When Conan Louis (FLL ’73) arrived at Georgetown in 1969, he was one of about 30 black students in the entire undergraduate population. There were no black members of the faculty or the administration.
Although the university admitted its first black undergraduate in 1950, almost two decades later, the student body remained overwhelmingly white. As recently as 1964, there was only one black student in the College.
“We took exception to the fact that there seemed not to be the kind of support system that was necessary for African-American students to survive and thrive at the university,” Louis said. “We sought to change that.”
Louis, along with other members of the Black Student Alliance, which was formed in 1968 and chaired at the time by Wendell Robinson (CAS ’71), decided to take action.
“We went en masse to the president’s office — without an appointment, I might add,” Louis said with a chuckle. “And the president agreed to see us, and he agreed to take steps addressing the issues that we raised.”
Out of that meeting was born a commitment by the university to enroll more black students, recruit black faculty members and create the Black Student Alliance House — a meeting place, refuge and second home for many that has stood at the center of the university’s black community since the building’s founding in 1970.
“It literally became the center of African-American social life on campus. It was a space where almost all of us hung out in between classes, sometimes during classes,” Louis said, chuckling again. “It totally transformed the community in terms of its ability to congregate and galvanize.”
According to Dennis Williams, director of the Center for Multicultural Equity & Access and himself a student at Cornell University when the Black House was created, similar activism was going on at college campuses across the country. Many of the cultural centers, minority residence halls and ethnic studies programs that exist today were founded during this period.
Georgetown was also impacted by the movements sweeping the nation. In 1968, Martin Luther KingJr. was assassinated, and riots erupted in Washington, D.C., and across the country.
According to Louis, the BSA was swept up in the political movement of the late 1960s; in addition to working for change at the university, the group also brought D.C. politicians to campus to engage in discussion.
It was also in 1968 when Georgetown’s Community Scholars Program was established to serve underrepresented ethnic and socioeconomic groups. According to Williams, the program was the university’s first serious attempt at integration, and its early participants were mostly black students who had graduated from the D.C. public school system. The program offered support for those students both academically and financially.
In part due to the Community Scholars Program, the number of black students at Georgetown began to grow in the early 1970s. In September of 1970, The Hoya reported that 33 black students had been admitted as part of a freshman class of 1,100; in 1971, the freshman class included about 70.
“Once some of these doors were opened, there was a large push from students themselves,” Williams said.
At Georgetown, the Black Student Alliance House was at the center of these efforts to drive change.
But the house was first and foremost a gathering place for many black students. In the first several years of its existence, the house was not a residence and instead served as a meeting place and a spot for students to drop in between classes.
“There were not a lot of places you could go and see someone who looked like you,” Valerie Grasso(CAS ’75) said. Grasso was part of the first class that included a substantial number of black students and also a member of just the third class of women admitted to the College of Arts and Sciences. “What it represented for me was just this tiny oasis in the middle of campus where I could just go and relax.”
Louis’ wife Gail, who enrolled at Georgetown two years after her husband, agreed.
“If you needed to clear your head, there was a place where you could go where it was safe to do so. … When I went to class, often I was the only black person in the class, and it got a little tedious being expected to be the authority on all that was black,” she said. “But it was nice to be able to go someplace and say, ‘Can you believe what happened to me today?’”
Since many of the first black students at Georgetown were D.C. natives recruited through the Community Scholars Program, the majority of them did not live on campus, and the house was especially important to commuter students.
“There were changes going on in the university and not everyone was happy about the changes, so I think it was really important to have a place where people could go,” Gail Louis said. “The role was a great one as kind of a safe haven.”
Conan Louis recalls that the first floor was usually occupied by students relaxing between classes, playing the card game whist or catching a short nap, while the upstairs was a place to study, complete with a library of old textbooks. The house played host to events ranging from holiday meals for students who could not afford to go home during breaks to Black Student Alliance meetings to parties.
“It was important … for something as simple as the kind of music that would be played at dances and parties on campus was simply not the kind of music that we were always interested in listening to,” Conan Louis said. “And so every month, six weeks or so, there was a party at the Black House.”
It has been more than 40 years since the Black House was established, and the university has changed in many ways. Last year, 10 percent of the 3,316 admitted students were black, and the number of minority students admitted hit an all-time high. As the university has changed, so has the Black House. After years on O Street, the house moved to its current location at 1410 36th St. NW, shortened its name from the Black Student Alliance House to the Black House and became a residence as well as a gathering place. But for many students, the house plays a similar role as it did as its founding.
Yasmin Serrato (SFS ’13), a current resident of the Black House, was first exposed to the house as a high school senior during Hoya Saxa weekend, a program that brings underrepresented admitted students of color to campus.
“The Black House was like a safe haven,” she said.
For freshmen in particular, the house can still serve as an important resource.
