Organizing Student Voices: A History of Black Student Organizations and Cultural Houses

7 min read

Abbey O’Leary ’24

Features Editor

Student life and campus culture are undeniably some of the most critical aspects to consider when appraising a college. Since the beginning, Trinity College has had a long history of reforming and expanding its campus culture to address the needs of its students. Especially since the mid-twentieth century, Trinity students have embarked upon a journey of diversification and has committed themselves to advocating for social issues and creating a diverse campus and student body. Of course, this is an ever changing process and requires a persistent commitment to the betterment of the community. However, this diversification and empowerment would not be possible without the voices of Trinity students and the ability for students to express themselves and fight for change.

In a paper written by Cameron Wooster for Trinity College’s course with Professor Jack Dougherty, “Education 300: Education Reform, Past and Present,” entitled “African American Experiences of HBCUs After Integration Period,” social culture and student life on college campuses changed dramatically following the Brown v. Board of Education decision to desegregate schools in 1954. Wooster noted that education has historically been associated with status, and after the legal ruling in favor of desegregating schools, many of the elite and previously white colleges witnessed a distinct rise in the enrollment of Black students. Wooster states, “The resulting change that came from the Brown decision ‘opened the doors to higher education for many African American students,’ as tons of TWIs [traditionally White institutions] began to change their admissions standards to be fair to all students- regardless of race.” Wooster also notes that by the year 1975, roughly 75% of Black college students were enrolled at previously all white institutions. Even though there was a notable change in student demographics, Wooster comments on the fact that many Black students felt alienated in their school environments and faced various forms of racism and bigotry, often to the detriment of their mental and emotional health. In light of the contentious social environments on many traditionally white college campuses, Black students began to form groups and organizations to come together as students and express their grievances to fight for change.

In 2023, Robert Cotto, Jr., PhD, with the assistance of students Momo A. Djebli ‘25 and Naiya M. Roe ‘25, conducted research and put together their “Brief History of Cultural Houses at Trinity College: A Public Humanities Collaborative Project,” which discusses the shift towards a more diverse student body and campus culture at Trinity College and details both the transformations of the original Trinity Association of Negroes (TAN) and the change they brought to Trinity’s campus. In the spring of 1967, students Robert Washington and Stuart Hamilton wrote three essays addressed to The Trinity Tripod intended to reflect their personal experiences after attending a conference in Princeton, New Jersey, entitled “The Future of the Negro Undergraduate,” in which Black students from various colleges and universities throughout the eastern United States spoke about their experiences and opinions. These essays have been noted by both Cotto, Djebli and Roe’s research as well as the “Encyclopedia Trinitiana” as a turning point in student life across college campuses, addressing pertinent social issues and incurring change. As noted by Cotto, Djelbi and Roe, “They addressed issues of staying connected to the broader Civil Rights and Black Power Movements, tokenism versus real integration, and the tensions of individual status and collective struggle.” The letters, while they did not directly request or demand the establishment of cultural houses and organizations on campus, paved the way for the inclusion of more organizations and houses to be formed and space to be provided for diverse groups on campus. Again stated in Cotto, Djebli and Roe’s research, “Rather than a simple binary of racial integration versus separation, Black students at Trinity and around the country sought new forms of greater recognition and support as a […] group on campuses with mostly white students, professors, and administrators.” 

Regarding the presence and purpose of such groups on campus, the spokesperson of TAN, Michael Williams ‘68, argued that the organization was meant to bring awareness to the heritage of Black students on campus and educate the student body. TAN went on to lead a sit-in in which members demanded change from Trinity’s administration. They listed 12 points in particular, including increasing Black faculty members, the involvement of Black students in the admission process, the establishment of integration and matriculation programs designed for Black students, the appointment of Black faculty in each academic department and a minimum percentage of Black students in future incoming classes. Trinity College President Lockwood responded to the demands and implemented a number of the proposed changes, despite not addressing or facing an inability to comply with a number of others.

In 1969, TAN was renamed as Trinity Coalition of Blacks (TCB). TCB continued to demand change at Trinity College and fought for open Black admission, financial aid, funding for TCB and the establishment of a Black Studies program among other issues. Aside from taking a stance against the administration, the piece “Imani: Trinity College Black Student Union” in the “Encyclopedia Trinitiana,” notes that TCB was also responsible for lectures, social events and annual BHM events on campus. Furthermore, TCB “played a major role in calling attention to racism displayed by the school.”

TCB, known today as IMANI, is still active on Trinity’s campus, alongside a number of other Black student organizations, including Trinity College Black Women’s Organization (TCBWO) and Trinity African Student Association (TASA), to name only a few. In the 1970s, TCBWO and IMANI (then TCB) came together to “set out to appreciate Black culture and make the campus more welcoming for minority students” by forming the Umoja House. The name “Umoja” comes from the Swahili word for “unity” and is one of the principles of Kwanzaa. In 2020, the Umoja Coalition (formed under the House) was established, including MAC orgs like TASA, Caribbean Students Association (CSA), Men of Color Alliance (MOCA), Temple of Hip Hop and Athletes of Color Coalition (ACC) as well as Imani and TCBWO. In 2020, these organizations (under the Umoja Coalition) signed a list of demands for the College, including sections directed towards administration, athletics, the Counseling Center, Career Development, Campus Safety and the faculty. The demands called for a wide variety of necessary changes in the College, including: more Black faculty, counselors and staff members; reevaluation and adjustment of hiring processes; increased resources for Black students, specifically in regards to mental health, athletics and funding for Black organizations; and increased communication between Black organizations and the Board of Trustees/administration. While many of the Coalition’s demands have not been met four years later, a slightly controversial change involved the renaming of buildings – many of whom were historically named after owners of enslaved people. 

Trinity’s Office of Multicultural Affairs states that “If one of our goals at Trinity is to produce critical thinkers who will be leaders and problem-solvers in the urban-global age – who will attempt to change a world scarred by ethnic and religious intolerance, violence against women, and political dogmatism – we need to ‘be the change’ at home” and that the office is committed to the success and well-being of Black students and the open address of social issues on campus.

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