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The Black Caucus at Penn

February 28, 2011
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Before formally organized umbrella groups such as Umoja and the United Minorities Council (UMC), the political voice of minority black students at Penn was expressed by the Black Caucus. The Black Caucus was formed around the time of the Civil Rights Movement, at a time when Penn was seeking to increase its number of black students. The Black Caucus was composed of the Black Student League, Black Students Against Apartheid, and the Penn African Students Association, and it served as the middleman between these student organizations and the university administration up until the early 1990s.

The Black Caucus spoke out against injustice at Penn and around the world, demanding changes in institutional policies and practices. In March 1986 during the time of apartheid in South Africa, the Caucus sent a letter to then President Sheldon Hackney on behalf of all black groups to object the University’s divestment policy, which included funding South Africa’s government and other large companies, as well as giving money to South African banks that supported the manufacturing of weapons. The Black Caucus questioned Penn’s financial relationship with South Africa, stating, “We, who are black, can hardly be expected to sit by calmly and carry on with ‘business as usual’ while the Trustees invest our tuition dollars in the murder of our black kinsmen in South Africa…For us, it is as if Penn in 1939 or 1943 were investing in Nazi Germany and expected Jewish students tamely to tolerate the investment of their money in the Holocaust.”* Fueled by a sense of social responsibility, the Caucus was also active in forming solutions, submitting a Joint Resolution on Divestment to Penn Trustees in which they suggested policy changes such as reducing the time the South African government had to dismantle apartheid from 18 to six months. The Black Caucus questioned Penn’s policies and rallied around common causes and to make an impact.

As Penn was striving to promote to black students and increase diversity, the Caucus continued to monitor the development of such initiatives in preparation for prospective black students. For instance, while many current black students may fondly reflect upon their Scholars’ Weekend, a time when prospective minority students get to experience a preview of Penn at its finest, the Black Caucus organized a boycott it in 1986. The Caucus members eventually voted against picketing in front of the Office of Admissions, but decided instead to inform prospective students of the prevalence of racism at Penn. They clarified their intentions stating, “We are saying, do come to Penn, but understand that Penn is racist and that you will encounter racism here. So come here prepared to face and fight against it.” The Black Caucus mobilized Penn students to make effective changes in their environment and to stand against those injustices.

 

-Cecelela Tomi, C’13

 

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