In celebration of Black History Month, we are celebrating UCLA’s Black Bruins. For 100 years, they have been among the best and the brightest — activists, leaders, teachers, role models and trendsetters. They are politicians and athletes, artists and diplomats, doctors, lawyers and everything in between. There have been sit-ins, setbacks, protests and walk-outs, and the reward has been progress. They walk in the footsteps of those who came before them, and blaze a path for those that follow, in search of a more just and equitable world.
UCLA was established in 1919, at a time when Black Americans were moving to Los Angeles to escape the violence and bigotry of the South, the beginning of the Great Migration. UCLA was not segregated, yet was not immune from the systemic racism of the time. Only a small number of Black, and other minority students were enrolled in what was then the Southern Branch of the University of California on Vermont Avenue.
Washington and Strode were two of college football’s best, yet the NFL refused to sign them. Local Black newspapers reminded the Rams that by playing at the L.A. Coliseum, supported by public funds, they were bound by law to be integrated. In 1946, Washington and Strode re-integrated the NFL, where they were subjected to racism from fans, fellow players and owners. Strode told Sports Illustrated, "Integrating the NFL was the low point of my life. There was nothing nice about it."
In a powerful act of nonviolent protest, the Freedom Riders
challenged segregation in the South. In 1947, the Supreme Court had ruled, in Morgan vs. Virginia, that segregation in interstate travel was prohibited, yet it persisted in parts of America. Activists Helen Singleton
’74 and Dr. Robert Singleton ’60, M.A. ’62, Ph.D. ’83, president of the UCLA chapter of the NAACP, travelled to Mississippi to ride segregated busses, where they were arrested and incarcerated. Singleton said, “What I wanted was to be as much of an instigator as I could and keep things happening, because I knew it was all bigger than me.” Other UCLA Freedom Riders included: Carroll Gary Barber, Albert Barouh, Marilyn Eisenberg, Winston Fuller ’60, Joseph Gerbac ’62, J.D. ’65, Michael Grubbs, Alan Kaufman, William Leons, Steven McNichols, Rabbi Philip Posner ’62, Max Pavesic ’61, Sam Townsend ’61, Mike Wolfson ’66 and Robert Farrell ’61. Farrell was arrested while sitting in a segregated coffee shop. He later served four terms as an L.A. City Councilman.
As the news of Dr. King’s assassination reached UCLA in April 1968, thousands of students marched through Westwood Village. Members of the Black Student Union instead chose to march to Ackerman, where they burned American flags and left campus. Sophomore Aaron Riviers (1967-68) was quoted as saying
, "We are deeply saddened and shocked upon learning of the death of Dr. Martin Luther King. It is indeed a symbol of racial prejudice, bigotry and racism in white America.” Virgil Roberts
’68, M.A. ’69, head of the Black Student Union (BSU) education committee said
, "We are going home to be with our people.”
The Harambee Council is the governing body of the Afrikan Student Union. ASU functions as the “umbrella” organization for more than 40 Black student organizations that contribute to the Black student, staff and faculty populations, be they professional, cultural, political or social.
The turmoil brought about change, as students worked to build a more just campus that respected diverse voices. Campus’ first Black student organization was the Black Student Union, founded in 1966. Chairperson J. Daniel Johnson
’69 said, “UCLA was the place to come if you were a young, African American male and you wanted to achieve in society. We just felt that we could overcome anything, we could accomplish anything, just give us the opportunity.” The name was later changed to the Black Student Alliance to reflect the connection to other Black organizations and African and Caribbean students on campus, and finally to the Afrikan Student Union
(ASU) in solidarity with Africa and Black people across the diaspora.
Activist Angela Davis
has said, “I cannot imagine my life other than in that trajectory that was initiated here at UCLA.” She was hired in 1968 by Chancellor Charles Young to increase faculty diversity, then fired by UC Regents for her membership in the Communist party. Reinstated, her lecture was moved to Royce Hall to accommodate the more than 2,000 students who attended, yet she was soon fired again. In 2014, she returned to the Royce Hall stage as a Regents’ Lecturer to teach a seminar in gender studies. “In order to do the work we do, however we do it – whether as artists or activists – we have to believe a different kind of world is possible.”
