When Josiah Laney (SFS ’21) first arrived at Georgetown University, he did not get a haircut during the fall semester because he did not know where to find a Black barbershop in Washington, D.C., or who to ask for that information.
“For me, freshman year, I never got a haircut during the fall or like, midway into the spring semester, just because I had no idea who to ask,” Laney said. “I think it was a lot more difficult that way, and it also made it a little bit more exclusive, ’cause it was like you had to know someone in order to be able to get, like, these basic resources or to find people who shared your background.”
For incoming Black students attending a predominantly white institution like Georgetown, not knowing upperclassmen could mean not knowing where to find support systems on campus, familiar foods off campus and other resources.
This difficulty in passing down shared knowledge within the Black community is what inspired the creation of the Black Book of Georgetown, a consolidation of on-campus and off-campus resources published in April of this year as a publicly accessible online PDF by and for Black students.
The PDF can be found on the Black Book’s Instagram page and on The Blaxa, a newspaper created by Black students that focuses on the Black community at Georgetown. The Black Book contains information that is generally passed on from student to student, which makes it a useful guide for incoming Black students who may not have any on-campus connections, according to Laney.
“You don’t really get that type of information at NSO, and I think that that’s something that leaders of the Black community have been recognizing,” Laney said. “And so they created this work that compiled a list of those resources for students both on and off campus.”
The Black Book is divided into sections on the Black history and legacy of Georgetown, off-campus resources, on-campus student organizations and centers, community and faculty support and tips for navigating the university.
The off-campus resources section is divided into hair, beauty and clothing shops; general and Black mental health hotlines; Black historical and cultural landmarks in DC; and local restaurants. The on-campus resources section contains a list of Black and ally student organizations and administrative spaces, as well as a community and faculty support section with the names, positions and email addresses of helpful Georgetown staff and faculty members.
The creation of the Black Book primarily relied on feedback from the Georgetown community regarding resources and tips to include, according to Denzell Brown (COL ’21).
“Throughout the process of making the book, the way we created it is we sent out a survey to Black student organizations, Black people on campus, just people of color on campus, and got their feedback on things that they thought they would need and things that they thought would be helpful in their experience in navigating Georgetown,” Brown said. “So the book was really written by the community itself.”
Brown, Laney and Myiah Smith (SFS ’20) began collaborating with the Black community to create the Black Book in fall 2019, according to Smith.
An important consideration in the creation of the book was deciding which resources to include or exclude, as the Black Book is not meant to be an exhaustive list of all resources or groups available to Black students, according to Smith.
“One of the things that was really important for us was making sure we weren’t publishing the book connected to one specific campus organization or one specific student,” Smith said. “We wanted to make sure it was a very neutral document that uplifted all of the Black experience, not just one specific art group or Black student alliance or one particular professor or one particular office.”
Writing Down Oral Traditions
While Georgetown has made progress in admitting a more diverse student body — with 53% of the students admitted to Georgetown’s Class of 2024 self-identifying as people of color — Black students still constitute only 7% of the overall student body, despite accounting for 15.1% of the overall U.S. undergraduate student population in 2018, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Lack of representation on campus makes resources for Black students less visible, which is something that the Black Book addresses, according to Smith.
“There isn’t a visibility issue for white students on campus, but there’s definitely a visibility issue for Black students on campus, and we wanted to make sure that there was a consolidation point and a reference that students of color could consult,” Smith said.
Before the publication of the Black Book, many of the off-campus resources listed in it were passed on from student to student, according to Laney.
The practice of sharing resources within Black communities and networks is not new, according to Shauntell Pinckney (COL ’15, GRD ’19), associate director of development engagement for alumni of color at Georgetown. Pinckney, who is listed on the Black Book’s community and faculty support page, recalled her own experience learning about resources in and around Georgetown as a freshman attending a Georgetown University Women of Color event.
“The upperclassmen told us which restaurants to try, where to get our hair and nails done, who hosted the best parties, and most importantly served as advisors on which classes to take and which professors to avoid,” Pinckney wrote in an email to The Hoya. “The Black Community has always been a community of oral tradition and I believe that sometimes things can be lost in translation, so to have a physical guide that a student can reference at any time is a great addition to the resources given to this community.”
As the Associate Director of the Center for Student Engagement, Jaime Brown (GRD ’23) had more information about campus resources than many students. Yet, when she started her MBA program at Georgetown, she was still looking to places like the Georgetown Black Graduate Student Alliance, the diversity and inclusion newsletter and the Black Book, all of which are built on student experiences.
“I am a first-year student in the MBA program and the first thing I did was find @blackatmsb on Insta, then BGSA, and the D&I newsletter, the list goes on,” Brown wrote in an email to The Hoya. “And I am a staff person with so much more knowledge than the average student coming in for the first time. The fact that I still want to find resources like this says a lot. For people like me, looking for the real on Georgetown, the Black Book is helpful.”
