Portions of this page are adapted from “The History of the African-American Institute: The Early Years” by Robert C. Hayden, 1993.
Early Years: The Black Presence on Campus
In 1967, there were some 75 African-American students at Northeastern University, with an increasing number coming from outside Massachusetts. For those living in the dormitories, there was a lack of social and extra-curricular activities to connect them with their community and while Black fraternities and sororities had existed in Boston on a city-wide basis since the 1920’s, they did not have a presence on the campus.
As the Black students at Northeastern focused on meeting the requirements of graduation, the unrest of the fast moving civil rights movement that had moved from the South to the North commanded their attention. By 1968, there were approximately 100 Black students at Northeastern University. Stokely Carmichael, then the National Chairman of SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee), came to Boston to speak to high school and college students and to help organize a chapter of SNCC here. Earlier in the year, Carmichael electrified the country with a phrase that was to summarize a change in Black self image: “Black Power.” Through his influence and the local chapter of CORE (Congress of Racial Equality), the NU Black students formed an Afro-American Association.
Early Years: The Afro-American Association
The first meeting of this pioneering group was held in the Ell Student Center (now the Curry Student Center). Heated debates over what to call the organization and what it would do consumed late evening and weekend hours. Energy came mostly from the students who had entered the University after 1964, but two of the first Ford scholars, Rick Johnson and Delano Farrar, were elected as co-chairs of the new Afro-American Association.
The start-up process involved African, West Indian and African-American students from other local colleges including: Boston State, Wentworth Institute of Technology and Simmons College. The preamble to the AAA Constitution, adopted February of 1968, read as follows: “Believing that Black people who are interested in Black solidarity, Black pride and Black self-determination should work together in order to approach these ideals, we have incorporated ourselves under the name of the Afro-American Association.”
One of the fist actions of the AAA was to establish a Black history course at Northeastern. Two sensitive issues facing the students were what to name the course and who would teach it. There were no Black faculty members in the History Department. The students accepted two compromises: to let the course be called American Negro History instead of Black American History and to accept having a qualified white instructor teach the course. With these decisions made, the students gained faculty approval. This success was the genesis of today’s dynamic Department of African-American Studies.
The Afro American Association reached out to the Black community to work with organizations such as the Bromley-Heath Tenants Organization. They convinced the University to establish both Co-op placements and work-study jobs with the tenant group. The AAA formed relationships with the local neighborhood anti-poverty offices of Action for Boston Community Development (ABCD), with the Boston Branch NAACP and with the long-standing Black Greek groups in the city.
In May 1968, following the April assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the Association presented the following 13 demands to President Knowles:
- We demand 50 new academic scholarships for Black Students by September of 1968; and by 1971, we demand that at least 10 percent of the incoming freshman class be black.
- We demand at least one course dealing specifically with Afro-American literature.
- We demand a re-evaluation of all social science and humanities courses with emphasis on Western Civilization and freshman English concerning black contributions to these areas. We demand that representatives of the Black student body be members of any vehicle set up to re-evaluate the courses.
- We demand a re-evaluation of any summer orientation courses for black students entering on scholarship, and that this program be open to all Black entering freshman.
- We demand that all minority group orientation courses for education majors be mandatory, with emphasis on Black culture, economics, sociology and history. These would be open to all majors.
- We demand a special fall orientation program for all entering Black students. It should be administered by Black students and financed by the university.
- We demand a recruitment team made up of Black students from the university to recruit Black students into the university, financed by the university.
- We demand that free courses be set up in University College which would aid black businessmen, with emphasis on business administration.
- We demand that a one-year college preparatory course be set up in the university for Black students planning to enter college who do not have a strong educational background.
- We demand accredited African language and cultural courses, to be taught by Black personnel.
- We demand Black co-op coordinators and guidance counselors, and more co-op jobs in the Black community for Black students.
- We demand an annual Black history week, officially sanctioned and financed by Northeastern University.
- We demand the formation of a committee of faculty, administrators, and Black students to institute, view, and report on the university’s implementations of these demands.
The Institute is Born: The Institute Idea
The AAA expanded the last demand for an oversight committee into a more far-reaching proposal. This was a proposal to establish what they called an “African-American Institute” to develop and implement a long-range plan for a genuine, effective and permanent Black presence at Northeastern University.
The initial six goals for the Institute plan were:
- Establishing an independent organization supported by the University.
- Developing a Black Studies Program.
- Gaining resources to help meet Boston’s Black community needs.
- Developing a collective action approach within the NU Black population to address political issues.
- Improving Black student retention at NU.
