By Kulia Osborne
It’s 1971 and tensions are high. The seventies was a revolutionary decade in Saint Mary’s history: Women were being admitted to campus for the first time and the racial climate in America was undergoing a massive shift. However, reality became incredibly clear at the sudden firing of Odell Johnson. Johnson was a critical part of Saint Mary’s culture and the decision left people reeling, with the Black community being most impacted.
Odell Previously played on the basketball team of the 1950s, being one of two black members. Because of his history on campus, the firing of Odell Johnson shocked many and outraged Black students all over SMC. Many of the students then saw Johnson as a support system in a community that already alienated them. A local newspaper reported that “The firing outraged many minority students who regarded Johnson as one of them. [He was] their friend and protector in an isolated setting.”
The resounding effects of this decision led to months of Black student pushback, protests, and demands for a more supported community. The tension on campus took precedence when, suddenly, the starting five members of the basketball team walked off the court in protest of the decision. The students were all Black men and the repercussions robbed them of their scholarship, community standing, and position.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the walkouts, which makes me wonder what we have learned. The current population of Black students exists at 5.6%. This looks even smaller in the current Black athlete population. To break it down, there is one Black woman on the Women's Basketball team, three Black men on the men’s Basketball team, one Black woman on the Tennis team, four on the Women’s Soccer team,and one black women on the beach volleyball.
I spoke to a former SMC student, Hind, who left the college to pursue a professional career in tennis. She was drawn to the small campus and the coaching staff. When I asked her about her experience at SMC, she admitted that she hadn’t faced too much of a culture shock, but acknowledged that there are other Black students who have; she has witnessed friends being ostracized because of their race . Hind continued to talk about her experience, “Personally, there have been moments of microaggressions against me as a student.” For instance, she discussed a moment of isolation when a professor used the N-word, when there were only two black students in the class. She discussed emailing the professor alongside the other student and the professor had apologized.
While the population of Black Saint Mary's students has shifted significantly (it was reported as 18% of the population in 1970), there is a lot to say about the number of Black students in critical positions around campus such as those in academics, sports, and leadership. There’s a conversation to be had about the fact that more can be done. Hind’s experience is not a singular experience. Most occasions go under-reported because of the lack of knowledge of BIRT, committees, or people to speak to. In the last decade, Black students have been demanding better support through End the Silence, the Twenty demands, Black student leadership, and the BLM subcommittee. There are spaces, yes, but they are being created by the students themselves.
Melanie Moyer '22,