At Fifty Years
Black Student Fund: 50 Years of Excellence
Sholomo B. Levy
Why I got involved
When I was invited to join the Black Student Fund by its Executive Director, Mr. Leroy Nesbitt, I knew it was going to be an important, exciting, and worthwhile project. Conducting a historical review of an organization dedicated to help African Americans achieve academic excellence is a unique opportunity. As an Associate Professor of History, my efforts have largely been academic, working with students in the classroom.
The eighteen years of a young person’s life preceding college present more obstacles to one’s ultimate success than the few hurdles a student must surmount in the brief four years leading to a baccalaureate degree. In fact, the quality of their pre-college preparation greatly influences the ease or difficulty of their undergraduate experience and thereby their future careers. The truth of this observation is evident in my own life: I attended Middlebury College and then went on to earn graduate degrees from Yale and Columbia universities. I worked at Harvard University as an Associate Editor of the African American National Biography and today I am a tenured member of the history faculty at Northampton Community College. Yet, despite my hard work and individual effort, I humbly acknowledge that my success would not have been possible without the ladder upon which I rose; i.e., without the financial and academic assistance I received at a crucial stage of my development. Without programs like the Black Student Fund my ambition might have remained a dream. People and programs that look for intellectual ability among African American students as aggressively as basketball and football coaches seek out athletic ability ought to be studied, documented and celebrated.
Those of us who have benefitted from the assistance of others have incurred a life-long debt that can only be repaid by creating similar opportunities for those behind us. Therefore, when BSF contacted me and asked me to support this project, the real voice I heard was the voice of responsibility calling me to give back some of what I had so fortunately received.
The History and Legacy of BSF
The Black Student Fund (BSF) has a stellar and very illustrative history. It was founded in 1964, a year after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. ascended on the nation’s capital with 300,000 people of all races and backgrounds who were united in the demand for immediate and positive change. The BSF was a tangible expression of the optimism of that period. They embodied the very spirit of multiracial cooperation and wisely focused on expanding educational opportunity as the key to achieving what Dr. King referred to as the “Beloved Community.” In many ways the supporters of BSF were like modern-day abolitionists who fought segregation in education the way their nineteenth century counterparts fought slavery during the antebellum period. Moreover, while the rest of the nation waited for the passage of the Civil Rights Bill and the Voting Rights Act, they realized that the Supreme Court had already ordered the integration of schools ten years earlier in the Brown V. Board of Education decision. Yet, the promised integration of schools was not taking place in many localities or being implemented in a lethargic manner in others. According to estimates of the “Negro Student Fund,” as it was called in the 1960s, black enrollment at independent schools in the Washington, D.C. area languished at 1 % or less at many schools. Not only were private schools far behind public schools in achieving diversity, the BSF was one of the few organizations that committed themselves to solving the problem of inequality at elite institutions.
As BSF celebrates its fiftieth anniversary, BSF takes great pride in the strides that have been made. Today independent schools in the Washington, D. C. area generally have a higher degree of racial diversity than do private schools nationally. Yet, according to a recent study private schools are 74% white while public schools are only 58% white. Conversely, black students are 16% of the public school population but only 10% of students who attend private schools. The work that BSF does is a major reason that the metropolitan Washington area leads the nation in diversity at independent schools. This fact was recognized just a few months ago when the U.S. Department of Education touted one of the independent schools we fund, (Georgetown Day School), as a model worthy of national emulation.
BSF began with a modest endowment of only $8,850. With loyal dedication and monetary contributions over the last five decades BSF has distributed tuition scholarships to students worth 2.6 million dollars. The Catalogue for Philanthropy recognized BSF as “one of the region’s finest charities.” It applauded the “comprehensive programs that uniquely address our participating students in independent schools, their families and their faculty and environs.” From our inception BSF has earned the respect of politicians, business leaders, community organizers, members of the clergy, educators at every level, and most importantly, of parents and their children. Over the years BSF has enjoyed the support of individuals such as Vice President Hubert Humphrey, Secretaries of States Dean Rusk and Madeleine Albright, and Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.
How did BSF accomplished so much with so little? By targeting its limited resources BSF has maximized its impact. By attracting the most talented people BSF has multiplied creativity and efficiency.
Our strategies for success have included the following programs:
(1) An institute for “Equality, Race, and Education” that offers “Teacher Training Courses” that have equipped over 600 educators with specialized skills for working with minority students and “Student Awareness Courses” that provided both academic and cultural elements that prepared students for transition to the expectations of independent schools. In contrast to other organizations around the country that merely throw divers groups of people together and hope for the best, BSF has worked on both sides of the equation, preparing students for the schools and the schools for the students.
(2) An annual “School Fair”. Since 1972, BSF has been the chief facilitator for bring promising students and receptive independent schools together in the same place. BSF staff then helps families with the complicated process of gaining admission and securing funding.
(3) A “Summer Program” that provides academic enrichment and intellectual stimulation in a very enjoyable atmosphere. (4) BSF “Alumni Affairs” has been tracking and retaining the support of over 3,000 students who have benefited from the services we provide.
Why is this the most crucial time in our history?
Ironically, BSF may be the victims of its own success. With a black president in the White House and a modicum of diversity at most institutions, many people would like to declare “mission accomplished”—even though true parity and equality of opportunity have not been reached. In the 1960s the population of affluent African Americans was so small that institutions were forced to recruit among middle and working class black families. Today many of these same institutions would prefer to admit black students whose parents can easily afford the tuition at independent schools rather than accept a black student who requires considerable financial aid. Hence, lower income African Americans are once again being segregated even while elite institutions appears to be integrated. BSF remains committed to lifting gifted black students out of poverty. This goal becomes more important as the class divide among African Americans widens.
The political goal of integration is gaining access to power in order to help the dispossessed. When this objective become obscured by the optics of more diverse-looking student body that does not actually represent a change in class sensitivity, than nothing changes for poor people of color. Therefore, BSF must remain vigilant in making sure that the numbers of black students at independent schools continue to go up and that the movement represents true upward mobility and not the lateral shifting of the children of affluent black parents attending affluent white schools. BSF is one of the few organizations that understands this basic reality.
One of the least reported effects of the last economic recession (which isn’t over for most African Americans) is the reduction it has caused in charitable giving. Traditional corporate sponsors have reduced the number and amount of philanthropic gifts. Individuals with less discretionary spending are unable to financially support organizations whose goals they enthusiastically share. When people ask the question, “Why should I give to BSF when the public schools are in such dire need?” BSF must explain the difference between helping people cope with their poverty and putting people in positions where they can eradicate the causes of poverty. We must explain the difference between challenged public schools that, under the circumstances, would be satisfied with reaching a level of competence, and independent schools that demand a level of excellence. The students BSF places in independent schools are bright and work hard. Most of them would have easily succeeded in public schools. However, we need for them to be more than moderately successful; we need them to be at the top of their chosen professions and occupations; we need them to the leaders who will change the world. This goal requires that they be present in institutions that have traditionally shaped the future. This is what the BSF achieves.