Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the African American Student Union at Harvard Business School

Brandon Rapp, Contributor

I stood in silence on the first floor of Baker Library in the Dean’s Gallery. The exhibition entitled, “Agents of Change: The Founding and Impact of the African-American Student Union”a celebration of the history of African-American students at Harvard Business School – was showcased in conjunction with the African American Student Union’s 50th Anniversary (“AASU50”) and Conference (to be held April 20-21, 2018). The tension in this room was undeniable; serving as the backdrop for this special exhibition were the permanent portraits of prestigious deans of yesteryear – all of whom were white males. I walked and weaved slowly through the beautiful black essence that had been created in this space, reading carefully about the illustrative legacy of courageous black business heroes and sheroes: entrepreneurs, business executives, activists, and educators. To me, AASU50 is the culmination of this black essence, excellence, and legacy.

In a few weeks, the HBS campus will be filled with black thought leaders, friends, professors, and alumni, all of whom have traversed this campus, sat in our seats, and endured the rigors of the HBS curriculum – often against the backdrop of pressing societal and racial issues, national civil rights reform, and inequity within HBS. In 1968, with the assassination of Dr. King and with the prevalence of racial oppression and discrimination, black students of HBS worked to push for critical changes for black students on campus by forming AASU (pronounced “ay-sue”), the African American Student Union. Of their mission, founding members wrote, “our purpose is the unification of individuals who relate directly to the concerns of black people. The primary goal being to protect the interests of Black students from the institutional inequities at the Harvard Business School.” The founding members’ demands were direct, uncensored, and grounded within a greater movement marked by the expression of freedom and agency of black people across the business school and country.

AASU50 is a celebration of our black experiences and the ongoing movement for greater black access within this institution, within society, and throughout the world. The issues at our founding are as relevant today as they were fifty years ago. The founding members spoke to the increase in black students and professors, the expansion in fellowship awards for black students, and the creation of new courses focused on black- or urban-related issues. Professor Steven Rogers, MBA Class of 1957 Senior Lecturer of Business Administration at HBS, spoke to the strong connection between past and present that AASU50 celebrates: “AASU50 serves as the means by which our present AASU members are able to see and hear about alums, who are phenomenal role models because they were, 50 years ago, more than simply HBS students; they were leaders who boldly demanded that the school do more for its Black community of employees, faculty, and students.” AASU was the foundation by which these black leaders gathered under a common purpose and crafted demands to address concerns and enhance access for black people.

The AASU’s purpose and mission have not faded over the past fifty years. In reflecting on the significance of the AASU50 Conference, and of her co-presidency of AASU during the 2016-2017 academic year, Nkemdilim Oghedo (HBS ‘17) noted, “as co-president, I wanted to make sure that we maintained space for community, where black people felt supported…a safe space for people to truly feel themselves. AASU gives black people a seat at the table, creates a space where our voices matter and where we can be heard. I felt it was important to lead in an organization where people could opt-in to be their full selves and to create a place that grounded [black students] in who they were. For AASU50, I am looking forward to fellowship. And to building on the work of a community of black alums, especially those of black women. I cannot imagine what their experiences were like.”

AASU50 is about black fellowship. It will be the exploration of our journey, and the reinvigoration of the persevering black essence that has endured institutional and societal inequity. AASU50 is a reminder of our founding members’ mission to address our most pressing issues for the sake of continued and greater black access at Harvard Business School, in society, and throughout this world. Most importantly, AASU50 is a place to stand on the shoulders of true black business giants and to find solace and strength in our legacy, because there is still much more work to be done.

Brandon Rapp (MBA ‘19) is a contributor to The Harbus. After growing up in New Orleans, Louisiana, he attended a rival college (that which shall not be named) in the northeast and moved back to his hometown after graduation to teach at his high school alma mater. He then worked in economic and workforce development, tackling issues in emerging industries such as education/training, small business development, entrepreneurship, re-entry, and diversity and inclusion. When he is not stumbling into the Shad gym (literally), or shooting air-balls on the court, he enjoys investing time in conversations on racial equity, entrepreneurship, and holistic community and leadership development.