Chancellor Young also hired Dr. C.Z. Wilson in 1971 as the first Black UCLA vice chancellor. At the time, Wilson was the top-ranking African American in the entire University of California system. One of the most influential Black administrators in UCLA history, he was instrumental in bringing Affirmative Action to UCLA.
Influential Black alumni, including Mayor Bradley ’41, Larry Hollyfield ’73, Herschel Ramsey ’80 and triple Bruin and UCLA Vice Chancellor emeritus Winston Doby ’63, M.A. ’72, Ed.D. ’74 initiated the UCLA Black Alumni Association (UBAA) in 1968. Today, UBAA fosters connections and supports Black graduates of UCLA. They have raised more than $3.4 million dollars in scholarship support and received the UCLA Alumni Network of the Year Award in 2018.
Tragedy struck campus when two members of UCLA’s Black Panther Party, students Alprentice “Bunchy” Carter and John Jerome Huggins Jr., were shot and killed in Campbell Hall
— in an alleged internal dispute. Elaine Brown
’68, who would go on to lead the Panthers, said the men “talked about uniting the community and the campus.” Carter and Huggins were among the first group of students admitted under the High Potential Program (HPP), an effort to widen access for students from underrepresented backgrounds. In 1971, HPP was combined with the Educational Opportunity Program
to create what is now the Academic Advancement Program
, a collection of innovative programs serving students from multi-ethnic, low-income, first generation and multiracial backgrounds.
Black students at UCLA advocated to have their culture studied at the university. As a result, the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies
was established in 1969 to develop African American Studies at UCLA, one of the first centers of its kind. The establishment of UCLA’s prestigious Institute of American Cultures
(IAC) and its four ethnic studies
centers — American Indian, African American, Chicano and Asian American — was a step forward by the University. The IAC continues to advocate for academic freedom, civil and human rights and community activism.
In the midst of these heightened tensions, a group of Black students were admitted to the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television’s Ethno-Communications program. Influenced by politics and the mainstream portrayal of African Americans in film, they developed a collaborative new style called the "L.A. Rebellion
," an expression of Black pride and dignity by these early Black filmmakers. Julie Dash
’74 became the first Black woman to have her film (“Daughters of the Dust”) receive general theatrical release in the United States.
A major flashpoint of the era sparked student-led strikes across the country when, in 1970, at a protest at Kent State against the Vietnam War, the Ohio National Guard shot and killed four people. At UCLA, more than 1,000 students gathered for a rally that turned violent. Administrators called in the LAPD and declared an illegal assembly. As campus returned to calm, seven Black students came together to create something positive. Their mural, “The Black Experience
,” includes photos of the artists alongside images of African American history.
"A World Class University"
The 1980s and 90s saw the proliferation of the Internet, the magnitude 6.7 Northridge earthquake and the Los Angeles Olympics, where Bruin athletes won 37 medals. Students protested
the injustice of South African apartheid
, the passing of the anti-affirmative action Prop. 209
and the anti-immigration Prop. 187
. Los Angeles erupted for five days of civil unrest following the acquittal of the LAPD officers who stopped and beat Rodney King. UCLA also saw two more significant firsts. Cynthia McClain Hill
’78, J.D. ’81, became UCLA’s first Black woman student body president in 1976. A first-gen student, in 2020 McClain Hill was elected president of the Los Angeles Board of Water and Power Commissioners. And in 1983, Kimberly Cohn became the first Black editor of the Daily Bruin.
