OSWEGO — As a centerpiece of Black History Month activities, the 50th anniversary observance of one of SUNY Oswego’s most enduring and active student organizations, the Black Student Union, will celebrate an illustrious history of generations of student leaders raising awareness of issues, doing community service projects, arranging campus appearances by such global luminaries as Muhammad Ali and much more.
“We really wanted to make the BSU annual dinner and variety show special so alumni would come back,” said Keonna Wren, the Black Student Union’s current president and a junior psychology major. “So we started planning in October.”
The ticketed annual BSU Variety Show will take place at 7 p.m. Friday, Feb. 23, in Hewitt ballroom. The free Young, Gifted and Black Summit and Alumni Panel runs from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Feb. 24 in Room 201 of Marano Campus Center.
Finally, the ticketed gala, the BSU 50th Anniversary Celebration Dinner, will take place at 7 p.m. Feb. 24 in Hewitt ballroom.
Wren said the festivities would remember and express gratitude for the pioneering students who founded the BSU in 1968.
But it’s equally important to pause and examine the present, with an eye to the future, she said.
“Some students started it, and every year there was someone brave enough to step into the leadership position and into committee positions — and it’s been like that every year for 50 years,” Wren said.
In the BSU office in Marano Campus Center, Wren pointed to file drawers full of BSU records and memorabilia: lists of past presidents and constituents, community service projects, collaborations with the African Student Organization, Asian Student Association and the Latino Student Union and more.
For five decades, the BSU has been a fixture on campus. Howard Gordon, executive assistant to the college president and a mentor to generations of black students, has taken part in Black Student Union activities for nearly all of that time — since he arrived in 1970, the year the organization achieved Student Association recognition and funding.
The longevity and vibrancy of the BSU is “remarkable,” he said.
“Certainly coming into college at that time, you have people interested in black history, black identity, understanding ourselves and our people, and understanding what was missing from the history we were being taught growing up,” said Gordon. “I remember having a thirst for courses and cultural programs that were rarely available in high schools. When I got here I was not surprised to find a Black Student Union that invited me and other new students to its first meeting.”
He added, “For 50 years, against all odds, it has endured and stood the test of time. That means it’s been meaningful to people.”
One of the single most extraordinary events on SUNY Oswego’s campus occurred during the BSU’s first year of funding, in spring 1971, when it invited arguably the world’s most famous person — Muhammad Ali — to campus.
An iconic, globally influential and galvanizing figure, Ali did come, electrifying a packed Hewitt Union ballroom and later meeting exclusively with BSU members.
Entertainers performing on campus through the BSU’s efforts included Roberta Flack, Ramsey Lewis and War, said Gordon.
“BSU organizers thought, ‘My experience as a person of color needs to be validated,'” he said. “They helped people discover their purpose.”
Wren said identity, meaning, mutual support and solidarity are key to the BSU’s success.
“A lot of students coming in don’t think our voices are heard,” she said. “But when they get here, they get to talk about issues (of race, diversity and the black experience). That’s how I think we’ve lasted so long, because we do have a voice and we do talk about issues and students do feel heard.”
Tickets for the BSU 50th Anniversary Celebration Dinner are $20 ($15 for college faculty and staff, $10 for SUNY Oswego students, $5 for children 11 and under). Tickets for the BSU Variety Show, featuring Oswego alumnus DJ Tumbo, are $7.
Advance registration by Feb. 16 is required for all of the BSU anniversary events, including the Young, Gifted and Black Summit and Alumni Panel.
Visit alumni.oswego.edu and click on the historical photo of BSU members for a link to the registration form. Contact Keonna Wren at [email protected], 315-312-2258, for ticketing and other information.
Black History Month is underway at SUNY Oswego, with nearly daily scheduled events such as workshops, entertainment, community service or presentations.
For example, the fifth annual Maarifa conference — BSU’s equivalent of the college’s Quest Day — takes place on Feb. 10, featuring student presentations on social and other topics aimed at educating peers; a ’90s-themed edition of the popular “Roll Bounce” roller skating and music party will occur on Feb. 17; and service at the Ladies Home in Oswego and the Malcolm X Salvation Army Day of Service will take place on Feb. 18 and 22, respectively.