When Buddy Glover ’71 came to Gettysburg College through the Upward Bound program, which actively sought to help underrepresented students pursue higher education, he became a voice for the student body to encourage belonging and inclusion on campus. But, most importantly, he became a voice for fellow Black students. He was the College’s 12th Black graduate—Dr. Rudolph Featherstone ’56 was the first.
Uniting together, Glover and a handful of students did what Gettysburg College students do best: they saw a need and they filled it, founding a student-led Afro-American Society that became known as the Black Student Union (BSU) in 1972.
Since then, each generation of BSU members has built upon what Glover and his classmates started, creating a community of understanding that continues to expand resources for students of color. Now celebrating its 50th year, the BSU has provided pivotal experiences in helping cultivate a “culture of openness” across campus, said BSU’s most recent president, Britney Brunache ’22—and the College community has witnessed its lasting legacy.
As a member of the Board of Trustees and CEO of Jay-Z’s The Parent Company, Troy Datcher ’90 often reflects on the skillset he gained during his time at Gettysburg, as a member of the BSU, and how those values have shaped his life since.
“I didn’t realize I was developing them at the time, but that’s exactly where I learned some very valuable principles that I use every day,” Datcher said. “Principles around authenticity, trust, and stewardship, the confidence that my opinions mattered, the knowledge that my actions had impact, and a desire to leave a place better than I found it—those were lessons that I learned and values that I formed on campus as a member of the BSU.”
“Coming together with people that look like you in an environment like Gettysburg is a natural inclination. It’s like a magnetic force,” explained Cheryl Walker Davis ’75, who currently serves on the Alumni Board of Directors. Like Glover, she was one of the driving forces behind the BSU and a leader across campus, serving as the vice president of the Student Union Board and also captaining the cheerleading squad.
“There were so few Black people that we came together, looking for the comfort of familiarity and the comfort of academic and emotional support, and a bridge to connect with the broader College community. What we created in doing so was a platform for transition. It was the glue that bound us together and gave many of us the leverage we needed to succeed in the Gettysburg College environment.”
The BSU was not the first student organization dedicated to the issues of Black students, but its impact has been the most transformative, casting a wide-ranging mission. It aimed to mentor Black youth in the greater Gettysburg community, advance recruitment for other academically talented Black students, and provide programming and events open to the entire community.
These educational events included visits from African American Blues singers, writers Alex Haley and Nikki Giovanni, and political activist Dick Gregory, as well as art shows and film festivals. According to Walker Davis, however, the biggest learning experience for students was through their daily interactions.
“Most Gettysburg students at the time came from small white communities, and there were many instances when students told you that you were the first Black person they had a chance to talk to or befriend,” Walker Davis said. “Although we didn’t fully understand at the time, every interaction was an opportunity to educate; to debunk stereotypes; and to foster, strengthen, and cultivate relationships. It was an opportunity to effect enduring social change for the greater good. We needed to embrace that responsibility and show that not only did we occupy a position on campus, but that we could excel on campus and in our post-collegiate endeavors.”
Perry Clark ’74 carved a space for himself on campus as a standout basketball player, but recalled longing for acceptance off the court. Yvonne Morgan Jefferson ’76 shared that feeling, as secretary, vice president, and president of the BSU at different times.
“We wanted to be happy, we wanted to be successful, and we wanted to make a good impression to show people who we really were,” Jefferson said. “As a result of just being on campus, we ended up being agents of change.”
Perhaps most importantly, the BSU created a space on campus centered around Black student experiences—a unique ability on a predominately white campus in a rural town. At the time, students met in the College Union Building (CUB) in a room behind the bowling alley, and they took their commitment to cultivating a social scene and advancing Black student recruitment seriously.
“We did not join fraternities, so the BSU was our social gathering spot as well as our on-campus support system,” Michael Ayers ’75 said. “Some of my inner-city classmates never interacted with white America the way we did at Gettysburg. Having the BSU helped us make it through our college years.”
The Power of Connection and Community
In the years that followed, Gettysburg College saw the recruitment of underrepresented students and faculty continue to grow, as well as a rise in cultural organizations and spaces on campus—Diaspora House (D-House), the Latin American Student Association, Latinx House, a chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and the first historically Black Greek letter organizations. The BSU also evolved to serve all members of the College’s Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) community.
