Formation of the Black Student Organization at ISU

For this look back at the 1960s I’ve decided to explore the origins of the Black Student Organization at ISU (now the Black Student Alliance). Not only is it a story that is not well-known to me, but I suspect it is not familiar to most people now at Iowa State. It seems almost all Iowa Staters are familiar with the story of George Washington Carver, Iowa State’s first African American student and faculty member, and the tragedy of Iowa State’s first black athlete, Jack Trice. After doing some research into our student organizations files here in the archives, I found that the story of the formation of the Black Student Organization at ISU is just as interesting and incredibly relevant to students on campus today.

The 1960s at Iowa State started off much as the 1950s left off. Strict rules were still in place regulating conduct and social interaction of women students. Students were separated into different dormitories with men on one side of campus and the women on the other. However, as the 1960s wore on, student perceptions began to change. Like in much of the country, students began to question the war in Vietnam, female students began to push back against gender barriers, and students of color began to speak out against racism and prejudice.

In the summer of 1967, the faculty and staff newspaper, News of Iowa State, ran an article reporting on a study completed by two ISU journalism students regarding the racial climate at Iowa State. The findings, authored by Pat Alford, identified as a “Negro coed from Charlotte, N.C.,” and Maurine Foster, simply identified as a Weldon, Iowa native, were both journalism students at Iowa State. The results of their study found that the racial climate at Iowa State at that time was “relatively favorable.” During those years, the University attempted to eliminate overt discrimination. Students interviewed in the study didn’t believe they would be denied membership to student groups, but with an enrollment of around 125, black students largely felt they were being left out of the mainstream of college life. (This may help explain why it is so difficult to find a photograph in our collections of an African-American student at Iowa State prior to 1970 unless he was involved in athletics.)

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Article from the Iowa State Daily, April 6, 1968, reporting on the demonstration by a group of students at the Memorial Union the previous day.

This favorable view of campus race relations abruptly changed following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., on April 4, 1968. The following day, black students on campus held a demonstration in the Commons of the Memorial Union. According to a report by the Iowa State Daily (April 6, 1968), a group of approximately 40 students filed into the Union, toasted to “black unity on campus” and then dropped and shattered their drinking glasses on the floor, overturned their tables and chairs, and quietly left. Following the demonstration, a statement was issued and signed by the “Afro-American Students of Iowa State University,” a group that formed the night before under the leadership of student Bruce Ellis. The students adopted a constitution on April 23, 1968 and officially became the Black Student Organization.

In early May, students and administrators were interviewed by the Iowa State Daily (May 3, 1968) for an article on campus race relations. One of those students was Pat Alford, the student from Charlotte. The article identifies some of the common forms of discrimination blacks faced at Iowa State. These included overt forms such as insensitive signs and symbols used by student groups and the denial of access to certain student groups based on skin color. It is interesting that these statements seem to conflict with what was reported a year earlier. The article noted the psychological burdens of being a person of color in a community where the vast majority of students and faculty are white. Black students also felt they were missing out on social interactions at Iowa State. According to one estimate, black male students outnumbered black female students at Iowa State 15 to 1, resulting in many black male students traveling to Des Moines to find a date.

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1967 Iowa State football team (Bomb, 1968, page 119)

Within weeks, the Black Student Organization would take their concerns to University administration. On May 20, 1968, the black athletes of Iowa State, with the full support of the Black Student Organization, issued eight grievances to the Athletic Council. The students asked for racial representation in the coaching staff and administration of the athletics department, reprimands or removal of three coaches and trainers they accused of discriminatory treatment of black athletes, more leniency for all athletes in terms of academics and living requirements, an allowance for black athletes to seek employment while on full scholarship, and a request that the ISU community use the words Black Students or Afro-Americans in place of the term Negro.

The initial response from the Athletic Council, signed by council chairman John Mahlstede, did not exactly impress the students. Dated two weeks later on June 5, the response was carefully worded, but it was clear that the Council did not find any evidence of discriminatory actions by the coaches or in its hiring practices. Not surprisingly, this announcement did not end the controversy.

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The first page from a letter, dated May 20, 1968, submitted to the Athletic Council on behalf of the black student athletess. (See file labeled Black Student Organization – Athletic Council Issue in RS 22/3/0/1, Multicultural Student Affairs)

By the end of June, President W. Robert Parks asked that the University Human Relations Committee conduct a separate investigation into the grievances. This report, presented just two weeks later, recognized that discrimination almost assuredly existed on campus and that “the need for change in behavior on the part of individual members of the University community is crucial.” The report did not charge any individuals with discriminatory actions. It did, however, strongly encourage the hiring of a black football coach, a recommendation that coach Johnny Majors fulfilled when he hired coach Ray Green in the spring of 1969.

These actions did not satisfy everyone. At least seven students carried through on their promise to leave Iowa State if and when the Athletic Council did not comply with the eight grievances. Bruce Ellis, president of the Black Student Organization, was one of these students along with two football players. Though these students did not immediately effect the change they hoped to, their actions did initiate a conversation about race and inclusivity that in many ways continues today. They also helped foster a growing awareness among members of the ISU community that racism and discrimination were present on the Iowa State campus and that the entire community was responsible for addressing the concerns raised by black students of Iowa State.

More information on the early years of the Black Student Organization (now known as the Black Student Alliance) is available in Special Collections and University Archives in collection RS 22/3/0/1, Multicultural Student Organizations. Unfortunately, the black student experience at Iowa State is largely underrepresented in the archives. Most of the materials that are available to historians and researchers consist of newspaper clippings or files from campus administration. These records are often incomplete and leave gaps in the historical record. We welcome collection materials (i.e. photographs, letters, flyers, etc.) from alumni that might help document the experience of black students at Iowa State.

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