The Black History of Georgetown
Before the Black Book lists recommendations for campus organizations, supportive staff and food, the book recounts the history of Black people at Georgetown and in the District. The decision to begin the Black Book with a timeline of the Black history of Georgetown reflects the importance of this history to the entire Georgetown community, according to Director of the Center for Multicultural Equity and Access Charlene Brown-McKenzie, who is also included on the Black Book’s community and faculty support page.
“The history of Black Georgetown both inside and outside the gates is critically important for all of us in this community to both acknowledge and celebrate. The existence of CMEA and the Black House emerged out of activism by Black students in the late 60’s who later formed the Black Student Alliance,” Brown-McKenzie wrote in an email to The Hoya. “Our work remains deeply rooted in racial justice and uplighting communities impacted by all forms of injustice.”
The Black Book’s timeline begins in the 1600s with the arrival of enslaved Africans in Virginia and ends with Georgetown today, discussing the GU272 referendum and the university’s decision to open a Student Equity and Inclusion Office in 2019.
The GU272 referendum, which 66.1% of the student body voted in favor of in April 2019, called for the creation of a reconciliation fund for the descendants of the 272 enslaved people sold by the Maryland Province of the Society of Jesus in 1838 to financially sustain the university. The passing of the referendum made Georgetown the first university in the United States to vote in favor of a system of reconciliation for the descendants of its formerly enslaved population.
The university’s board of directors decided against implementing the student fee originally outlined in the referendum six months after the student vote, however. Many students were disappointed by this decision and have continued urging the university to implement the reconciliation fee through groups such as the Students for GU272+ campaign on Instagram, which was launched June 19.
Georgetown’s continued struggle to address its history of slavery and its status as a PWI is important to acknowledge, according to Director of the Georgetown Scholars Program Melissa Foy (COL ’03), who is also included on the Black Book’s community and faculty support page.
“I think it’s important for students to acknowledge and recognize Georgetown’s historical relationship with the institution of slavery,” Foy wrote in an email to The Hoya. “For the last several years Georgetown has been working to confront this history and to work with the descendant community and students on what comes next.”
Black students have played an essential role in the history of the university and continue to do so today, according to Foy. Since the admission of the first Black undergraduate student in 1950, Black students have formed the Black Student Alliance, advocated for the Community Scholars Program — which was established to serve underrepresented ethnic and socioeconomic groups in 1968 — and much more.
“It’s pretty eye-opening to see that the first Black undergraduate student, Samuel Halsey Jr., only graduated in the 50s; that is very recent history,” Foy wrote. “So if you have a day where you feel like you don’t fit in, remember that you are still blazing a trail. This place is evolving and you are part of its living history.”
Although there is no physical copy of the Black Book available yet, the university should provide the necessary funding for its publication and distribution to the entire student body, according to Smith.
“We want to reach a point where, for the first Welcome Back Weeks, we want all first-year students to get a physical copy of the Black Book of Georgetown. Not just to the Black diasporic students, not just the students of color, but all students on Georgetown’s campus,” Smith said. “We think that Georgetown has a responsibility to provide that resource. We’ve already created it, so now we need the assistance of someone paying for us to print it and distributing it to students who deserve it, who need it.”
Some of the other goals for the Black Book include forming a club around its production and eventually partnering with other organizations and affinity groups to help them produce their own books of resources, according to Smith.
Georgetown’s decision not to allow incoming freshmen to live on campus for the fall 2020 semester because of the COVID-19 pandemic makes the Black Book an incredibly important resource for new students, according to Laney. The book is especially important for those who were supposed to attend Hoya Saxa Weekend, an event hosted by the CMEA each spring to introduce prospective students of color to Georgetown.
“This now is an essential resource, especially now with the COVID-19 pandemic happening. Like, usually people are able to come to Hoya Saxa Weekend, where people who are identified as people of color can see some of the resources that are there for them when they get to campus,” Laney said. “Having a resource like this, now especially, was really exciting for a lot of staff and faculty, the students and prospective students who will be now attending Georgetown, and they’ll know about what’s there to support them.”
The choice to attribute the Black Book to the Black community as a whole and to make its production process open to all students who would like to contribute to it ensures the continuity and legacy of the book, according to Brown.
“When it comes to the Black Book, it’s all about sustainability, because we want this to be sustained over generations at a time,” Brown said. “That’s the whole purpose of the book, to be honest with you, because we want it to be reflective of people’s experiences. That’s why I say it’s a fluid document, because it’s ever-changing. It’s not something that’s stable. It’s something that’s continually growing and continually evolving.”