- Protecting Black student and community interests.
After some initial hesitation from the Faculty Senate, President Knowles and the University trustees approved the financing of the Institute idea, including a Black Studies Program.
The official Institute proposal was presented to the University by the Black student community on February 14, 1969. On May 9, the Steering Committee of the student group met with President Knowles. They submitted and discussed a more specific proposal to establish a five-part Institute which would incorporate an African-American Cultural Center and the Black Studies Program. This proposal stated that the Institute would be responsible for the development of the Black studies agenda, a research and information center, a cultural center and library, and would serve as a clearinghouse for special academic preparatory programs for in-coming Black students.
The momentum gained by the Afro-American Institute also resulted in the first Black Cultural Festival, a four-day event in April 1969, sponsored by the University. The Foreword in the festival program booklet, written by student Jean Smith, read in part:
“The call for Black Consciousness is at first painfully hard to answer; it’s hard to start all over again to establish new principles and modes of operation; for we have struggled vainly for too long trying to approximate white culture; our artists, our scientists, our leaders have been respected by us only after they have been “legitimized” by the white world. We face a prodigious task; we’ve danced to this tune so long now it becomes necessary to stop and gather our senses, to stop and listen to the tune and decide which of its elements warrant our response.”
The Institute is Born: Going into the Community
At its inception, Institute activities were not, however, to be based on-campus at Northeastern. The students wanted the Institute located in the nearby community, the area it also wanted to serve and be relevant to.
The legendary Norfolk House, a mile south of the campus atop John Eliot Square, a settlement house first for white European immigrants and then for Blacks in the 1940’s and 50’s, had space on the top floor. And so it was there, in space rented by the University from the Roxbury Federation of Neighborhood Centers, that the first Black Studies courses, cultural programs, and the library of the Institute were established and operated.
The Institute is Born: Back on Campus
The on-campus facility identified by the University for the development of the African-American Institute was a small two-story building at 104 Forsyth Street. The students used both the Norfolk House quarters and the Forsyth building. By September 1970, the full-time Black student population approached 500.The newer, incoming students wanted all of the Institute services and programs to be on campus.
Gradually, the Institute activities moved to the Forsyth Street site with the exception of the library. It remained at Norfolk since space was limited at the campus site. The Forsyth building had been considered only a temporary site and a newly designed and renovated building at 40 Leon Street, the present site of the John D. O’Bryant African American Institute, was readied for occupancy by the fall of 1971.
During the summer of 1972 the idea of a “black student newspaper” was discussed. It was felt that Northeastern News and Northeastern Today were not meeting the needs of the entire University community. On November 3, 1972, the first issue of the ONYX was published. The name of this publication came after lengthy discussion. Senior engineering student Wilbur Jenkins suggested ONYX because, as he explained, “it’s a stone, which in its natural state, throws off bands of different colors. It has some relevance for everyone, depending on what angle you look at it.”
By the mid-1970’s, the African-American Institute gained a new foothold and was revitalized. The Institute also began to address other academic concerns of the more than 700 Black students on campus. Many were in need of tutorial help, counseling, learning materials, and people who could address the African American experience through academia.
Continued Progress: Black Studies and Culture
From 1969-70, the number of Black studies courses increased to include The Black Artist in Music, Race and Cultural Relations, Afro-American Literature, Modern Africa, Africa to 1850, African Art, and Swahili.
The African American Studies Department and Project UJIMA were started during Greg Ricks’ administration with the Department becoming fully accredited by the University in 1974. Dr. Ramona Edelin, who had been a summer program staff member in the Institute, became the first chairperson of the Department. Over 40 courses were being offered in the 1976-1977 academic year. The Department had four full-time instructors and staff who were located on the forth floor at 11 Leon Street, diagonally across from the Institute in what is now the Ryder building. Courses ranged from Science and the Black Society to Studies in African Religions to Race, Racism and American Law.
But, by 1982, The African-American Studies Department was on its way to being dissolved and reduced to a Black Studies Program. The Department’s status was saved in a major victory spearheaded by direct student action, and supported by the efforts by the director, Dr. Ozzie L. Edwards, African-American Institute Library Verdaya Mitchell-Brown, and protests by The Coalition for the Preservation of African-American Studies. In August of 1982, President Kenneth Ryder reversed a decision by the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences “to get rid of” African-American Studies as a discipline.
Continued Progress: The Amilcar Cabral Memorial Student Center
The Amilcar Cabral Memorial Student Center, established on the first floor of the Institute building in the early 1970’s, promoted positive cultural and social values.
