The dining room of the Afro-American Cultural Center was full of students and alumni wearing their best suits and dresses Friday night for the inaugural Edward A. Bouchet Ball — named in honor of the first African-American student to graduate from Yale — commemorating the 45th anniversary of the Black Student Alliance at Yale.
Over 150 students and several faculty and alumni attended the culminating event of BSAY’s Homecoming Week, a weeklong series of panels and events intended to promote discussion about the history of black students at Yale. Students and alumni who attended the event said they think BSAY has played a pivotal role in the black community both on and off campus since its founding four and half decades ago.
“[African-Americans] didn’t always have a place at Yale,” said Wesley Dixon ’15, a staff member for the Afro-American Cultural Center. “To have a homecoming week and a home to celebrate it in is truly extraordinary.”
Today, with over 130 members, BSAY is one of the largest and the oldest student groups associated with the Afro-American Cultural Center. While black student enrollment consisted of roughly 10 students per incoming class in the late 1960s, said BSAY President Denise St. John, a look around the packed dining room Friday night demonstrated the success of BSAY’s efforts in countering injustices towards black students on campus.
Founding member Ralph Dawson ’71 said the group has been one of the “most important organizations on campus” since its founding in 1967 due to its achievements in tackling on-campus civil rights as well as advocating for political issues within the New Haven community. The group was formed to help black students on campus engage with Yale administrators to address issues such as establishing an African-American cultural center and creating an African-American Studies major, Dawson said, adding that both efforts were successful in the late 1960s. BSAY also concentrated on improving student life including concerns surrounding residential college housing for black students, said former BSAY president and Af-Am Center historian Joshua Penny ’13.
BSAY served as an umbrella organization for multiple minority groups at Yale during the late 1970s, turning into a “coalition of black, Asian and Puerto Rican students,” said former BSAY member Gretchen Vaughn ’79. At the time, few other groups catered to minority students, she added.
“It was one of the few student orgs that really made us feel we had a voice and made our needs known,” Vaughn said.
BSAY also served as a political advocacy organization, though it strove to be nonpartisan. The organization’s founding in the late 1960s came during a period of social upheaval — the Black Panther trials began a year later, the May Day riots occurred in 1970 and Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination made national headlines in 1968, said former member Vera Wells ’71. BSAY became a gathering place for a wide range of students during a “volatile time,” she said, adding that she remembers current Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Jeffrey Brenzel “hanging out” at the Afro-American Center and participating in the conversation about the social changes of the time.
“We were kind of at an inflection point both in our society and in university life and in what was going on in the country,” Dawson said. “[Through BSAY] we felt we were a part of that.”
Dawson said a large portion of BSAY’s efforts in the early years involved social activism, particularly efforts to improve relations between Yale and its surrounding neighborhoods. The group started “Operation Breakthrough,” which aimed to work with Yale administrators to provide more employment opportunities for members of the New Haven community, he added.
Since its early programs of social activism, BSAY has sought to continue its relationship with the “predominantly African-American and Latino community” in New Haven, said Vanessa Williams ’14, vice president of BSAY. Today, BSAY meetings remain open to New Haven community members, and families from the local area have been present at recent events such as debate watch parties and last week’s election night gathering, she said.
The group has also shifted focus from student affairs to become “both a cultural and social justice organization,” Penny said, offering opportunities for involvement in local politics and community service, such as organizing around mass incarceration and planning voter registration drives, as well as holding regularly scheduled social events, such as a Kwanzaa dance.
Will McPherson ’15, secretary of BSAY, said that the group welcomes all students concerned about issues of diversity on campus, regardless of racial affiliation.
“I think in the first constitution you had to be of African descent to be on Board … I am a white person on Board for BSAY, so obviously things have changed,” he said.
Though its membership and campus politics have changed significantly in the last half-century, BSAY will retain its founding spirit of social activism, said Patrica Okonta ’15, BSAY’s membership coordinator.
“Whether it’s two, or five, or 50 years from now, [activism is] the main reason BSAY was founded and I don’t think it will ever be lost. There will always be some kind of injustice to fight [against],” Okonta said.
Funds raised at the Bouchet Ball went toward the “First Steps, Second Chances” scholarship, which is granted to previously incarcerated New Haven students.