Building a Community

February is Black History Month and this month the Harbus will present you with a series of articles detailing the contributions of African Americans at HBS.

African Americans have a long history here at Harvard University. Harvard Business School’s first African American graduate was Monroe Dowling, class of 1931. Upon arrival on campus, he faced a unique situation: racial segregation meant that there was nowhere for him to eat or sleep. Though accommodation was ultimately found, he endured two years of isolation and separation at HBS, and chose a career in federal government because none of the usual recruiting options were open to him.

H. Naylor Fitzhugh is the most well-known of the African American pioneers at Harvard University. He studied science and graduated with honors from Harvard College in 1931. His frustration with the refusal of major companies who did business with the African American community to hire residents led him to co-found a movement to change company policies. In 1965, he decided to take a position with Pepsi-Cola spearheading the first marketing campaign targeted at African Americans. During his nine years at Pepsi, Fitzhugh was responsible for developing the concept of target marketing and for developing the mass market potential of the black community.

It is because of his role as a trailblazer and mentor that the African American Student Union (AASU) at HBS has named its annual February conference after H. Naylor Fitzhugh. This conference is one of the most enduring legacies of those early days. It evolved from an appreciation dinner for graduating HBS students in 1969 into a three-day event that attracts current and prospective students and returning alumni. This year’s conference entitled “Controlling Our Destiny: Increasing the Power and Influence of the Black Community”, will focus on business, community and political ownership.

For nearly four decades after HBS admitted its first black student in 1929, the number of African Americans on campus remained in the single digits. Change came about in the fall of 1967 when five black students, now known as the “Founding Five”, met with Dean George Baker to express their concern about the dearth of African-Americans at HBS. Baker response was that he didn’t know where to find them.

These five students included Lillian Lincoln, who was the first African American woman to attend HBS and was also one of the recipients of the Alumni Achievement Awards this year. These five students founded the Association of Afro-American Students in February 1968 and committed themselves to improving diversity on campus. Though the existence of ethnicity-based student organizations seems commonplace now, these students were accused of fomenting divisiveness by establishing the first club not based on a professional theme.

Through outreach programs in their respective communities the “Founding Five” were instrumental in increasing black student enrollment from six in 1967 to 27 in 1968. They couldn’t have done this alone – they had complete support from Dean Baker who was diligent in pursuing additional corporate funding for scholarships. An astonishing tribute to their success was that an unprecedented 67 black students graduated in the Class of 1971 at HBS.

By the late 1960s, newspapers were publishing extensive articles about demonstrations on college campuses against war, racism, and sexism. Peaceful activism epitomized by Martin Luther King, Jr. and his “I Have a Dream” speech contributed to the 1964 passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act, which sought to fully implement the freedoms promised to African-Americans by the Bill of Rights. Not surprisingly, Harvard University was not immune to the turmoil going on throughout the country.

Race-related incidents were documented in the Harbus during the 1969-70 academic year, including several articles questioning the qualifications and performance of black students at HBS. On the front page of the Harbus published the week of April 16th was a bizarrely satirical article about a fictitious section vote to create an ABC – “All Black Corporation” – in the context of a first year class project. Word of the article leaked before publication and a group of African American students seized the entire week’s distribution of the Harbus in protest.

This tumultuous year ended with the AASU going on strike in the beginning of May to demonstrate what the Harbus described as “their outrage over a variety of issues relating to them, both as students and as Black Americans.”

While the open racial debates of the early 1970s seem like ancient history, many of the controversial issues of 30 years ago are still with us. The AASU and HBS African American Alumni Association are continuing to work with the HBS administration to realize the vision of the Founding Five.

Since its establishment 34 years ago, the AASU has become one of Harvard Business School’s most active organizations. AASU seeks to establish strong relationships among the community of African American students and hosts an annual fall retreat to connect with members early in the school year. This year, mixers with alumni and Executive Education participants broadened this community even further, and a short documentary entitled “Transformation” documents the perspectives of several African American alumni on their HBS experience. AASU also works with the Latin American Students Organization (LASO) and the Admissions Office to plan and execute Prospective Student Days in the spring and fall for African American and Latino candidates. The organization serves as a link between potential employers and students of color through career fairs and corporate fireside chats. Perhaps most importantly, AASU is committed to community service such as the annual book drive in support of a local Boys and Girls Club.

This year, as part of Black History Month, AASU has planned an increase in activities to share the rich heritage and impact of African Americans. The signature event, Sankofa, occurs on February 12th. It is a celebration of the food, music, dance, and culture of the African Diaspora. On February 9th, AASU will also facilitate a historical discussion following a film screening of “Four Little Girls,” Spike Lee’s documentary about the bombing of a black Birmingham, Alabama church in 1963 during the
height of the Civil Rights Movement.

The African American Student Union has proven itself a dynamic organization dedicated to enriching the HBS experience for black students as well as the larger HBS community.

Reprinted from February 2004