“It can be kind of overwhelming being a freshman or even a sophomore. The Black House just offers a safe space to have those conversations with people who may have had the same experiences as you just because of your color or the household you come from,” Sidney Wells (COL ’16) said.
Just as in the 1970s, the house is still a destination for students who want a place to study, grab a bite to eat or nap between classes.
“It’s just a resource for people who need it,” Carolyn Chambers (COL ’11), who lived in the Black House during her junior year, said. “If you need a place to watch your weekly shows or to do your homework, or if you need to take a nap on the couch, you can do that. The Black House just tries to provide whatever the community needs, whatever you can’t find anywhere else, you can probably find it at the Black House.”
Although the university has changed drastically since the 1970s, advocacy has remained an important goal of the Black House community. In the fall, it held a Haunted House event on Halloween in partnership with What’s After Dark. After the event received two visits from Student Neighborhood Assistance Program and one visit from a Metropolitan Police Department officer within its first two hours, the residents decided to file a racial bias incident report and Aya Waller-Bey (COL ’14), a current Black House resident, wrote an op-ed in The Hoya.
“It’s sad that this is a reality in Georgetown, but what we did is we raised awareness,” Serrato said. “We spoke up. As a house, we were able to make sure that people knew and that the issue was not silenced.”
David Price (COL ’14), another resident of the Black House, agreed that the house has a role to play in addressing diversity issues on campus.
“There are many Georgetowns,” he said. “It’s a broader problem, but it trickles down to a Black House problem.”
But in many ways, the house has also expanded its role on campus. According to Chambers, during her time at Georgetown, the house began to open itself up to more multicultural groups. The university’s Students of Color Alliance now holds its weekly meetings at the Black House, and one of the house’s residents is a SOCA co-chair.
“The reason we did that was to anchor that facility as a kind of meeting space for all the different student groups of color,” Williams said.
The Black House put on a town hall meeting for Georgetown University Student Association candidates to address diversity issues this February. Waller-Bey said it is one of the programs she is most proud of from this year and something she hopes will become an annual tradition.
For Serrato, a first-generation college student, the desire to spread awareness about the Black House was part of what drove her to apply to live there.
“When I realized I was actually the only Latina at an NAACP event, I was like, you know, I don’t think people are aware that this house is not just for NAACP or BSA,” she said. “That kind of sparked my interest in the Black House. I was like: ‘I want to live here. I want to make sure that other people know what Black House is.’”
The current residents co-sponsored programs with 12 different organizations last semester and held a record 22 events in the house. According to Waller-Bey, the house this year has strengthened its presence on campus as a whole.
“This year, everything has evolved, and we’ve definitely thought outside the box,” she said.
One of the programs that current residents are most proud of is a series of weekly discussions where students pick a topic, flip over an hourglass and talk until the sand runs down. Wells, a regular participant in the hourglass discussions, said the discussions have been valuable to him — although he said they would be more productive if a wider range of opinions were represented, with both more men and those of different ethnicities in attendance.
“It is a tremendous way to gain insight from your minority peers,” he said. “I find it amazing that these conversations are happening.”
Beyond its role in the community, the house has played an important role in the lives of students who lived or spent time there throughout its history.
Conan Louis, who spent most of his free time in the then-Black Student Alliance House, said what he remembers most about his time at Georgetown was his involvement in the BSA.
“I believe that it was that leadership experience that really helped to form who I was and who I became as a result of my Georgetown experience,” he said.
Louis has remained highly involved with the university, serving on the board of governors and as vice president for alumni relations.
For Chambers, living in the Black House taught her to always put the community first — even when that meant leaving the house open until late at night.
“We used to have people spending the night, staying up late doing homework, having meetings, coming in for food — all these different reasons,” she said.
Because the house has an open door policy, students are always coming in and out of the house.
“It can go from quiet study sessions, where we’re all just doing homework at the dining room table, to suddenly music playing, and a ‘Harlem shake’ video,” Serrato said. “I was literally studying at the dining room table, and next thing you know, I’m in this ‘Harlem shake’ video with these visitors, these 12 people who just showed up.”
Both Price and Waller-Bey will live in the Black House again next year, but because of university concessions to relocate Magis Row as part of the 2010 Campus Plan agreement with neighborhood groups, the house will move again next year after 20 years at 1410 down the block to 1308.
“It’s kind of like a next chapter, but to start a new chapter, you have to close the one behind it,” Serrato said.
“There’s a lot of history here,” Waller-Bey agreed.
Both Williams and the current residents hope to use the move to raise more awareness about the Black House and draw a broader range of students to its discussions.
“Originally, it was a sanctuary. It can still be that a little bit, but I think it is a little less necessary for any one place to be that,” Williams said. “It is a center of conscious activity in organization. It is place where people come together to get things done.”