Since 1912, Evans Hall has served as OU’s administrative building — housing the offices of university presidents, provosts and administrators. Its walls have seen leader after leader, all working to maintain OU’s academic mission.
This spring, however, the hall became a stage for student leaders, as members of the Black Emergency Response Team entered its corridors to protest recent racist incidents on OU’s campus.
“I never thought in a million years I'd be part of something like that,” Kayla Jenkins, BERT member and psychology and African and African American studies sophomore, said. “Especially when I have heard stories from my grandma about what she has been through and what her mom endured — I thought I wouldn't have to do anything like that.”
BERT co-director and African American studies senior Jamelia Reed said February’s sit-in was not the result of an isolated occurrence — rather, it was a call to action for students in the black community who were frustrated after enduring one racist incident after another.
In the fall of 2016, while OU was recruiting Reed, she said the university Office of Admissions and Recruitment was promoting a diverse university experience.
Black alumni told Reed otherwise, and she said she entered OU with a basic understanding regarding the university’s history of racism. Despite their warnings, she said she was still hopeful.
As time went on, however, Reed said she began to experience the shadows of the university’s past.
“By the time my sophomore fall semester came in 2018, I was seeing the University of Oklahoma unfold at the seams it had been built upon,” Reed said. “The international programs (and) merit scholars that had been built up so much when I first was recruited were tumbling down into little pieces, and this idea of diversity and inclusion was, in retrospect, not so inclusive.”
A lack of inclusivity within the OU community became increasingly apparent especially after multiple blackface incidents in January of 2019. OU was in need of a student group who could respond to such incidents and keep administration accountable, Reed said.
BERT, according to a Black Student Association press release, formed four days after the first blackface incident as an organization whose purpose is to respond to “any racial incidents in the future and play a strategic role in making the University of Oklahoma a more inclusive environment.”
“It was out of pure passion, not a hidden agenda, (that BERT formed),” Reed said. “BERT is built to combat against racism (and to) focus in on our community.”
With increasing unrest in OU’s black community, BERT became a needed means of response to several instances of racism that would occur in the next year. Following the events of January of 2019, BERT’s mission was to serve as a proactive response and to prepare their members for anything that could happen next, Reed said.
In September of 2019, BERT alerted OU’s community to another blackface incident and held a press conference. Reed said she was exhausted by the lack of change, and the trauma is further placed on the black community when people fail to understand the impacts of blackface and racism.
Reed was weary in the fall — but immediately following the events of this past semester, she said it seemed as if black students could never have a winning moment.
In February, two professors made use of a racial slur in their classrooms — journalism professor Peter Gade compared the slur to the phrase “Ok, Boomer,” and history professor Kathleen Brosnan said the slur while reading a historical document. Reed said for students, faculty and administrators alike, this was the final straw — it was time for change to be realized.
The next three days in Evans Hall were long and tested BERT’s strength, Reed said. Students throughout Oklahoma participated in the sit-in despite their classes and jobs — ignoring the physical and emotional discomforts from the lengthy protest. Reed said it was unlike anything she had ever seen.
“It was something we haven't seen since the (1960s and 1970s) with the apartheid movement, especially in a university setting,” Reed said. “We had representatives coming in … people who are major (stakeholders) in the black community of (Oklahoma City) reaching out and people from other universities like Oklahoma City University (and) Oklahoma State University … joining us in protest.”
At the close of the sit-in, according to a BERT release, OU administration committed to the formation of a feasibility committee for a multicultural center, equity training for faculty and a course on diversity. President Harroz also agreed to meet with BERT every two weeks so members might continue to emphasize their demands and hold the administration accountable.
Many of the student leaders were seniors, making them the last group of OU students directly impacted by events involving Sigma Alpha Epsilon members who recited a chant with racial slurs and lynching references, Dean of Students and Vice President of Student Affairs David Surratt said in an email.
Surratt said in the email he observed several hours of honest, student-led conversations and there was something intentional and profound in how students expressed themselves.
“When the community marched in 2015, they asked the institution to solve the problems on campus reflective of larger society and echoed in our walls at OU,” Surratt said in the email. “By 2020, they didn’t just ask OU, they participated in the process not just at Evans Hall but also in so many other unseen ways in addition to the thoughtful dialogue and conversations that evolved during the sit-in.”
Reed said watching communities stand in solidarity with BERT was beautiful, but also a continuing call to action.
“This university that we know and love is not always there for everybody,” Reed said. “We saw … all of these life-size communities coming together (and) even though it's for our cause, we still call for causes for others and said the time is now that we need to change. … Eventually, we settled with the university and we continue to work with them today.”
Although COVID-19 cut on-campus life short, the echoes of protest can still be heard, keeping OU administrators, faculty and staff accountable. The impact of BERT’s message has created ongoing discussions regarding change that is empathetic, ethical and sincere, Reed said.
Reed said such change starts within OU's administration, and although everyone has their faults, she has confidence in OU President Joseph Harroz’s ability to promote discussions of diversity and inclusion.
“I'm confident that he has the ability and intellectual capacity to … continue learning,” Reed said. “I think he considers what matters most to students and our community … at the end of the day.”
As for OU Senior Vice President and Provost Kyle Harper, Reed said actions speak louder than words and through actions such as offering the pass/fail option to students, she believes Harper is learning.
“I think the initial feeling faculty get from watching the protests happen is just fear, and they're like, ‘Okay so we're going to walk on eggshells now and make sure we don't say anything,’” Jenkins said. “But I think, once it sets in that walking on eggshells is just being decent to your students ... change will definitely come. … I'm hoping (OU’s administration) learns from their mistakes.”
Administrators like Surratt recognize the need for change, as he said in the email meetings during the sit-in revealed common goals between administration and BERT. He said he hopes planned action and discussions in the next few months will shape OU for the next decade as the Board of Regents finalize a strategic plan for the coming semester at their upcoming June 18 meeting.
“I hope that we will maintain focus on caring for each other as people while critiquing structures that do harm,” Surratt said in the email. “This is important work and I also hope that we allow ourselves to feel the joy that comes with doing this work, while remaining hopeful.”
When asked what a campus that truly values diversity and inclusion looks like and how far OU is from that, D’India Brown, BERT’s other co-director and psychology sophomore, said although she may not see OU attain complete equity in her remaining three years, she is hopeful.
“I think the common theme … is a willingness to learn,” Brown said. “Ideally what I would like our campus to look like is what it is: an institution for learning. People (should be) willing to come with an open mind, and to learn (from) other people's perspectives … instead of just asking me why I feel the way I feel.”
Surratt said in the email that in the coming semester, he plans to commit his voice, influence and presence as much as possible. His said hope for the future is to intentionally discuss issues of social justice while also utilizing his ethnic identities as a matter of representing and amplifying the voice of others.
“When Dr. Bernice King spoke at OU Health Sciences Center last semester, she reminded me and others that if we believe there is some sort of arrival point of defeating injustice, it doesn’t exist,” Surratt said in the email. “She said that ‘freedom is never really won, (as) you struggle and earn it with every generation.’ Because of that, she also reminded us that love has to be the foundation of this power struggle to be better.”