A ‘positive history’: Gleeson Library Digital Collection gains Black voices through addition of the BSU

A playbill from “Three Phases of the Black Man,” written and produced by Daphyne Brown and directed by Linda Barconey in 1972, is included in the new Black Student Union Collection. PHOTO COURTESY OF UNIVERSITY OF SAN FRANCISCO ARCHIVES

The Black Student Union (BSU) was founded in the spring of 1968 days after the murder of Martin Luther King Jr., by a small group of Black students in need of community. Since then, the BSU’s actions have been intertwined with USF’s history, and without the organization’s significant impact, the University would not be what it is today. Though instrumental in the early recruitment of Black students and the inclusion of critical diversity studies at the University, it was only this year that the BSU’s documented history was given a place in Gleeson Library’s Digital Collections archive. 

“Before my hire, I did research on Gleeson Library, and I noticed that there weren’t any digital collections that were focused on any Black experiences at the University,” said Gina Murrell, the digital collections librarian who headed the extensive two-year project. Murrell’s vision for the collection was to create a “one-stop shop for all the BSU’s history at the University in just one digitical collection.” The collection showcases everything from Black student reflections to cultural events put together by the BSU. 

D’Vine Riley, the BSU’s current president, thinks the organization being added to the digital collection is a step in the right direction for being recognized as central to the University’s history. “I think honoring the momentum that has been started already by the generations before us is definitely something that we continue to strive for,” said Riley. “The archives in that case will be essential because we can also use them for accountability, and recognizing where we have come from, and what we still need to work on for initiatives moving forward.” 

Adrienne Riley, one of the BSU’s founding members, donated many of the organization’s materials to the University’s scholarship repository, which Murrell said is a home for scholarly output, such as research papers and dissertations. “They really belonged in their own digital collection,” said Murrell. 

The collection’s creation was a collaboration between the library and foundational members of the BSU. Through her contact with early members of the union, Murrell was able to collect materials and establish context and narrative for the BSU’s foundational years.

In the Gleeson Gleanings blog post about the collection, Murrell detailed what she learned from the conversations with BSU members from the 1960s and ‘70s. The understanding she gained included “accounts of the 1970 BSU occupation and window smashing at the on-campus gym in response to the openly racist actions toward the Black drill team and players during an intramural basketball game,” as well as those from Black Cultural Week in 1969 that included fashion, music, and a “demonstration in memory of Brother Malcolm X.” The recollections illustrated how Black students came together to form a supportive community on campus. 

Murrell hopes that oral histories will be documented and added to the collection, since Adrienne Riley has been the only member who has retained physical materials from the organization’s early years. Murrell said that materials belonging to other members have been lost over the years because of moves between houses. In the case of one person she did not specifically identify, a house fire destroyed the physical documents in their possession. 

“Those stories are really a treasure and should be captured in some way, shape, or form because at one point, none of these people will be with us, you already have some of them, early BSU members have passed and died. And they’re taking these stories with them,” said Murrell.

A. Riley emphasized the importance of sharing these stories. “You have to know where you’ve been to know where you’re going,” said Riley. “To have that archive at the University, not only for Black students and alumni, but for everyone to know that was a significant part of the University, and led to many of the things that are happening now…I just think it’s fabulous.” 

Riley described the BSU in its early years as a “busy group” that “planted the seeds” for many positive changes at the University. “Many of us were the first-generation of college students,” said Riley. “We wanted the University to understand who we were, the value we had at the University, how our input, our presence, our consciousness, can make the University a better place in all their decisions.”

Following its founding, BSU initiatives were geared toward many progressive changes within the University, including the encouragement of hiring more Black faculty and staff, the increase of Black student enrollment involving recruitment at local high schools, and bringing influential people such as Muhammad Ali and Angela Davis to USF. 

“We had Thanksgiving food drives, we had a Halloween Carnival for the children in the community, we were steadfast in getting the University to begin Black Studies and Ethnic Studies courses,” said Riley. “And at the same time, we knew that we were students, and we helped each other to be successful.” 

Standout materials currently in the collection include those that document the activities of the BSU’s foundational members and the cultural events that they organized. These include a 1970 proposal for a two-day “Conference on the Role of the Artist in the Cultural Revolution,” the purpose of which was to “bring together artists from all over to discuss and formulate ideas on the role that artists are already playing, and how best they can fulfill this role in the future,” according to the proposal. The conference was to include “cultural activities,” such as a film festival, a music concert, a dance concert, book displays, and artistic workshops. 

“There were collaborative programs that we worked on together,” said Alison Richardson, who served as the vice president and president of the BSU during her years at USF in the 1990s. “A lot of it was culture sharing. We would support each other for our cultural events, and then do events that brought us together.” 

Another document that illustrates these programs is a playbill for “Three Phases of the Black Man,” a play written and produced by Daphyne Brown and directed by Linda Barconey in 1972. The play consisted of three segments, and included elements such as “African Dancers,” “Profiles in Black,” and “Militant Speakers.” 

Riley said the play was pertinent to what was happening in Black communities and exemplified how the organization sought to bring “cultural enrichment” to USF. “We had drummers come and singers and dancers and African garb and African American food,” Riley said. “Culture and arts and music play an important part of being educated and being well-rounded. We really tried to take advantage of a lot of things happening in the East Bay and San Francisco communities, different concerts or plays or what have you.” 

Richardson said these events put together by the BSU were important in making their members feel “like we belonged”  as students of color in a predominantly white institution. One of the events the BSU organized during her time as a graduate student at USF was a service including a local gospel choir and the University Ministry to celebrate who they were as a community and the diversity within. 

“It’s always important to me to hear just in music, and gospel music, the beauty that is within that shares the story of Black history and Black people and their movement. And, it’s an opportunity, it’s one of those kinds of commonalities that folks can listen to and still be educated around,” Richardson said.

Moving forward, Murrell has high hopes for what the current membership can contribute to the collection. “This isn’t just something that’s just from the past,” Murrell said. “We are looking at the BSU in the present in terms of what can be contributed from the current membership, and so it depends on what’s available, but we’re hoping that it will be more visual in terms of just the artistic content and development [of the organization].”

D. Riley is optimistic about the BSU’s future and what they may be able to contribute by fostering a creative, positive energy within the organization. “We are planning a lot more celebratory spaces for blackness, because over the past couple years, there’s been a lot of mourning, a lot of grief,” Riley said. 

“A lot of issues are still relevant today in terms of Black life on campus, and the current BSU membership will carry that torch forward in terms of just it being a truly inclusive and diverse University,” said Murrell. “We have the early BSU to thank for that. And I’m glad their history is being highlighted in the digital collections. This Gleeson Library Digital Collection is an example to follow now and in the future.”

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