More than 350 students, alumni and community members celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Black Student Alliance at Yale this past weekend, participating in a series of exhibits, panel discussions, community events and a gala held Saturday evening at the Omni New Haven Hotel at Yale.
BSAY’s anniversary commemorates half a century of advocacy and community engagement that led to the establishment of African-American Studies at Yale, the construction of the Afro-American Cultural Center, an increase in black student enrollment and improved relations with the black New Haven community, among other accomplishments. The gala, which concluded the weekend’s main events, included a keynote address from MSNBC political analyst Joy-Ann Reid, a performance from the a cappella group Shades, a poetry reading by Victor Kwansa ’08 and an award ceremony, which commemorated the achievements of BSAY members over the past 50 years.
“As we look forward to our future, we must think about … how we understand the black community, the house and BSAY do not exist in the abstract,” said Nia Berrian ’19, president of BSAY, in a speech to gala attendees. “It is through continuous commitment that we are able to enjoy these spaces. Today, we honor those who have committed themselves to bettering our community through BSAY, but we as current students must continue this legacy.”
During a welcome address, Risë Nelson, director of the Afro-American Cultural Center, noted that this year the college welcomed 200 students of African descent, the largest of any class in Yale’s history. Nelson stressed that the huge increase in black student enrollment in Yale College in the past 50 years — starting with just 14 male black students in 1965 — can be attributed to the tireless advocacy of BSAY members.
In her keynote address, Reid spoke of the racial divides that still define the United States and called on the black community to exercise and protect their right to vote.
“People of good will of all races need to value our right to vote,” Reid said. “Don’t waste it. Use it in every election because you can have another Barack Obama but you can also have another Donald Trump, and that’s entirely up to you.”
The weekend events brought notable alumni living across the country to New Haven, including several of BSAY’s founders.
During one of the night’s most memorable moments, Craig Foster ’69, one of the founders of BSAY, stood up in spite of physical difficulty to accept his Founder’s Award and express to the audience how much BSAY meant to him.
Ralph Dawson ’71, another founding member, applauded the students, faculty and staff who planned the gala, describing the event as “an evening we’ll remember forever” in an impromptu speech after receiving his award.
Among the other award recipients was former BSAY member Henry Louis Gates Jr. ’73, a distinguished historian, filmmaker and Harvard professor.
“The Black Students Alliance at Yale has changed my life,” Gates wrote in a statement that was read aloud at the gala. “Receiving this honor from my alma mater is one of the greatest honors of my life.”
While Gates could not attend the event due to a back injury, he donated $10,000 to BSAY in honor of its 50th anniversary, according to his statement.
For current members of BSAY, the opportunity to personally meet with the founders and trailblazers of their organization was particularly meaningful.
“We see the founders, and we can talk to them and say ‘Oh, what did you actually want this to be?’ We can see the people who held it along the way and made changes and can talk about their intentions behind that,” Berrian added. “We’ve always had an idea [of what we want to do], we’ve always known, but now it’s even more focused, even more motivated.”
Alumni returning to campus found themselves reflecting on the influential role BSAY played in their lives as undergraduates. Roger Collins ’69 GRD ’70, a professor at the University of Cincinnati and the second-ever director of the Afro-American Cultural Center’s Urban Improvement Corps, said BSAY was a space where he could delve deeper into conversations he had with his black classmates. Collins added that one of the reasons he wanted to attend the BSAY anniversary celebrations was because his interest in education began at Yale.
“These are my roots,” Collins said. “So much of what I do as a professional started here.”
Robin Walker ’84 DIV ’07 said it was “wonderful” to be back and see familiar faces from her college days.
And Elaine Rene ’07, a former co-president of BSAY, noted that when she came to Yale from the Virgin Islands, BSAY helped her feel at home as she adjusted to a new culture.
Alumni also stressed the importance of coming to Yale to recognize current students for their continued dedication to BSAY.
“The students are doing a lot of extremely important work to ensure that students of African descent come to Yale and find a place where they feel comfortable,” Rene said. “It’s the work that BSAY does that ensures that can happen.”
The Afro-American Cultural Center at Yale was established in 1969, roughly two years after BSAY was founded in 1967.
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