In the first weeks of UW’s 1968 winter quarter, the Afro-American Student Society and the Seattle chapter of Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee merged to create the UW Black Student Union . The UW BSU introduced itself in an article titled “New Black Image Emerging.” In this article the BSU stated its intention “to form a power base from which to present certain demands to the University administration.” Its demands revolved around three key objectives: increased minority enrollment, the hiring of more minority faculty, and the creation of a Black Studies program.
Two fundamental characteristics of the BSU were reflected in this article. The first was its multicultural nature. Although it was called the Black Student Union and always centered on Black interests, the BSU welcomed members of other ethnic groups and advocated for them. The article, for instance, stated that the BSU’s “… members include black students of American and African origin, as well as Indians and South Americans.” Multiculturalism was an important element of the BSU from the start.
The other important aspect mentioned in the article was the BSU’s militancy. Initially, the BSU hoped to work in cooperation with the University’s administration to implement change. However, the group noted, if cooperation with University officials proved fruitless, the BSU would take more direct action. Founding BSU member Larry Gossett, explained, “Our militancy is entirely dependent on the white reaction to the concrete proposals we make.” In later years, the BSU would make good on this warning and bring an unprecedented brand of student activism to UW.
One aspect of BSU that the article did not mention was the organization’s female membership. During 1968, there were about 20 core members, and at least two of those members were women, Verlaine Keith and Kathy Hallie. The reason these and other BSU women often do not show up in articles and other records is because they consciously took (or were given) supportive roles. Yet they were vital to the BSU’s activities: answering phones, writing official correspondence, setting up meetings, taking notes, and managing other “nuts and bolts” work. Within a year or two the women of the BSU would serve in leadership roles. Although these women were rarely mentioned, they were equal to their male counterparts in their passion and commitment to the movement.
The BSU began to fight for minority rights by taking their concerns to the University Administration and drafting a letter to UW President Charles Odegaard. In this first letter, the BSU called for more black professors, counselors, and teaching assistants; classes in Afro-American History, Culture, and Literature; offerings of African language courses; and a university program for encouraging black students to graduate from college. Additionally, the BSU demanded positive steps be taken to eliminate racism in the athletic department, sorority and fraternity system, housing, and employment (both student and staff), and for the university to be a leader among Pacific Northwest colleges in initiating and sponsoring programs to improve conditions in the black community. The BSU closed the letter by saying, “We feel the University of a thousand years does not need another thousand to determine action on these proposals. If you, Dr. Odegaard, do not act promptly, we shall use any means that we deem necessary to insure that freedom and justice prevail on this campus.”
In this early stage, the UW BSU also worked to establish BSU’s in local high schools and middle schools. Since Seattle’s housing at the time was segregated, with African-Americans and other minorities concentrated in central and south districts of the city, the UW BSU concentrated on schools in those areas. They successfully established BSUs at Cleveland, Franklin, Garfield, and Rainier Beach high schools and Asa Mercer, Meany, Sharples, and Washington junior high schools. Larry Gossett later estimated that by March of 1968, the combined membership of BSUs throughout Seattle totaled around nine hundred youths.