Reflecting on the history of black students at Hopkins

By VALERIE CHAVEZ | February 22, 2018

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COURTESY OF THE BLACK STUDENT UNION

In November 2015, BSU members protested against the state of black rights on campus. 

Since black undergraduates were first admitted to the University in 1945, they have worked to make Homewood a more inclusive campus. This year the Black Student Union (BSU), founded in 1968, celebrates its 50th anniversary. 

As Black History Month comes to a close, The News-Letter spoke to black students, alumni and faculty who reflected on how the University has changed over the years. 


Hopkins Before the Civil Rights Act

University founder Johns Hopkins was an abolitionist with Quaker roots. Hopkins also allocated part of his money to the formation of The Johns Hopkins Hospital Colored Orphan Asylum, which operated between 1875 and 1924. 

Justin Jones, who graduated from Hopkins in 2010, said that the many practices that the University adopted after Hopkins’ death would have been against his own wishes.  

“There are a lot of questionable things about Johns Hopkins’ history, but the man himself is surprisingly cool,” Jones said. “Johns Hopkins himself was really anti-war and anti-slavery. He was a really righteous dude.”

The land which is now Homewood campus once belonged to Charles Carroll, a prominent Maryland politician and one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. There are records of slaves living on the Carroll estate.  

Kendall Free, a sophomore and member of the BSU, commented on how she was surprised at how much effort has gone into maintaining the Homewood House, which previously belonged to the Carroll family. 

“This is a slave-owner’s house that we’re preserving and keeping nice on our campus,” Free said. “I have to walk by that very frequently.”

The first black student at the University, Kelly Miller, was admitted 11 years after it was founded. Miller enrolled in a Ph.D. program in mathematics but left the University two years later to finish his degree at Howard University and was admitted after scoring high on the entrance exam.  

Today, a group of alumni including Ralph Moore, class of 1974, still call themselves the Fred Scott Brigade. Scott passed away on July 20, 2017, and Moore, who visited Scott a number of times, reflected on his memory of him.

“In his last days I visited him several times in the hospital, and I made some remarks at his funeral,” Moore said. “Every last Saturday in September for the last 25 years, Hopkins alum have come together, usually at the Hopkins Club. And we’re called the Fred Scott brigade, and that’s a nice testament to him. He was a pioneer.” 


Founding the BSU

By the late 1960s, the Civil Rights Movement was gaining national momentum, and the climate at Hopkins was changing. 

In 1967, John Guess, one of the founders of the Black Student Union (BSU) at Hopkins, matriculated into the University. 

Guess and several other black undergraduates began the unofficial BSU in the 1967-1968 academic year. However, the University initially opposed the group, with administrators saying that the formation of a student run African-American interest group was “too radical.” 

In an attempt to gain recognition from the University, BSU members occupied Homewood House. They then presented the administration with a list of 12 demands, including increasing black student enrollment and professorship and installing a section dedicated to the work of black authors in the Milton S. Eisenhower Library. 

In the fall of 1968, the BSU presented a constitution proposal to the student council, which rejected the proposal. However, the University superseded the student council’s vote, and allowed the group to use the name “Johns Hopkins” in their organization. 

In the spring of 1969, the Black Student Union became an official university organization and remained active on campus. The group provided mentorship programs for incoming freshmen and was given a space in the basement of AMR II. 

Free said she was surprised by how militant the BSU was in the past compared to today, and hopes that BSU members will try and emulate their founding members. 

“Even in the past couple of years, I feel like it’s been a steady decline in actual political activity, which is a little disheartening at times,” Free said. “But I feel like we are trying to work to bring that back.”


Creating a more inclusive campus 

In 1970, the incoming class saw its first admission of female students to the undergraduate program as well as an increase in the admission of black students. That year, the total percentage of black students admitted increasing from approximately one to three percent.

Moore said that Hopkins hired a black admissions board member, who recruited Moore and other classmates.

“The campus was somewhat quiet,” Moore said. “There were some rumblings. You could tell people were not happy there were so many of us African-Americans on campus, and it was clear in some of the classes, that the men weren’t happy that the women were on campus.” 

Among these African-American students was late African-American musician Gil Scott-Heron, who was a Writing Seminars master’s student at Hopkins, who Moore recalled seeing around campus. 

Moore also says that the class of 1974 contained the largest group of black students he witnessed in his years at Hopkins, with the demographics of incoming classes changing due to administrative changes. Moore wrote a speech that was delivered by black students at graduation, which he said was well received. 

“The president of our class, Shep Hoffman, tried to stop us,” Moore said. “I threatened to bring the [Black Panthers] on campus, and the threat of that made him back down.”

Today, however, African-Americans continue to make up a small percentage of the student and faculty population at the University. Jones, a black Baltimore native, said that coming to a school with so few black students was a culture shock. 

“I could literally see my high school in the distance, but I didn’t feel comfortable anymore,” he said. “Nobody speaks the way that I do; nobody dresses the way that I do. Nobody listens to a lot of the things that I do.” 

Jones referred to particular instances of racism, such as a Sigma Chi theme party in 2006 called “Halloween in the Hood,” which featured a mock lynching. The party was met with protest from the BSU and the University suspended the fraternity. 

