During a days-long occupation of what would eventually become the Malcolm X Lounge in April 1970, students from the Afro-American Society demanded that Columbia create an official space for Black students on campus. Their demands reflected the momentum from the 1968 protests, during which students occupied Hamilton Hall in protest of the University’s plans to build a segregated gym in Morningside Park.
To defend against disciplinary action, the occupiers argued that they were not disrupting the functions of the University by demonstrating; the lounge had remained unoccupied since the departure of the Navy Reserves Officers’ Training Corps in 1968. Dean Carl Hovde responded that the organizers were “Clearly in the [lounge] against the wishes of the body with jurisdiction.”
Fifty years later, the Malcolm X Lounge, located in Hartley Hall, continues to provide a space for the organizing so closely tied to the University’s history. Here, different iterations of Black student coalitions have lead significant consequential mobilizations, from the protesting of Columbia’s tenant evictions to the call for Columbia to cut ties with the Apartheid South African government. Throughout it all, the actions of Black students in solidarity with other Black communities held the University accountable.
Columbia now enrolls a significantly larger volume of Black students hailing from a wider range of communities than it did in the 1970s, when Columbia accepted its first class of Black students under affirmative action. Black alumni from this era have noted that their solidarity with West Harlem was intuitive for the cohort of students that largely hailed from low-income Black communities.
While that is no longer the case for a majority of Black students, Aryn Davis, SEAS ’21, the Black Students’ Organization president, said that the space continues to incorporate community members into the larger context of the Black community.
“I think we definitely straddle a nice little nice between being a sociocultural foundation for Black students, but our events take a more educational stance,” Davis said. She added that there is leverage in being a student-activist “since we are sort of a lot closer to the institution and we can get things into their ear.”
According to Community Outreach Chair Colby King, CC ’22, the fluctuating relationships between Harlem and Columbia activists are largely a result of the University’s history of violence that imposed harsh policing and massive efforts of gentrification on Harlem. King noted that barriers to organizing include non-students’ limited access to the lounge and the BSO’s inability to make expenditures that are considered “political” due to its status as a “cultural organization.”
“While we are Black students, a lot of us aren’t from West Harlem or New York. We are overcoming our relationships with the community and going to a school that is actively harming the Harlem community,” King said.
According to Political Chair Rosalyn Huff, CC ’20, the BSO addresses the challenges to organizing through an awareness of issues that affect the Black community. Over the past academic year, the BSO held panels on prison abolition movements and actively spoke out against Columbia’s silence on the criminalization of Black youth following the death of Barnard first-year Tess Majors in December.
“A lot of time, the political issues come from those places. Even though we don’t have the outreach on Harlem, we are paying attention to those issues,” Huff said. “How can we raise awareness through that relationship?”
Moving forward, the BSO is seeking to renovate the lounge, which is one of two affinity spaces on campus—the other being the Stephen Donaldson lounge for LGBTQ students. King assures that despite the barriers preventing students from engaging with the community, issues concerning Harlem are at the center of conversations happening in the lounge.
In the Malcolm X Lounge, he added, “Not only [do] students have a voice, but the community has a place.”