History behind Africana Studies and the Black Student Union at EWU


Members of EWU’s Black Student Union, Africana Studies Department and other Eastern students advocated race and diversity education on campus through a protest held on Nov. 3, 2020.

By Emily Driskel, News Editor

When the State Normal School –EWU’s previous name– was founded in 1890, the students attending the school were usually from eastern Washington and northern Idaho. Individuals attending the State Normal School were mainly from the Anglo population.

In the past 40 years, this has changed due to the increased enrollment from out of the state and country. EWU has become more of a diverse school with students from multiple cultural backgrounds. 

The earliest African American to graduate school from EWU was Marjorie Boyd Wellington in 1935. 

The Black Student Union was originally established in 1972 to provide a community for those with color. By Sept. 1974, the organization had grown and was located in an office space in Monroe Hall. 

After the controversy of two EWU football players, Don Sims and Carl Jones raised their fists during the National Anthem in 1968, there was an article added to the conduct section in the athletic code stating, “The athletic arena will not be used as a platform for actively expounding political, religious or philosophical views.” The Black Student Union (BSU) was an exception to this because of a violation of a student’s freedom of speech. The BSU insisted that this was a response to the injustice felt by many blacks in America.  

Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the EWU chapter formed in 1969, made a demand to the President of EWU, asking for the right of black students to express their political beliefs on campus. On May 16 of that year, President Shuck met with the SDS and BSU. He stated that he supported the coaches on their stance of their team unity. The issue continued into the fall when a class action suit was filed with the U.S. District Court in Spokane with Albert Sims, the president of BSU, and other students. 

These interactions between Schuck and the students remained intense but never turned violent.

Above are Black Student Union officers from 1975. The BSU organization was first recognized at EWU in 1968; it focuses on black identity, black unity and black pride.

Donald Barnes, the associate professor of history, was the first professor to create a Black American history course on campus. 

Carl Maxey, on April 8, 1970, addressed the cooperation of the BSU. 

“The Black Student Union recognizes that the right to salute is a constitutional right, there being no accepted manner of giving the salute to the American Flag prescribed by its citizens either by statute or by the Constitution, it is our position that we have the right to give the clenched fist salute,” said the letter addressed to the “Members of the Athletic Council.

When the Civil Rights Movement hit in the mid 1950s and the Civil Rights Act was created, EWU’s student body wanted to have counseling available for ethnic minorities as well as ethnic courses. 

Many black students struggled when they moved to EWU because the black population only made up 1.8% of Spokane. 

Henry-York Steiner and the Black Studies Committee agreed to create a curriculum for the ethnic courses and provide training for faculty on counseling. 

The Africana studies program that EWU has today began around 1968-69. By the year 1970, the program was called the Black Studies Program.

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In early 1972, a director was finally hired, Edward L. Powe. He changed the program’s name to be the Center for Black Education. In 1975, the name changed again to the “Black Education Program.” 

Many professors served as the director and in 1983, Dr. Charles T. Wright was hired for a long period of time. He included more of an emphasis on African culture as well as subjects directly affecting African Americans. 

In 1998, the director Dr. Nancy J. Nelson renamed the program African American studies to focus on African studies. This led to the change of the program name again in 2007 to Africana Education. 

The program has continued to change leadership over the past few years. Some of the former directors include Dr. Robert Bartlett, Dr. Bayyinah S. Jeffires and Scott Finnie. 

Sources for this article include articles written by former EWU archivist Charles Mutschler and an unpublished book written by past archivists of EWU.