To close out the last week of Black History Month, this article, despite being published in March, will be dedicated to exploring the Black experience at Drew. This article will examine what the documents written by Black students and staff from the 1960s and onward have to say about what it means to be Black at an institution like Drew. Two members of the Drew community who identify as Black have also been interviewed for this week’s piece in order to share and preserve voices of the current Drew community.
In the 1960s, the Black identity was being redefined in the public eye in the midst of the civil rights movement. National discussions about racial injustice were taking place while a new generation of activists were being shaped. Drew’s campus did not go unaffected by these national changes. The Madison community surrounding Drew was also home to several clashes over civil rights, like the Barber Shop incident of 1964 discussed in a previous article. These infringements on equal rights grabbed the attention of the students and staff at Drew.
Blatant racism should not be the sole factor in defining the Black experience for students at Drew, but public response following these incidents illustrates the values held by community members of various identities. These instances help illuminate the context in which Black students at Drew University were both living and learning in the previous century.
In 1968, Black students on campus came together to found Hyera, a Black Student Union. The origin of this name was not stated in the group’s founding documents. The group provided a sense of community for Black students by hosting “Black Emphasis Week” or “Black Emphasis Weekend” during the month of February to celebrate the newly emerging Black History Month. Hyera filled the week or weekend by planning educational movie nights, performing students’ poetry and plays and inviting prominent Black speakers to visit campus. These events also allowed students of different racial backgrounds to receive education outside of the classroom regarding the Black experience and important aspects of African and African American culture.
Hyera also served another purpose: helping Black students come together to combat racism and injustice that they found within the institution. In October 1969, less than a year after the group’s founding, Hyera wrote a letter to University President Robert Oxnam.
The letter began with a quote from the Drew Catalog detailing Drew’s commitment to “complete academic freedom, religious pluralism, and racial equality.” The authors emphasized that the administration had failed to live up to this goal. The letter went on to voice student concerns regarding racist incidents that had been experienced by “Black students attend[ing] a social function in the lounge of Hurst Dormitory,” stating that “this gathering was deliberately, maliciously and unnecessarily subject to the harassment of white students and campus security officers.” The letter also states that “Black students of [Drew] have tolerated both the covert and overt racism” for “far too long” and provides a list of demands for change on campus. For instance: students requested that the university publish a public apology in the Drew Acorn regarding the harassment Black students experienced on October 11, 1969; students also requested the hiring of more Black security guards to be reviewed by Hyera and an increased recruitment of Black students through the help of a Black student committee and a newly hired Black recruiter on the admissions staff; students asked that the “Africa and the African Legacy” class be reinstituted in the spring semester and its syllabus constructed with Hyera’s values in mind.
Oxnam responded to the letter but offered little solution to the problems it highlighted. Nonetheless, Black students continued to work to shape the Drew community with their experiences in mind. The call for Black professors and classes focused on the Black experience continued into the 1970s. An Acorn article from Oct. 14, 1977, examined the lack of Black educators at Drew and other higher education institutions in the New York Metropolitan Area. The article stated that “in 1975 the political science department invited applicants for a vacancy. In the search for suitable candidates the department advertised in… the Black Caucus of The American Political Science Association” and “in Black Scholar, an academic journal aimed” at a Black audience. The author also pointed out that a Black woman was found and appointed to fill the department’s vacancy, but she stepped down without explaining why.
While the author reiterated that the “cultural dimension black faculty members add would enhance the liberal arts education,” they also stated that “due to affirmative action many schools across the nation have set goals for minority hiring,” stretching the pool of “qualified applicants” thin. Similar sentiment is expressed in Oxnam’s response to Hyera’s demands.
By 1992, Hyera was renamed Kuumba, the sixth principle of the holiday Kwanzaa; Drew was sponsoring educational trips to West Africa to study local art; African Emphasis Weekend continued to foster conversations about race and race relations and Black scholars continued to speak at Drew. Throughout this time, the Pan-African theme house Umoja provided a place for historically underrepresented students of Pan-African backgrounds to come together to celebrate their culture and educate the Drew community.
Many of the issues that Black students of Drew confronted at the time defined what it meant to exist as a minority at a predominately white institution, and Black members of the Drew community continue to contend with these issues in the present day. As of today, Drew is no longer a predominantly white institution, which means that more than 50 percent of Drew’s students come from non-white backgrounds. Nonetheless, today’s Drew community has been undoubtedly shaped by the past. To close out this week’s article as well as Black History Month, two members of the current Drew community provided some of their own insight into what it means to be Black at Drew.
Becca James (‘23) is a senior at Drew. She has served as a student leader in a variety of roles on campus, and she is working on a Diversity and Inclusion Task Force as part of her Senior Civic project. James attended a private institution with a majority white population before Drew, so while she said she did not experience “culture shock,” the transition opened up her eyes to how places outside of her community may look.
James also said that while being part of a minority on campus might be an isolating experience, groups like the Black Student Union provided a sense of community. The increase in Black students joining Drews’s community is a particular point of excitement for James. When asked how Drew could better support Black students, James suggested “hear[ing] the concerns and suggestions of students,” which includes “having more faces that look similar to students” by hiring more Black staff and faculty and “being able to showcase the club and organizations that are already on campus.”
A piece of advice she wanted to share with her freshman self was to “Lean into discomfort to get the best experience… it allows you to open up and see more experiences and see what you’ve enjoyed outside of the frame you grew up with.”
Dr. Adijat Mustapha (C’11), currently a professor in Drew’s Psychology Department, provided some insight into both her time as a Drew student and her perspective of the community as a professor.
Mustapha said that, as a professor, she has noticed “more racial and ethnic minorities, and a lot more other diverse individuals of diverse identities” than were present during her time as a student. She also noted that “we’re seeing more conversations, more intentional and more purposeful conversation,” which gives her hope for the future of society. She included that her students belong to a “generation able to say no” and who “will not settle” for injustice.
When asked how she thought Drew could best support Black students, Mustapha responded that “Drew has to do the work as an institution and encourage the work from its students.” Mustapha emphasized that social justice “shouldn’t be the fight of the marginalized” and that everyone has a part to play, especially in a diverse space such as Drew.
If she had to give advice to her freshman self, Mustapha said, “Be okay with taking up space and being bold and being different.” She emphasized that this advice also applied to her students.
Mustapha’s work also extends outside of the classroom. She works with programs at Drew and the NJ Department of Higher Education, such as Educational Opportunity Scholars, that continue to foster diversity and inclusion by making education accessible to students of underrepresented backgrounds.
Jocelyn is a sophomore majoring in history, English, and Chinese.