When Preston Dobbins arrived in Chapel Hill in the summer of 1967, he was adamant about stepping away from the civil rights activism that he had devoted years to while living Chicago.
“By the time I started here, I really had absolutely no interest in any kind of political things,” Dobbins said in a 1974 interview at Carolina. “As a matter of a fact, I made myself a promise that I wouldn’t get involved in anything here. … Just pretty much settle down and enjoy doing nothing but being a student.”
The plan lasted a month.
By the end of the fall semester, Dobbins found himself establishing the Black Student Movement — an organization that has played a role in nearly every significant advances for minorities at Carolina, including the founding of the department of African, African American and Diaspora Studies and the creation of the Office of Diversity and Multicultural Affairs.
“We’re very fond of talking about this as the people’s University,” said James Leloudis, professor of history, associate dean for Honors Carolina and co-chair of the Chancellor’s Task Force on UNC-Chapel Hill History. “Perhaps the greatest service that the Black Student Movement has brought to this campus is demanding that we fulfill the promise of those words and holding us accountable. I think what they’ve done for the last half-century has fundamentally changed Carolina and made this a far more inclusive institution. They’ve been on the front line every step along the way.”
Now, as the Black Student Movement enters its 50th year, student members continue to push the University forward and provide a voice for black issues to make Carolina inclusive for everybody.
“You come to college to get an education, but Carolina is a place a lot of people call home,” said Tre Shockley, the current president of the Black Student Movement. “You want everybody to feel at home at Carolina. I think the BSM has a large role in making Carolina an inclusive institution.”
It’s a role that began a half-century ago with a vote at a UNC-Chapel Hill NAACP meeting.
‘Center of every major black piece of Carolina’
In 1967, Dobbins was unimpressed by the campus chapter of the NAACP, questioning the group’s function and lack of action.
Black students at colleges and universities throughout the country were standing up for their rights and a place on predominately white campuses. Carolina— where less than one-half of 1 percent of the student body was black — was falling behind in the movement, Dobbins thought.
Many black students felt the same dissatisfaction as Dobbins. It was an issue he was determined to resolve.
“I took it upon myself to talk to the people that I knew about what I perceived the situation to be with the NAACP and that is that there was really nothing going on and it did not represent the interests of black students on campus,” said Dobbins, who become the group’s first chairman. “We resolved it by actually voting to abolish the NAACP. The discussion proceeded to what group should we form and it was the BSM.”
It wasn’t long before the Black Student Movement took its first action.
In December 1968, the group delivered 23 demands to then Chancellor Carlyle Sitterson. The demands included the creation of an African-American studies department; an office responsive to black students’ needs; and changes to the admissions process to allow the entry of more minority students.
When the administration initially dismissed the demands, protests and sit-ins followed. Faculty members and Carolina student-athletes Bill Chamberlain and Charles Scott offered their support for the Black Student Movement.
Within the year, the Faculty Council endorsed a proposal for a curriculum dedicated to African-American studies. By 1970, UNC-Chapel Hill offered a bachelor of arts in both Afro-American Studies and African studies.
“There was some resistance to having a black studies department,” said Will Mebane, the chairman of the Black Student Movement from 1973 to 1974. “It hadn’t been identified as a full-fledged department and we were back and forth on that. That was a contentious issue. It wasn’t enough to have black studies courses, but we needed to have a full-fledged department.”
It wasn’t until 1975 that faculty members issued the first proposal to create a department dedicated to those studies. Twenty-two years later, the department was created and is now called African, African American, and Diaspora Studies.
While the Black Student Movement backed the faculty in the pursuit of a department, students also turned their attention to raising awareness for the creation of the Black Cultural Center.
In 1988, a temporary Black Cultural Center was opened in a cramped room in the Student Union. But the lack of a freestanding center was a point of contention for the Black Student Movement and the campus community.
After four years in the temporary center, the organization requested the construction of a new building, leading to protests and marches — including one led by Carolina football players during which 800 students marched to South Building.
After years of support from groups inside the University and public figures, including director Spike Lee, the privately funded Sonja Haynes Stone Center for Black Culture and History opened its doors in 2004.
“BSM was really at the center of every major black piece of Carolina from the beginnings,” said Chris Faison, president of the Black Student Movement from 1999 to 2000, and currently the coordinator of male mentoring and engagement in the Center for Student Success and Academic Counseling. “Had it not been for the BSM, a lot of the things that exist would have never been there.”
‘On the front lines’
But the group’s activism wasn’t just working for the benefit of black students, but rather the black community as a whole.
“I don’t know of another group in the history of Carolina that has had more influence on the life at Carolina in every aspect from food service workers to the trustees,” Mebane said.
In the late 1960s, Carolina’s food workers didn’t receive overtime, full-time status, promotions — or even name tags. Carolina students, including many members of the Black Student Movement, came to their aid in 1969 by staging picket lines and raising money for the workers to support a strike.
After nearly a month, North Carolina Governor Robert W. Scott sent the highway patrol to reopen Lenoir Dining Hall and the strike was ended. The strike resulted in the University paying the workers nearly $200,000 in back pay and raising the workers’ hourly wages from $1.60 to $1.80.
The Black Student Movement also aimed to influence change for faculty members, including Sonja Haynes Stone, who headed the University’s African and Afro-American Studies curriculum.
When Stone was denied tenure, those tensions — mixed with tensions over a lack of an office for minority affairs — led to 200 students marching to South Building and holding a sit-in.
The protests helped lead to the tenure of Stone in 1980 and the founding of the Office of Minority Affairs, which would eventually become the Office of Diversity and Multicultural Affairs.
“If [the Black Student Movement] had not done that, then we would not be considered one of the preeminent schools with diversity particularly with black students, black tenured faculty,” Faison said. “A lot of the things we hang our hat on are a direct relation to the Black Student Movement and its leaders advocating for those issues.”
That history is a point of pride — and driving motivation — for today’s Black Student Movement members who continue to inspire change on campus. Today, their efforts have contributed toward the University taking a comprehensive approach to examining campus history and renaming Saunders Hall in May 2015.
“Our mission is the same thing it’s been in the past: it’s drawing attention to the issues within the black community at UNC and making UNC more inclusive and a better place for the minority community,” Shockley said. “I see the role of the Black Student Movement as being vital in the success and well-being of the black community at UNC. That’s students and faculty.
“I’m extremely proud of what the BSM has accomplished in the last 50 years. We have been successful to this point, but there’s still work to do.”
By Brandon Bieltz, University Communications
Published February 17, 2017.