More than an organization: How Black Student Union has been fostering community, igniting change

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Current Black Student Union President Tsage Douglas poses for a photo in the BSU office at the Gatton Student Center on Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2019, in Lexington Kentucky. Photo by Michael Clubb | Staff

Feb. 17, 1968, marked a change for minority students at the University of Kentucky.

Before this date, campus resources and offices to protect and support diverse students did not exist. There were no scholarships for African American students. Minority students had trouble finding and connecting with people who looked like them.

After this date, a group of students existed to fight for real, tangible and systemic change on campus for the lives and academic careers of the African American students at UK. That group of students was the inaugural Black Student Union.

“The purpose of the University of Kentucky's Black Student Union (BSU) is to educate the University's community on the contributions of Black Americans,” reads the BSU mission statement. “To assist, guide, and orient incoming students; to provide continual guidance for members of the Union; to improve relationships between all students; to provide a social and cultural outlet for its members; to participate in the cultural, social, and athletic activities of the University of Kentucky; and to serve as the umbrella organization for all Black and Latino student organizations at the University of Kentucky.”

Founding member of the 1968 Black Student Union Jim Embry was elected the very first president of the organization. A native of Richmond, Kentucky, Embry believed in the organization and the change it was capable of from the start.

“In the sixties ... things were bad,” Embry said. “They’re still bad, actually, but at least we can see [the UK administration’s] efforts now. We honestly were all sick of the way that administration and our white peers treated us as lessers. There needed to be something done to help all of our brothers. I think— actually, I’m sure— we were the spark that ignited all of the diversity movements you see now. And being a part of that kept that spark for change inside me burning brightly.”

Most of the additional groups on campus that support diversity, such as Underground Perspective, MANNRS and the Association of Black Journalists, can trace their roots back to BSU. As Embry wanted, it was a very necessary first step for the university to be more accepting and supportive of people who were not white.

The BSU logo reads, “Unity. Determination. Purpose. Faith.” All four of those values are what help perpetuate the spirit of BSU.

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Theodore Berry and other Black Student Union members meet in his apartment in March of 1968. File photo by Rick Bell.

“I actually can’t take credit for coming up with that, but I can see why those were chosen,” Embry said. “Unity is what keeps us together as students and ... unites us to stand together and fight for what we need. Determination existed in all of our spirit to not back down and raise our voices. Purpose reminded us that we had that voice and reminded us to use it. Faith ... you can never lose faith. Things are hard whenever you exist in this skin, but there was a reason for it all. We couldn’t, and still can’t, forget that.”

Since graduating from UK, Embry still raises the voice he found in BSU to fight social injustice, divisiveness and systemic racism in today’s society. He thinks that the world has come a long way in general but feels that in recent years the progress has taken several steps in the reverse direction.

“It’s a very heated climate right now,” Embry said. “It’s why I’m really glad that the Union is still around. Being black in American today is, in some ways, no less dangerous than it was 50 years ago. And, in some ways, it feels like it’s gotten worse. I kind of blame that on the growth of the internet making it more known, but I mostly blame the ugly scar that racism has left on this country since black people were brought here.”

BSU has not stopped or slowed since its founding. Today, it exists in all of the impactfulness that Embry left it. Current president Tsage Douglas, a sophomore triple major (foreign language and economics, French and public health), is carrying out the mission of the original BSU organization, while continuing to adapt to the changes in the university’s acceptance and appreciation of its minority populations.

“Our most important role on campus is to be an inspiration and to be of service to students,” Douglas said. “Our goal is to educate. Our vision is to see a campus where all students view each other as equals and are treated equally by their institution.”

Current events that surface about blatant hate crimes and police brutality and aggression, paired with campus demographics still representing nearly three quarters of the population as white, have kept BSU together in its four principles. Through trials and tribulations, BSU has not silenced its voice as a change-maker on campus.

February has been Black History Month since 1926. During February, Douglas and the rest of BSU call people of all races to celebrate the strides that African Americans have made both in America and on campus, but also acknowledge the injustices that surround them every day.

“Black History Month is what each individual person makes it,” Douglas said. “More importantly, while it is a time for black people to heal, it should also be viewed as a time for non-black people to recognize their ignorance, prejudice and harmful actions.”

Black History Month comes a few weeks after national holiday Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a day that the university has celebrated in many ways throughout the years. Starting on MLK day and through the entire month of February, eyes are constantly on Kentucky and several student organizations to have dialogue and make change about the state of inclusion on campus and in the Lexington community. BSU is the origin of some of the oldest events on campus, and their current calendar of events is loaded with opportunities for students to share and listen to each other’s experiences.

“The most important event among them is the Progressive Dinner, which highlights change over time in Black History and has a different theme every year,” Douglas said about her organization’s upcoming calendar of events. “This year's theme is the Black Student Union's progression at the University of Kentucky. Our programming is specifically meant to highlight both the joys and trials of being black, and to specifically bring awareness to certain issues and give students a space to address those issues. It is important to highlight BHM events on campus in general, not just for BSU, because black students are generally misunderstood, underserved and targeted on campus.”

Any student on UK’s campus is welcome to BSU’s events. Several prominent organizations on campus, such as Student Activities Board, Student Government Association and Alpha Phi Omega co-ed service fraternity, have also sponsored large-scale events for campus related to diversity and inclusion during February.

Minority students on campus have a variety of good and bad experiences during their time at UK. BSU keeps these experiences from being brushed off, and they want to continually support students who are subjected to wrongful treatment, especially in the month of February.

“The Black Student Union has been and will always be the central theme holding together black history on the university's campus,” Douglas said. “We have birthed movements, inspired others to incite change and watched movements die on and off campus.”

Douglas keeps the mindset of the importance of black history to BSU that was originated in the time of Embry. The founding of BSU was in the heart of Black History Month. To Embry and the other founding members, there was no better time to demand the change they needed.

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Current Black Student Union President Tsage Douglas poses for a photo on the social staircase at the Gatton Student Center on Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2019, in Lexington, Kentucky. Photo by Jordan Prather | Staff

“The significance of the founding date is obvious,” Embry said. “We want to celebrate black history 12 months a year, not just during the shortest one. Our history is one of the richest in the world, and America is one of the places where it has had its highest and lowest moments. We elected a leader who is black back in 2008, but that came after 200-plus years of strictly white men. We were forced here as less than human and have grown into some of the most successful people in our country’s history. That’s just scratching the history of black people here. It’s ugly, but beautiful. Seemingly minimal, but realistically insurmountable.”

As Douglas and the current BSU look toward the future, they want to continue to be the prime organization for the African American population on campus to seek community and force the university administration to change.

“While we focus specifically on black students, the changes that we have made undeniably positively impact students of all backgrounds,” Douglas said. “The Black Student Union is not just an organization, but a source of strength, safety, and progress.”

More than an organization, UK’s Black Student Union will continue to strive for a truly equal institution and equal world. Their efforts will not stop after February or after a hundred years. Change has no real end. It is fluid, continuous and always relevant. Embry and his fellow founders had a vision, and that vision has been changing the lives of minorities on campus for 51 years, as it will until true equality is reached.