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“We continue to move forward:” a history of Black student activism at Brown

Throughout campus history, Black students build community, spark change

From Black students trailblazing firsts in the late 19th century to students planning walkouts and protests to increase campus diversity in the civil rights movement of the 1960s, Brown has a long history of Black student activism.

College campuses during the civil rights movement were “convulsed by debates over civil rights, war, poverty and imperialism,” according to Matthew Guterl, professor of Africana Studies and American Studies. College students, he wrote in an email to The Herald, were “critical innovators and organizers” within the movement, and Brown students were no exception.

First Black students create community together

In the late 1800s, the first Black students to study at Brown set foot on campus. Five of these Black graduates from between 1877 and 1912 went on to later become presidents of Black colleges and universities.


For these students and those who followed them, activism often took shape in community building.

Among the first Black female graduates of the University was Ethel Robinson, class of 1905, who went on to teach at Howard University in Washington, D.C. and who is credited with guiding her student Ethel Hedgeman to found the first Black sorority in the United States, Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated.

In 1967, the Afro-American Society was founded at Brown to raise awareness of “Afro-American culture, social interactions, political activities and dialogues within the University,” according to Martha Mitchell’s Encyclopedia Brunoniana. By 1993, there were more than 40 student organizations dedicated to minority students on campus.

Campus political organization during the civil rights movement

In the 1960s, many Black students played a role in directly organizing civil rights protests on campus.

In one December 1968 protest, 65 of the 85 Black students enrolled at Brown marched to the Congdon Street Baptist Church and camped there for three days. The protest sought to convince the University to increase the number of Black students from the then population of 2.3% of students to 11% of each incoming class, which would match the Black population of the U.S. at the time. The protest also aimed to increase the resources and support the University provided to Black students. 

A year later, in 1969, Black students walked out from classes in a protest aimed at increasing the number of Black faculty and administrators at Brown. According to the University’s “Brown’s History: A Timeline,” the University “agreed to take steps to increase African American admissions, staff and financial aid” on campus. 

Yet, more than half a century later, the University has yet to achieve the 11% margin. In 2018, students organized a walkout on the 50th anniversary of the first walkout protest as a call for the University to increase the Black student population on campus. As of the 2020-21 academic year, Black students at the University made up roughly seven percent of total students, four percentage points lower than the threshold demanded in 1968. As of 2020, historically underrepresented faculty members combined make up just nine percent of the total faculty on campus.

Campus speakers inspire activism, Tougaloo College partnership begins

Campus activists have worked to bring Black speakers and civil rights leaders to Brown throughout the campus’s history. 


“Here at Brown … the students were socially conscious,” said Vice President for Institutional Equity and Diversity Sylvia Carey-Butler.

“They brought speakers to campus: They brought Martin Luther King and Malcolm X in the spring of 1969, … and all of that was related to helping Brown become more socially conscious about what was happening nationally,” Carey-Butler added.

When Malcolm X spoke at The University, during a time when the NAACP had pressured several universities across the country from keeping the controversial activist from speaking on campus, according to National Public Radio, he revealed many of his early views.

The Herald reported that on April 24, 1967 — during Spring Weekend — King spoke out against the Vietnam War in Alumnae Hall, describing it as a “bloody, tragic, costly, futile war that can destroy the soul of America.” 

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Carey-Butler added that Brown has had a “long, important and strong relationship” with Tougaloo College, a historically Black college, since 1964 — a partnership that was formed as a product of the civil rights movement.

“Brown University at the time of the civil rights movement was opening up the friendship with Tougaloo College,” Nelson said. “It’s a friendship that … helped to keep Brown aware of what the struggles are for historically Black universities and colleges.”

The partnership formed during the height of the civil rights movement and “emphasized the need for financial assistance to historically Black colleges and universities, bringing federal attention to the issue,” according to the Brown-Tougaloo Partnership website. Harold Pfautz, former Tougaloo professor of sociology and former director of the Brown-Tougaloo Partnership, went on to testify on behalf of Title III of the Higher Education Act in 1965, the passage of which increased funding to historically Black colleges and universities.

Activism and the University today

Today, the Brown Center for Students of Color supports marginalized students along with the larger student population, according to Vincent Harris, associate dean and director of the BCSC. 

“Brown University is doing the work that has been instilled from the … civil rights movement,” he said. 

The University has “worked and fought behind the scenes to ensure that our students, especially our students of color, have a sense of belonging,” Harris added.

University Chaplain Reverend Janet Cooper Nelson said that the University today seems far off from what she imagined as a student during the civil rights movement. 

“The Brown University you’re attending is wildly more diverse,” she said, citing the increased number of Black students, administrators and faculty.

OIED is also working on future initiatives to strengthen diversity and inclusion efforts at the University. They are “building up momentum for the long haul to engage students, to engage faculty (and) to educate the campus around diversity, equity and inclusion,” Carey-Butler said.

Her hope for the University is that it continues to work toward equality. 

“We are imperfect, but in that imperfection we continue to move forward.”

Kaitlyn Torres

Kaitlyn Torres is the senior editor of community for The Brown Daily Herald's 133rd Editorial Board. She previously covered diversity as a University News section editor. In her free time, Kaitlyn enjoys listening to The Arctic Monkeys and going on archaeological digs.

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