Despite disliking the culture at Hopkins, Jones said that he worked to tailor it to his own taste and took advantage of the freedom Hopkins offered him. As someone from a poor community, he saw his time at Hopkins as a “get out of jail free card in his pocket.” 

Jones was also a Baltimore City Scholar. In the mid-2000s, the University had begun the Baltimore City Scholars program, which provides scholarships to graduates of the Baltimore City Public School System. Jones said that the program helped him to find a supportive community when he first went to Hopkins, as many of the students attended pre-orientation programs together. 

In retrospect, though Jones felt that Hopkins was not a very welcoming environment for black students, he appreciated the wide range of experiences Hopkins offered him. 

“If I felt uncomfortable I could just go up the hill and check out the equipment that runs the Hubble Telescope. I could talk to the people who run it, because it was in the back of our school,” Jones said.

 

The BSU 50 years later

In the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, the BSU held a protest on Keyser Quad in 2015 and confronted University President Ronald J. Daniels with a list of nine demands. Matt Brown, Class of 2017 and BSU president at that time, said that among these were requests for an increase in black students and professors. 

Their demands also included demands that the BSU had upon its founding. 

“That was the thing we were trying to bring up, the fact that we had a lot of the same grievances that the original 1968 BSU did, which was very concerning,” Brown said.

Several weeks later, the BSU hosted their first black student forum, where students, alumni and community members convened to discuss plans of action. 

Later that year, Hopkins created the Roadmap To Diversity, a document which outlines the University’s plans to increase diversity and promote inclusion and cultural awareness on campus. 

Brown and other BSU members helped the administration edit the Roadmap. Brown said that the first draft was unsatisfactory.

“There were really no concrete goals in there,” Brown said. “We didn’t see a real timeline or plan that we felt was going to be able to be managed by Hopkins. So then we had to go back, look at what we thought we had issues with.” 

However, Brown said that the current document is still flawed. 

“A lot of the diversity issues that are now taking place are because of that document, and Hopkins’ goal is to try to fix it,” he said. 


Black students at Hopkins today 

Freshman Nana Mansa Essilfie-Mensah, who went to high school in Prince George’s County, Md., said that the population at Hopkins felt much less diverse. 

“When I came here it was different because I was made more aware of me being a black student,” Essilfie-Mensah said. “It was hard the first couple months because it was odd that I would be in my calc section and I was one of two or three black people in the class.” 

Essilfie-Mensah said that organizations like the BSU, the African Students Association (ASA) and the Johns Hopkins Underrepresented in Medical Professions mentor program (JUMP), helped her to find a close community. Nevertheless, she said that she sometimes felt out of place. 

“There was a kind of a feeling that you weren’t accepted at all places, which was odd,” she said. “You would think, with Hopkins being in such a metropolitan area, that the students would understand that and they would be more open to diversity.”

She commented on the so-called Hopkins Bubble and its role in cementing ethnic divisions. 

“I don’t like that Hopkins perpetuates the fear of being around black people because Baltimore is a predominantly black city,” she said.

Essilfie-Mensah was also frustrated by the lack of black professors on campus. 

“I came here, I took an Intro to African history class, and it was taught by two white men, and they were telling me about my culture and the names I should call myself,” she said. “I’m from Ghana, and I’m half Akan.” 

Free also noted the lack of black professors on campus and said that non-black professors get away with contributing to a hostile environment for black students on campus. 

“Most students have a distrust of the different channels you can go through to have that professor get in trouble,” Free said. “Even when students go to those resources they are usually shot down or brushed aside.” 

She added that often, people are unaware of how hostile the environment can be for black students on college campuses. 

“Black students I usually talk to on campus will have had some form of an encounter that is very traumatizing for them,” Free said. 

Beryl Castello, an African-American and senior lecturer in the applied mathematics and statistics department, received her PhD at Hopkins in 2005. She said that she is unsure how the school can attract more black professors but that she has felt valued and listened to as a staff member. 

“If you feel like you can come, you fit in and you get the opportunity to speak and your opinion matters, which is how I feel here, that certainly would encourage people to want to come to Hopkins,” Castello said. 

Though African-Americans make up a small percentage of the student and faculty population, the majority of service staff at Hopkins is black. 

Free also commented on the University’s hiring policies, noting the contrast between the ethnicity demographics of faculty and staff. 

“When I was walking around campus last year, I realized all of the kitchen staff, security guards, the people that I say hi to, they are all black employees,” she said. “And then the professors and people who are in administrative position, you know, they don’t look like me.”

Moore said that Hopkins needs to be more mindful of how its employment and development practices impact city residents.

“You can’t just step on people because you are internationally known and you’ve got Nobel prize winners among your people. You have to treat people with dignity,” he said. 


Correction:

The original article quoted Ralph Moore saying that the name of his class president was Jeff Hoffman. His name was actually Shep Hoffman. 

The article also incorrectly stated that Charles Carroll signed the Constitution. Carroll actually signed the Declaration of Independence.

The News-Letter regrets these errors.

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