Over the years, the Cabral Center had provided the entire Northeastern University community with the opportunity to familiarize itself with Black cultural heritage through programs that explore the Black experience throughout the world. The presentation of well-known public figures and scholars, seminars, films, and social programs continue to emanate from the Cabral Center.
Continued Progress: The Library
By the mid-70’s, the AAI Library that started as a Black community resource at the Norfolk House and which sponsored the first cultural programs for the Afro-American Association, became another dynamic component of the Institute.
While the Norfolk site library had been staffed by students, Verdaya Brown became the first full-time librarian in 1973. Trained in library science, she had previously helped establish the African-American collection at the Boston Public Library. “One of my challenges during my 14 years as the AAI was to get students to understand that it was not a negative thing to seek out understanding about themselves, Black history, and culture.” Outreach became a major agenda of the librarian and led her to found the Multicultural Discussion Group and NIA – The African-American Literary and Cultural Guild, and to cultivate relationships with the library staff throughout the University.
Continued Progress: The Institute Expands
By 1976, there were over 1,000 Black students at Northeastern. In an interview in 1979, after leaving the Institute for an Associate Dean position at the University, Ricks recalled, “for the first time Black students began to realize a total integration into the University…The Institute gained national attention as Black leaders and scholars, such as Jesse Jackson, Dr. John Henrik Clarke, and Julian Bond visited the Institute.”
Later, in 1981, in a major organizational change at NU, the African-American Institute became part of the Student Affairs Division of the University. The late John D. O’Bryant was Vice President for Student Affairs at the time and this change positioned the African-American Institute to have a greater impact in the 1980’s. This time sparked new Institute initiatives including:
- Students traveled to Africa during the summer of 1982 through Operation Crossroads Africa.
- The Distinguished International Visitor’s Program through the Cabral Center brought some 35 educators, lawyers, political activists and health specialists from 12 countries to the Institute by the end of 1983.
- The Unity and Awards Banquet honored Black student achievement.
- The Dean Roland E. Latham Oratory Competition was launched and named in memory of a long-time African American administrator at NU, and the first Director of Minority Affairs.
- In 1985, the Institute had a full complement of staff under the direction of Dr. John Norman
The story of the African-American Institute is one of determination and progress. On October 5, 1992, the African-American Institute was renamed the John D. O’Bryant African-American Institute. Vice President O’Bryant, an untiring advocate for educational opportunity and excellence at Northeastern University and throughout the city of Boston during his lifetime, passed away suddenly on July 3, 1992. He, along with hundreds of students and a host of staff, were “keepers of the tradition.” In formal dedication ceremonies in May 1993, his name was officially added to that of the African-American Institute.
In 2001, students, alumni and staff rallied in support of the continued presence of the John D. O’Bryant African-American Institute on Northeastern’s campus. Students presented the following 11 demands to then President Richard Freeland:
- The John D. O’Bryant African-American Institute remain a freestanding building in its present location.
- There be a large-scale expansion and enhancement of the building, including making it handicapped accessible, and correspond architecturally with the surrounding development.
- The number of staff of the John D. O’Bryant African-American Institute be increased to broaden academic support services to all Black students over 5 years to increase their retention and graduation rates.
- The Ujima Scholars Program be expanded to a five-year program to support retention and graduation of these students.
- The operating budget of the John D. O’Bryant African-American Institute be increased to support expanded academic services and programs.
- A Black Student Presidential Advisory group be implemented to serve as a link between the President’s Office and the Black Students of Northeastern University.
- The John D. O’Bryant African-American Institute be included in the Northeastern University Campus Tour.
- There is a formal integration of the African-American Studies Department and the John D. O’Bryant African-American Institute including locating the Department within an expanded John D. O’Bryant African-American Institute.
- Student Financial Services office employ Black Financial Aid advisors that are specifically assigned to deal with the financial needs of Black students.
- There be a section of the CO-OP department devoted to community service in minority communities and positions for Black-Owned businesses.
- There be an increase in the percentage of full-time Black faculty to equal the increased percentage of full-time Black students to 10% at Northeastern University
Present Day: Fall 2007 Onward
In 2007, Richard O’Bryant, Assistant Professor of Political Science and son of the late John O’Bryant became the director of the Institute.
The university community formally welcomed Dr. O’Bryant in the fall to his new position with a gala celebration with many well wishers from the greater Boston community. Watch a special congratulatory message from Dr. O’Bryant’s classmate and colleague at MIT, Dr. Randal Pinkett. (You may recognize Dr. Pinkett from his winning appearance on season 4 of the Apprentice!)