Black students have been leaders in moving the campus forward on important issues. Dion Raymond ’86 chose to attend UCLA because, “If you wanted to be socially, politically active, UCLA was really the best place to learn inside the classroom and outside the classroom.” Raymond, currently president of the UCLA Black Staff & Faculty Association
, was active in organizing anti-apartheid protests at UCLA as the BSA chairperson. The student group the Third World Coalition
(TWC), led by John Caldwell
’81, advocated for corporate divestment from South Africa. The TWC organized BIPOC students to lead student government, where they successfully advocated for divestment and student-run retention and access programs. Tim Ngubeni ’79, M.A. ’80, M.P.H. ’82, was a leader in the divestment campaign, the founder and first fulltime director of the Community Programs Office (CPO), and a mentor for years to many UCLA student activists.
African American enrollment declines at UCLA since Prop 209.
California’s ban on affirmative action had a profound impact on Black student enrollment. In 1995, the UC Board of Regents voted to ban using race to decide UC admissions. And in 1998, California voters enacted Prop. 209, eliminating affirmative action in all of the state’s public colleges and universities. In protest, student groups formed a coalition, organizing three “Days of Defiance
” to encourage Chancellor Albert Carnesale not to comply. USAC President Kandea Mosley
’98 said, "Our opposition to Prop. 209 … is not a result of a skewed perception of affirmative action as a cure-all for all of our communities. Rather, the reason behind raising a political struggle in this university is created out of our understanding that organized struggle … is necessary on every level."
To encourage an understanding of a diversity of experiences, a majority of UCLA students voted to pass the Communicating Unity Through Education Initiative in 2011. In 2015, UCLA established a diversity requirement. Students now are required to take a course that "addresses racial, ethnic, gender, socioeconomic, sexual orientation, religious or other types of diversity."
To increase the number of competitive Black students, UCLA began what Vice Provost, Enrollment Management, Youlonda Copeland-Morgan
has called “intrusive recruiting.” Several student groups also began working with communities of color
facing access and retention issues. These included S.H.A.P.E.
(Students Heightening Academic Performance through Education) to mentor inner-city high school students and the Academic Supports Program
(ASP), a student-led retention project of ASU.
BLACK LIVES MATTER
Patrisse Cullors '12, Co-Founder of Black Lives Matter
The Black Lives Matter
movement to end violence inflicted on Black communities has become a global cultural phenomenon. The movement arose following the death of Trayvon Martin, the acquittal of his accused murderer, and the too many
deaths of Black Americans. Founding member Patrisse Cullors
’12 advocates for law enforcement accountability while addressing the trauma of police brutality. In 2015, UCLA created the Office of Equity Diversity and Inclusion
(EDI) to combat discrimination and uphold dignity for all. The head of EDI, Vice Chancellor Anna Spain Bradley, has said, “Building an authentic community requires us to see one another, accept one another, value each other and recognize our inherent human dignity.”
UCLA professors have also played a role in creating increased equity and access in education. The Black Male Institute
(BMI) was founded by Tyrone Howard
, associate dean for Equity & Inclusion at UCLA Graduate School of Education & Information Systems. He says, “If we allow these young men to define themselves and their successes in their language, with their words and stories and experiences, then perhaps that becomes a small part of the process of redefining the narrative.” Professor Mark Sawyer
, a champion for access and diversity, played a primary role in the creation of UCLA’s Department of African American Studies and to move beyond the traditional view of race in politics he co-founded the Race, Ethnicity, and Politics Program in the UCLA Department of Political Science.
Darnell Hunt, dean of the UCLA College Division of Social Sciences, is the lead author of the Bunche Center’s Hollywood Diversity Report. First published in 2014, it is an annual series that examines the relationship between diversity and profit in the entertainment industry. The report has consistently found people of color remained underrepresented in the film and television industry.
Black student voices went viral in the spoken word video “The Black Bruins
,” featuring Sy Stokes ’15 and members of the Black Male Institute. “The wounds of our past have healed. We are not asking for a handout. We are asking for a level playing field.” In the fall of 2015, following the fraternity and sorority "Kanye Western'' party, ASU members protested students leaving the party, some in blackface, according to the Daily Bruin
. Photos of students in blackface had been published in the yearbook as late as 1985
. Dr. Chad Williams
’98, former chair of ASU said, “The statement #BlackBruinsMatter certainly speaks to the present, but it must also speak to the past as well. Especially if we want to understand the reasons why the current racial demographics and attendant climate is so problematic and creates the conditions for incidents like the frat party.”
