This story is part of a series on the 1968 protests at Columbia and their present-day implications fifty years later.
In 1969, the newly formed Barnard Organization of Soul Sisters made 10 demands to the college in hopes of bettering the experience of the 80 black women on campus at the time. Fifty years later, BOSS continues to be the lead advocate for Barnard’s now 234 black students.
Founder of BOSS Frances Sadler, BC ’72, now a member of Barnard’s board of trustees, held the first meetings in her dorm room, where she and her friends met to discuss their experiences as black students on a predominantly white campus.
In the aftermath of the 1968 protests against the Vietnam War and proposed gym expansion into Morningside Park, BOSS officially formed as a response to the fact that the activist groups leading these protests at Columbia tended to be white and male-dominated.
Though the group was not originally formed as an activist group, by 1969 it had pushed for the creation of an Afro-American studies major, more active recruitment of black students, and orientation programming geared toward black students, among other demands, many of which the College has yet to meet.
Barnard women, both black and white, participated in the 1968 protests, though many were ushered into traditional gender roles, according to Karla Spurlock-Evans, BC ’71. Black women in protests, however, had to contend with even more diminished roles due to both their gender and their race.
“Back in 1968, we were conditioned to capitulate to the idea that black men were going to stand up and take the lead,” Spurlock-Evans said. “Whether it’s correct or not, we were under the impression that perhaps [black] women needed to step back to give space for [black] men to be men in a patriarchal society where they had been denied manhood. It was a commonly held community understanding of the relations between black men and black women.”
Spurlock-Evans said that it was this gendered dynamic that led black Barnard students to split from campus activist groups such as the Student Afro-American Society and ultimately form BOSS.
“The women who organized BOSS felt that they didn’t want to be second-class citizens in a male-focused, male-identified organization, which they felt SAS to be,” she said.
Fifty years later, many of the issues that members of BOSS sought to address remain concerns for black students at Barnard: a more inclusive, diverse curriculum; the recruitment and enrollment of more black women; the establishment of an Afro-American studies major; and a new student orientation program designed and administered by black students.
Other more recent efforts include the petition to diversify the English major requirements and initiatives by members of SGA’s Inclusion and Equity and Academic Affairs committees, such as the Bold Conference, a day-long conference which will focus on addressing issues of inclusion in the classroom.
While women of color may be more welcome in activist groups then they were in 1968, the number of black women at Barnard is still low. Though the class of 2021 is Barnard’s most diverse yet, less than 10 percent of its students identify as black.
The college has since made efforts to admit more black women to the college, but member of BOSS and SGA’s Inclusion and Equity committee, Solace Mensah-Narh, BC ’21, believes Barnard can do more.
“They’re like ‘don’t worry, we’re admitting more [black women,]’ and I’m like, actually, there’s 43 of us [in the class of 2021].”
Mensah-Narh, who will serve as SGA representative for academic affairs, has sought to diversify the eurocentric First-Year Writing and First-Year Seminar curricula.
“It didn’t take long for me to realize that a lot of the classes here are focused around white men,” she said. “There’s a difference between adding courses about people of color versus ingraining more diverse thought and more diverse voices into every single course. I feel like a lot of the things that BOSS was asking Barnard to do was to stop making it seem like the white man was the most important voice, which is still happening. So many students apply to Barnard because they think it’s separate from the white man, but it’s not. And we’re letting [these students] down.”
Tirzah Anderson, BC ’21 and community outreach chair of BOSS, also said that the administration does not to do enough to support black women, leaving black students to advocate for themselves.
“A lot of the things that are made for black people are made by black students, like Bold Beautiful Black at Barnard was a student-run event,” Anderson said. “I don’t know if people are going to want to come [to Barnard] and have to do all the labor themselves to make themselves feel included in this space because that’s very tiring and difficult.”
Barnard has created some programs, such as Barnard Bound, which focuses on introducing students of color to Barnard and supporting them once they’ve enrolled. Despite these programs, the percentage of black students on campus remains concerning to many.
“[Visiting] Barnard and not seeing that many black people can deter you, especially if you have another option that is more diverse. So it’s just difficult because if there’s not many [black women] now, how are you going to get people to come?” Anderson said.
Members of BOSS have participated in informal recruitment and take it upon themselves to meet, welcome, and encourage black prospective students to commit to Barnard.
However, Anderson noted that a lack of a black-specific orientation programs may discourage prospective students from applying or committing to the college.
“I know some places have a black orientation, or a pre-orientation with all black students,” Anderson said. “Barnard doesn’t have anything like that, so if you’re looking at another school that has those types of resources, you’re going to want to go to that place more.”
Phanesia Pharel, BC ’21, created Bold, Beautiful, Black at Barnard, a three-day celebration of black students at Barnard, after coming to the realization that administrators often lump them with other students of color as an umbrella group. While students cite resources targeting students of color as useful, these initiatives—including Barnard Student Life’s POC community meetups and the Furman Counseling Center’s Women of Color Support Group —generalize their experiences and are not specifically targeted towards the experiences of black students.
“Whenever it comes down to empowering black women, the job is left to black women,” Pharel said.
Today, BOSS has shifted its focus from protest-centered activism to a concentration on creating a space for black women to support each other.
“I would say BOSS’s current focus is building community,” Anderson said. “We’re just trying to make campus feel more inclusive for black women. To me, a form of activism is literally just having a space for black women and keeping that open and letting people in. I think in the ’60s and ’70s, activism was seen very differently, where you needed to go out in the streets and protest; I don’t think we’re viewing it that way anymore as much. I think it’s shifted a lot.”
BOSS members still keep in mind the legacy of the organization and see alumnae such as Sadler as role models.
“We think of BOSS’s history and what it started out as,” Denise Mantey, BC ’21, said. “Considering this is the 50th year [of the organization], we’ve definitely been keeping in consideration the history of BOSS, where BOSS is now, and where BOSS can go. We’ve kept in contact with Frances Sadler...which is great because she has a lot of input into what BOSS does. She’s a mother to us.”