Celebrating 50 years of Blexcellence


The first group of BSA students in 1970

Jamarr McCain '19, Contributor

The history of the Black Student Association doesn’t start fifty years ago with its official formation on September 30, 1969. Instead, our history begins in the fall of 1964 when Rhodes College (then Southwestern at Memphis) finally desegregated. Two African American students, Coby Smith and Lorenzo Childress, were admitted to the college and immediately dealt with prejudice and racism from the ninety-nine percent white campus. While Coby and Lorenzo were seeking to obtain an education, they were also forced to bear the burden of being “the first” like so many other black students across the country. As the first black students to attend Rhodes, Coby and Lorenzo had to confront white students and faculty/staff that were either ignorant, at best, or outright racist, at worst. Their experiences at Rhodes laid the foundation for why the Black Student Association was not only important but necessary for future generations of black students to survive and thrive on this campus.

The years following Rhodes desegregating included a lot of community-building amongst the black students that later joined Coby and Lorenzo at Rhodes. By no surprise, they quickly began to unofficially organize meetings and events for themselves (something that Coby Smith knew all too well due to his involvement with the Civil Rights Movement prior to attending Rhodes). Though their unofficial meetings helped to create a sense of community amongst black students, it was not enough for some of them. Leading up to September of 1969, a group of five African American students demanded that Rhodes officially recognize and, more importantly, fund their growing black student group. Those students were Julian Bolton, Paula Briggs, Ronald Register, Beverly Plummer, and Paula Briggs. Julian would go on to become the leader of this group and ultimately the first President of the Black Student Association. However, the formation of the BSA was not an easy. Bolton and company were confronted with a litany of challenges from administrators, faculty, and their own white peers. If one were to dig through Sou’wester articles from the late 1960s, they will quickly learn about some of these challenges including constantly being forced to validate why an official BSA was necessary and should be funded. Ultimately, the soon-to-be founders of the Black Student Association got closer to their goal of creating an organization for, by, and predominantly made up of black students. Upon getting funding from the Student Government Association, official recognition from administration, and approval from the faculty, the Rhodes College Black Student Association was officially chartered on November 12, 1969.

According to the BSA’s charter (signed by Julian  Bolton and Ron Register, the first Vice President), the organization was founded on the promise and dream that it could “make the total integration of the races a more attainable goal”. Black students on campus believed that they could “best benefit [them]selves and everyone else by joining together and seeking ways to enrich our campus”. Julian and the other founding members sought to “promote unity within the African American community, and [create] harmonious relationships among people of different cultures and backgrounds” – which remains to be the BSA’s mission statement today. Additionally, Rhodes BSA was created “to promote, educate, and exemplify the rich cultural heritage and unique diversity of people of African descent”. Despite its young age, the Black Student Association immediately began to uphold that promise while also bracing itself for the numerous victories and challenges that it would experience over the next fifty years.

From 1969 to the present day, our beloved BSA has and continues to change this campus for the better. Whether it is with a campus protests/campaigns, a Soul Food & Cinema, or down-to-earth meetings where black student could laugh with each other, BSA continues to further the dream and promise it was founded on: a community filled black excellence, or “blexcellence”. Most recently, Rhodes has recognized this blexcellence by naming BSA the Organization of the Year for the past two years (with then President Jada Myricks and subsequently myself) and for having the Programs of the Year (like our upcoming Third Annual Black History Month Convocation). Although these accolades from Rhodes are definitely humbling and deeply appreciated, the moments where blackness can unapologetically flourish on this campus have and will always continue to mean so much more to me.

While some students today may take for granted the presence of black people on campus and the existence of a Black Student Association, we must never forget that only fifty years ago black students were fighting to officially have a BSA. Even though Rhodes has changed in many ways since the 1960s, it is bittersweet to realize that the issues black students faced then are eerily similar to, if the not the same as, the ones that black students face now. As long as there are lynched sock monkeys, anonymous and/or explicit anti-black rhetoric, and buildings named after racist white men like Benjamin Palmer, Rhodes College will always need a Black Student Association. Yet, BSA is much more than a student organization; it is a family (including our phenomenal advisors, Dr. Meredith Davis and Dr. Charles McKinney, and black faculty/staff around campus)! A family of predominantly black folx seeking to thrive at a predominantly white institution (PWI) called Rhodes. On April 12-14, 2019, fifty years worth of BSA students, past and present, will come together to celebrate their connections to this family and how it has touched all of our lives over the years. Words will always fail to describe what an honor it is to serve as the president of the Rhodes College Black Student Association, an organization that has always #BeenEssential.