“I am not in a position to be comfortable,” says Ian McCall, a 2013 graduate of the College, reflecting on his time at Emory University. McCall arrived on campus driven towards the sole purpose of obtaining a college degree. As a non-traditional student and a former sergeant of the U.S. Marine Corps, he set foot on campus with a unique set of life experiences, and a love for learning. But within his first semester, he realized that his life as an Emory student could never just center on the classroom. As a Black student at a predominantly white institution, McCall could not ignore the racial insensitivity he continually witnessed on campus. McCall’s story is not unique.
Black students at Emory founded the Black Student Alliance House in 1986 to “maintain Black identity and cohesiveness on the Emory University campus, promote recognition of a conscious African American culture and heritage, [and] serve as a place for the study and evaluation of Black ideals and goals.” To Ayanna Ingraham (12C), the house was a “safe space.” To Dorothy Bota (13SPH), it evoked a “sense of belonging.” To Sophia Hines (12C), the house provided a “home away from home.” In December 2011, after 25 years of existence, Emory’s administration closed the BSA House. It now sits vacant, the sign displaying “Black Student Alliance House” still intact.
There are several accounts of what led to the closing of the BSA House – from students, Residence Life and Housing, and various Emory administrators. All we can say with certainty is that Black students lost a space on Emory’s campus and the elimination of the BSA House precluded a series of events that proved antithetical to the need for space and safety, and the humanity of Black students.
In September 2012, Dean Robin Forman announced the closing of the Journalism, Educational Studies, Physical Education, and Visual Arts Departments, as well the discontinuing of graduate programs in Spanish, Economics, and the Institute of Liberal Arts. The cuts disproportionately affected faculty and graduate students of color.
As the nation waited for the Supreme Court to issue a decision on the constitutionality of affirmative action policies, The Dooley Show, a satirical Emory news outlet, called for the “lynching, tarring and feathering, and cross burning” of those students who allegedly benefitted from affirmative action.
In February 2013, President James Wagner wrote a column titled, “As American as…Compromise,” for the winter edition of the Emory Magazine. He drew parallels between a compromise that reduced each enslaved Black individual to three-fifths of a person for the sake of the U.S. Constitution and the decision-making process for the department cuts.
Emory made local and national headlines as the Atlanta Journal Constitution, Salon, New York Times, National Public Radio, and several other news outlets reported on these incidents while students and faculty across the university expressed their outrage.
Certainly, these were contentious times; but students had been weary of and frustrated by conditions on Emory’s campus long before the department cuts or the president’s insensitive remarks. In December 2012, an ad-hoc committee comprised of 11 students and 7 faculty and Division of Campus Life staff gathered to “explore issues of race, gender, privilege, sexual violence, and oppression” in order to “create an inclusive, equitable, and just environment” on Emory’s campus. In March 2013, the committee issued its report, “The Campus Life Compact for Building an Inclusive Community at Emory.” After months of discussion and feedback from the Emory community, the student-led committee made several tangible recommendations to the university. Some of those suggestions included: student organization and Office of Student Leadership and Service (OSLS) advising partnerships; Sexual Assault Peer Advocates (SAPA) expansion; and a bias incident reporting system.
Another recommendation included a reexamination of space needs on Emory’s campus, particularly for the support and affirmation of underrepresented student groups. On August 30, 2013, the space that was once the DUC Down Under re-opened as the Emory Black Student Union, a space open to all students and one that is dedicated to Black communities on Emory’s campus.
And just recently, Residence Life and Housing awarded the BSA themed housing in the former Chi Phi Fraternity house.
Over the last four years, Black students have fought to reclaim space for themselves on Emory’s campus. To many, the new BSA House represents a victory. It’s not an absolute solution to the problems Black Emory students face in their daily lives, but it’s a start.
Erica Sterling ('15C), Contributing Writer
Editor's Note: Quotes by Ian McCall, Ayanna Ingraham, Sophia Hines, and Dorothy Bota were gathered from the oral histories that Navosha Copeland ('16C) collected from Black Emory alumni in the Spring of 2015 as a part of the Legacy Campaign, which was sponsored by the Emory Black Student Union (EBSU) and initiated by Candace Pressley ('16C).