Hilda Roche-Santiago ’79, a former vice president of the BSU, was the College’s first Hispanic graduate. Harry Matthews was hired as the first Black dean at Gettysburg College in 1985 and worked on intercultural advancement. Psychology Prof. Judith Gay was the first Black female professor hired at the College in 1976, Economics Prof. Derrick Gondwe became the first Black tenured professor in 1989, and English Prof. Deborah Barnes P’04 was the first Black female professor to earn tenure in 1999.
“… every interaction was an opportunity to educate; to debunk stereotypes; and to foster, strengthen, and cultivate relationships. It was an opportunity to effect enduring social change for the greater good.”
– Cheryl Walker Davis ’75
These individuals, and many more, became mentors for Gettysburg students of color, and the impact they made has never been forgotten. When Darryl Jones joined the Gettysburg community as an admissions officer in 1985, he recalled just 10 students of color in the incoming class. He quickly made it his goal to make a difference and develop personal connections, including with Lawrese Brown ’10. Jones was one of the supporters “in [Brown’s] corner,” invested in her personal and professional development, ultimately guiding her as a student speaker at Get Acquainted Day after she expressed her interest in public speaking. In 2020, Jones then appeared in HBO’s “We’re Here” docuseries as way to further promote inclusion and belonging through drag.
“We need to put the ‘unity’ back in the word ‘community,’” Jones said in the Winter 2021 issue of GETTYSBURG College Magazine. “If we all joined together—both people of those backgrounds and the allies of people from those backgrounds—that’s how you make the difference. That’s where the power to create lasting change is.”
Brown, who described herself as a 6-foot-3, Black and Muslim woman, echoed that sentiment when she spoke to Archives Assistant Devin McKinney in February 2021, as part of Musselman Library’s oral history collection. Thanks to her experiences on campus, including with the BSU and D-House—a College House specifically focused on promoting, educating, and fostering cultural diversity awareness of African diaspora—she built an understanding for embracing different perspectives.
“In the microcosm that is Gettysburg, but that also translates to a larger world, the BSU was phenomenal for being a group of people that understood,” Brown said. “[The BSU was] a lot of fun. I enjoyed it, and still recognize that in any group, you take the commonality, and you still retain your individuality because you know that you’re a person who has to do your own thinking and make your own decisions. The last year of D-House, the extended community around BSU and the Black community—that was really a great year. … It was a great group of people who led it, and they also really valued making people feel included in it.”
For every new wave of students entering Gettysburg College, the BSU served as an outlet to continue fostering those meaningful connections. It was also a space for mutual learning, inclusivity, and leadership. Together with BSU treasurer Mike Warren ’89, Datcher, as president of the club as a senior, was able to bring renowned Black speakers to campus, including prominent civil rights movement organizer Kwame Ture, formerly known as Stokely Carmichael.
“I got involved with the BSU because I was feeling homesick and I was looking for community, but I also saw the power and the impact it could have on campus,” said Datcher, who was also the Student Senate president and DJ for the College’s radio station WZBT. “It was a great way to bring diversity to campus through educational and social programs.”
The social scene is also what provided students with many of their quintessential collegiate memories, including the BSU’s annual step show, a fashion show, and a student-featured talent show. Students could often be found hanging out at the BSU office or listening to Datcher DJ at the newly opened Dive—a social hangout before it was transformed into a campus eatery.
“The BSU room was a place where we could go and play records and relax and hang out. We could study. It was a private environment,” said MichelleLynette Hughes ’91, P’18 a member of the Alumni Association Board of Directors. “It was very important that I could kind of let my hair down. … It was kind of an informal, conversational atmosphere, and the bonding was very positive. That type of bonding is something that’s unmatched.”
Transcending Barriers, Impacting Lives
While national discourse and campus climate have changed over the years, many of the challenges that the BSU was created to combat remain the same: helping students adjust to a campus that may be very different from what they call home and providing them with a space to feel seen, heard, and represented.
