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50 years later: two presidents reflect on traditions and community

November 8, 2019

Courtesy of Don West and Ann Basu

In the fall of 1969, Robert Johnson ’71 became the first president of the African American Society (AAS). Fifty years later, Amani Hite ’20 holds the position of president of the Black Student Union (BSU, formerly the African American Society). The Orient sat down with Johnson and Hite separately and asked questions about their experiences as presidents of AAS and BSU, respectively, half a century apart. 

Robert Johnson ’71

Johnson was the founding President of AAS at Bowdoin. The organization advocated for Black students on campus, but also aimed to connect with Black communities in New England. They drove to other colleges, worked with the Portland NAACP, and recruited Black students from across the country to come to Bowdoin.

At the time of the group’s founding, almost every Black student on campus was a member, Johnson said. AAS adopted the organizational structure of the Black Panther Party. Each division of the society had a minister, and each minister presented a report at meetings.

According to Johnson, the founding of AAS was “a real cooperative thing. People worked together really well. I don’t remember any animosity or trying to undermine authority or anything like that. We all trusted each other, and it was a great group of guys.”

How did AAS shape your experience at Bowdoin?

It was the Society, and it was Bowdoin. It’s kind of hard for me to separate the two. They were both very, very important. I met some of the strongest guys, most driven guys in my life, people I respect tremendously. And a lot of these folks have gone on to do great things. Every day I would look at Walter Cronkite on T.V., and when he went off at seven, I would go to the library and study until the library closed at around 11:30 p.m. because I knew that I had to be successful. I knew I could not come back [home] to Roxbury a failure. I knew this was an excellent opportunity for me as a young person. And I think a lot of students were like that. They worked hard, they stayed together and they socialized together.

What are some of your favorite events AAS has held?

I think the concert by Mahalia Jackson [was my favorite event] because I met her in New York. I went to a play, and I looked across the room, and I thought [I saw] Mahalia Jackson, so I went over to her and I said, “Hey, I’m a student at Bowdoin. You’re a great gospel singer, we’d love for you to come to Bowdoin.” So she gave me her home number.

And when I got back, I went to talk to dean Paul Luther Nyhus, and I told him that I had met Mahalia Jackson … and that we’d like to sponsor her. Just like that, he said, “Sure, no problem, we can get the money. We can make it happen.” So that was great. I was a young kid—I think I was a sophomore at the time—and he was an administrator who got it. It wasn’t even a hard fight. He said sure!

What relationship did the AAS have with faculty and professors?

I thought [the professors] were excellent. The great thing about Bowdoin was that—and I hope this is still the case—there was a close relationship with the faculty. I never felt in my four years there that a professor didn’t care about me as a student, didn’t want to see me successful in the College.

How did President Roger Howell support AAS?

[President Howell] was incredible. First of all, he was very smart. He was a Bowdoin undergraduate and he was a Rhodes scholar. So as young scholars ourselves, we looked up to our president. He set a high standard academically, [and] he set a high standard in terms of social involvement and commitment to social causes. He listened to the students.

How does Bowdoin’s political climate and the nation’s political climate affect AAS?

What was happening nationally and internationally was huge. Across the United States, Black students had taken over administrative buildings. [At Bowdoin,] we decided that we didn’t have to take over buildings, that we had an administration, under the leadership of President Roger Howell, that listened to us.

I tried to keep the brothers calm and tried to [say], “Hey, we can work with the folks here. We have to be firm, but we don’t have to take over buildings. We don’t have to get arrested for things. We can be militant but reasonable.” And so that was the tone that I set as the president.

I remember the College had made a commitment to bring to the College, by 1970, 85 black students. And then, in 1969, they had a meeting with … the vice president of administration and finance. He came by the [John Brown Russwurm African American Center], and he wanted to meet with the brothers to explain why the College could not bring 85 blacks by 1970.

We had a meeting after he left, and we had a strategy. The strategy was that we would not answer any questions in class. The professors call on us, we won’t say anything. We all put on our leather jackets, our berets, [and] when we’d be sitting in the Student Union, we wouldn’t talk to each other. If we wanted the salt passed, we would motion for someone to pass the salt.

The result of this silent protest was that faculty got in touch with the administration and said, “What’s up with the with the Black students?” Then we met with President Howell and explained to him we were upset about the College [going back] on its commitment to have 85 blacks by 1970. So as a result of that silent protest, the College renewed its commitment.

We were able to do a lot of things, important things, without resorting to violence. And that was very important.

Amani Hite ’20

During Hite’s three years at Bowdoin, the BSU has experienced major changes, including a name change and a dramatic increase in membership.

She presides over 200 members of the BSU—making the organization the largest affinity group on campus. This year, Hite and the BSU executive board are focused on expanding BSU programming to represent the experiences and identities of a wider array of its members. To this end, it has begun to co-host events with other affinity groups, such as the Student Organization for Caribbean Awareness, the Africa Alliance and the Latin American Student Organization.

“People sometimes see Blackness and think of skin color or if they migrated from the African continent,” Hite said. “But Blackness is not monolithic.”

Hite said these events allow for the group to “fellowship,” or, “when we all come together as a union, as a Bowdoin community or as friends to celebrate something. And we’re always celebrating something, even if it’s just celebrating being Black.”

How did BSU shape your experience at Bowdoin?

It literally is my experience at Bowdoin. We’ve always had our meetings in Russwurm and I know that that has always been a safe space for me, a place where my Blackness is always validated, where I feel comfortable talking about the problems that I have. Whenever there’s any type of racial tension happening on campus, I always feel comfortable going to the meetings. Going into that house is like an escape. I sometimes forget that I’m even in Brunswick, which is so beautiful.

What are some of your favorite events BSU has held?

One is probably the Thanksgiving potluck. The thing about the potluck is that it’s not just about the food. The food is also super important because it’s really good and tasty, flavorful—we don’t get that a lot around here. But [the potluck is] when you really see the multiple forms of Blackness because everyone is making something from their culture. We have Black American dishes. We have some Spanish dishes, or we have African dishes, Caribbean dishes. You see the entire African Diaspora at a table right there.

That’s always a time for us to fellowship. But it’s also time for us to learn about each other. Because when we talk about the food, it gets into the concept of culture, and “what’s it like in your home?” and “what do you make every day?” so that’s always a memorable experience for me.

What relationship does BSU have with faculty and professors?

The Africana Studies department as well as the Multicultural Center are our backbone when it comes to any of our programming. They’re always there for us if we need anything.

Now, we have Dean of Students Kristina Bethea Odejimi. And we love representation. Representation matters, so having a Black dean is a huge deal for us.

How does President Rose support BSU?

President Rose is a huge supporter of the BSU. Any event that we invite him to, he makes it a point to come. The last event he came to was our annual family reunion dessert reception [during Family Weekend]. And every year since I’ve been here, and the alum who were before me always said that him and Julianne [Rose] are always at our events.

How does Bowdoin’s political climate and the nation’s political climate affect BSU?

The [2016] presidential election was my first year. From that day, it just brought us closer, if anything. And while all of us do not share the same political views on this campus, we don’t talk about politics as bluntly as it’s talked about on other campuses. We all share different political views. There’s some stigma that “all black people are Democrats,” but that’s not true. Everyone has a different political stance, and that’s okay. I do think because we’re able to have conversations about these topics, and our differences, it brings us closer. We always talk about hard topics because we know that we respect each other enough.

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