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Black Talent Program: The History of Diversity at BC

This is part of The Gavel’s continuing coverage of Black History Month, where we are covering a multitude of events in February that focus on the history of Black students at BC and how they contribute to our collective identity, both in the past and the present.

In celebration of Black History Month, it is important to reflect on the efforts of others to grant rights to and improve the quality of life of African-Americans over the course of history. Boston College is an institution that prides itself being an diverse environment that not only tolerates but celebrates differences--but it was not always this way. Programs in place today that support and promote cultural diversity on campus, such as those sponsored by the Thea Bowman AHANA and Intercultural Center, have their roots in the Black Talent Program, a student-run organization that admitted black students to BC during the 1960s and 1970s.

Taken at the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Bowman Center's new location in Maloney Hall. Photo courtesy of Thea Bowman AHANA & Intercultural Center / Facebook

Taken at the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Bowman Center's new location in Maloney Hall.
Photo courtesy of Thea Bowman AHANA & Intercultural Center / Facebook

In the midst of the Civil Rights Era, A fear of permanent segregation permeated the United States as rioting and racism were perpetuated. With the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, Boston College became part of the movement to diversify its overwhelmingly white student body (only 13 out of 6,975 undergrads at the time were African-American). That year, BC’s president, Michael P. Walsh, SJ, initiated the Negro Talent Search, which was a 4-year plan with $100,000 in funding to recruit African-American students to the university. This turned into the Black Talent Program by the fall of 1968.

The Program was initially led by administrators such as A. Robert Phillips, who would venture into the inner-city regions of Boston to seek out dedicated students who would not otherwise have a chance to attend college. “I went to the housing projects,” Phillips said to Boston College Magazine. “I went to kids who came from broken families; who were not themselves on drugs, but whose contemporaries were; who had members of the family who were in and out of jail. But they had to show some indication of the initiative that one has to take to get through school. And we were getting some very good students.”

By 1970, Phillips had admitted 75 black students before he handed the program down to Michael Jones, a BC student, making the Black Talent Program completely student-run and therefore more in tune to the wants and needs of African-American students at BC. Jones and Carl Lewis, who became the financial manager, were experienced in advocating for the rights of black students. Earlier that year, they had organized a takeover of Gasson Hall to demand such things as more scholarship money, additional academic help, greater representation of the black community in Boston College classes, transportation to the city and a black dorm. At this point, the Black Talent Program operated separately from the University Admissions Office and the two competed to admit black students. Eventually, the groups joined forces and worked together to recruit students and support and regulate their actions while they were at BC.

Photo courtesy of OregonDOT / Flickr

Photo courtesy of OregonDOT / Flickr

“We admitted students. We had the applications come to us, and we made admission decisions,” Julianne Malveaux, a member of the Black Talent Program, said to Boston College Magazine. “We made academic decisions about putting each other on probation, about whether students should be dismissed if they had poor academic performance. Often it was awkward, but that’s what we did. We ran the office. We ran the office budget. Many of us were recruiters. We went to conferences to talk to students about coming to Boston College. We represented the college at conferences all over the country. Yeah, we did it all."

Though the Black Talent Program sometimes met criticism because graduation rates of black students were not as high as anticipated, members of the program felt it had invaluable effects on the students it admitted. “Even one year’s worth of exposure to a college environment makes a significant difference, according to the data, to an African-American person who has not been exposed to college,” Malveaux said. “I think the Black Talent program was a very important, extraordinarily significant, and life-transforming program—for students who finished Boston College, and for those who did not.”

By 1974, students were becoming overwhelmed with the administrative responsibilities of running the Black Talent Program combined with the academic rigor of Boston College. Reverend Howard McLendon, the coordinator of the Black Talent Program from 1972-1973, told Boston College Magazine, “I think people who had more emotional maturity were able to handle the various hats. But basically, most of the people who were coordinators of that program suffered academically. And several of them suffered emotionally.” Within 2 years, the program was back under the control of Boston College administrators, and the name was changed to the Office of Minority Student Affairs in order to include Latino and Asian-American students. In 1979, the program was broadened to become the Office of AHANA Student Programs.

During its five years, the Black Talent Program accepted over 300 students and had profound effects on both the diversity of the Boston College community and the lives of the students it admitted.

Photo courtesy of Thea Bowman AHANA & Intercultural Center / Facebook

Thea Bowman
Photo courtesy of Thea Bowman AHANA & Intercultural Center / Facebook

“Black Talent opened doors for [black students]. It was true to Boston College’s mission,” said Dan Bunch, a beneficiary of the Black Talent Program who is now the director of the Learning to Learn program, to Boston College Magazine. “With Black Talent, you had a poor, first generation of college students who wanted to go to college but didn’t know how to get there; nor did their parents know how to get them there. It provided an avenue for us to come in, get educated, and go off to do the things we wanted to do. Even for the ones who didn’t graduate, they had a chance to come to college. They had that chance.”

Today, the Thea Bowman AHANA and Intercultural Center, located in Maloney Hall as of the end of the Fall 2014 semester, aims to, according to its vision statement, “promote equity, build community, and support opportunity” at BC through the many programs it offers to AHANA students, such as college counseling and the Options Through Education Transitional Summer Program.