This is where the BSU shines, according to Kermit O. & Renee A. Paxton Endowed Teaching Chair and English Prof. McKinley Melton, the club’s faculty co-advisor alongside Africana Studies Chair and History and Africana Studies Prof. Scott Hancock.
“As the College works to become a more inclusive place, and to embrace the opportunities that come with being a different institution in its future than it has been in its past, the students often bear the impact of those growing pains,” Melton explained. “The BSU, through its existence, let alone its activities and programming, provides a space where Black students never have to question whether they belong. That’s not always guaranteed everywhere else on campus.”
As a theatre arts and psychology double major, Brunache has never had a Black professor during her four years at Gettysburg due to her schedule. Yet through the BSU, she has built connections with Melton, Hancock, and Daria L. and Eric J. Wallach Professor of Peace and Justice Studies and Africana Studies Prof. Hakim Mohandas Amani Williams. The mentorships they have all provided transcend her academic experiences, aiding in her personal and professional development.
It’s not just connections with Black faculty that students are looking for to enhance their College experience. They want greater connections with Black alumni, too.
Following the Black Lives Matter protests that swept the nation in June 2020, a handful of students and young alumni organized a call to talk about shared experiences and challenges. During this call, students expressed frustrations over the lack of a physical presence of BIPOC alumni on campus—a wake-up call for Deonte Austin ’11, who recalled ease of access to a number of Black alumni who were actively involved with the BSU when he was a student.
During his time at Gettysburg, Austin had pursued leadership roles and employment across campus, including with the BSU as secretary, vice president, and then president, and with Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity, the Attic activities board, the Women’s Resource Center, and the Intercultural Resource Center’s Pal Program. He saw himself then as an active student, but “looking back on those times, I definitely was an activist,” he said.
“The BSU, through its existence, let alone its activities and programming, provides a space where Black students never have to question whether they belong.”
– Prof. McKinley Melton
That mindset is what defines the BSU student experience, historically and today. It’s not just the conversations they have during their meetings, said Brunache. Activism most often takes the shape of events centered around a sense of Blackness, providing necessary representation on campus and helping Black students navigate unique challenges to their Gettysburg experience, including learning how to style their hair through workshops specifically catered to their needs. Ultimately, it’s about staying true to who they are and what they stand for.
“Black students usually worry about where to get their hair done in Gettysburg. So, they brought someone in to teach us to twist our hair, wear a bonnet, or wear our curls. It was really specific to our culture and to our hair, and it showed us that they were paying attention,” said Brunache of the spirit week that took place during her first year. Since then, she also noted some rising students have brought their braiding talents to the College.
“There are more social issues today than there were when I was a student,” Austin added. “There are currently students on campus who look like me—whom I might be able to help, whom I can positively impact.”
So, he asked himself: If not now, then when?
Continuing to live the mission and spirit of the BSU, Austin organized. He and 10 other alumni formed a steering committee to establish the Gettysburg Alumni of Color Council (GACC). While their goals are multifaceted, they are committed to impacting current BIPOC student experiences, often partnering with the BSU and uniting generations of its activists and leaders.
Together, they aim to fulfill the promise of a Gettysburg education for current students and also hold the College accountable to students’ needs as they continue to create spaces for underrepresented groups on a predominately white campus. Today, more than 50% of Gettysburg’s alumni of color are within the Burgians Of the Last Decade (BOLD) population, representing alumni who graduated in the last 10 years, and now Walker Davis also serves on the GACC Steering Committee.
The lasting legacy of the BSU extends beyond recruitment, representation, and connection. It’s their ability to turn students into changemakers—people who lead lives of consequence and impact the institutions and communities of which they are a part for the better.
“None of us came to Gettysburg with the intention of being trailblazers,” Clark said. “We came to Gettysburg to get a better education, for an opportunity to be the first in our families to go to college. The motivation was never to go to college to be a trailblazer, but I think history looks back and sees that.”
Special thanks to Musselman Library’s Special Collections and College Archives for their oral histories and digital resources on diversity and inclusion at Gettysburg College. To share your story, contact the College magazine at email@example.com. We look forward to celebrating the BSU 50th Reunion during Homecoming Weekend on Oct. 14-16, 2022!
by Kasey Varner ’14