folks in our community.”