Sherrilyn Ifill, a leading civil rights lawyer, spoke at UCLA’s Thurgood Marshall Lecture Series in 2020. She told the audience, “This is a movement time. And that movement of young people is powerful. They push us to do things faster.” The Bunche Center inaugurated the Thurgood Marshall Lecture Series on Law and Human Rights in 1986, to pay tribute to the first Black Supreme Court Justice, Thurgood Marshall.
The Black Lives Matter movement gained urgency in 2020. Chanting the names of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, UCLA students
, staff and community members marched to protest racial injustice and police brutality. UCLA students advocated for a campus environment that protects Black students and fosters their academic success. They demanded all UC campuses divest from the UCPD, opposed the use of Jackie Robinson Stadium to confine arrested protesters and repeated the need for a fully funded Black Resource Center at UCLA.
There has also been a call to recognize the Black student experience through the lens of the larger issues facing the Black community. One such issue is the COVID-19 pandemic, which has exposed inequities
among people of color. UCLA is working to improve health care access and treatment
for underrepresented minority groups. Linda Burnes Bolton
, M.S.N. ’72, M.P.H. ’76, DR.P.H. ’88, has dedicated her life’s work to increasing cultural diversity in healthcare. She has said, "The nursing profession plays a critical role in achieving our country's vision of an effective, affordable health care system that is accessible and responsive to all.” Dr. Vickie M. Mays leads the UCLA Center on Minority Health Disparities
. Regarding the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr. Mays has said, “We are all connected. The extent to which we allow members of our society to be unequal is the extent to which we endanger the health of all.”
In 1956, UCLA hired Betty Smith Williams, to teach public health nursing. She was the first Black person hired to teach at the university level in California.
Responding to the protests and student demands of 2020, UCLA has introduced an initiative
to build a more inclusive campus. Chancellor Gene Block and Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Emily Carter said
, “UCLA must be a place that respects and empowers all Bruins and that works to overcome anti-Blackness and other manifestations of racism throughout society.” Plans include the Black student resource center, new faculty positions, fellowships, fundraising and research support. Chancellor Block promised to continue, “Our work to fight racism will not end with these steps. More changes will be coming to challenge the structural racism that exists in our education system, from kindergarten through graduate school, including at institutions like UCLA.”
In 2020, the Black Student-Athlete Alliance announced their organization, saying, “Through this group, we want to create a safe space for Black athletes to grow & elicit change on campus and beyond. We will no longer remain silent.” The alliance was founded under the leadership of student-athletes, including women’s basketball senior forwards Lauryn Miller and Michaela Onyenwere.
The story of Black students at UCLA continues. It tells of the struggles and the successes, for individuals, famous and ordinary, and as a record of the larger UCLA community. Dr. Jonli Tunstall
’05, Ph.D. ’11, has said, "It's about creating a ripple effect and so by investing in one student or a group of students, those students will then go on to invest in other students."
Viral sensation Nia Dennis performs floor routine celebrating Black Excellence
In January 2021, UCLA senior Nia Dennis
celebrated “Black Excellence” in her viral gymnastics routine
, clinching a win for the Bruins in their season opener. Dennis drew on her personal history to create a “dance party” medley of music and moves, inspired by hip hop and R&B culture. She said, "This routine definitely reflects everything that I am today as a woman and of course I had to incorporate a lot of parts of my culture."
Despite a century of great progress, underrepresented students continue to face
challenges — including lower retention rates, difficulty adjusting to college life and financial setbacks. In an L.A. Times op-ed
, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar said, “Racism in America is like dust in the air. It seems invisible — even if you’re choking on it — until you let the sun in. Then you see it’s everywhere. As long as we keep shining that light, we have a chance of cleaning it wherever it lands. But we have to stay vigilant, because it’s always still in the air.” He continued, “So you know, we got a lot of work to do. And all of us have to be involved in it, every American."
Previous stories on Black Bruin History: