1968 was a turbulent year in the United States, particularly following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. While the fight to keep the dream alive spread across the nation, African American students at UMKC gathered in a part of the cafeteria they referred to as “The Pouch.” They would meet there before and after classes to socialize, study and play games such as bid whist.
“Black folk needed a place where they could find one another and give each other support,” said Ben Boyd Jr., one of The African American Student Union’s (TAASU) founding members. “It wasn’t the games that kept us around, it was the comradery.”
More importantly, they discussed the need to have a greater voice in campus life and making UMKC a school for everyone. It was then when Boyd Jr. and other fellow students formed what was known as The Black Student Union. In 1969, they officially became TAASU.
“If you want something, you have to ask for it,” Boyd Jr. said. “If I am paying tuition, and I am going to your classes, then I have a right to be heard.”
TAASU was seen as a partnership—if African American students had any problems, they knew where they could go to get assistance. From picking the right professors, grades or seeking scholarships, TAASU provided a wealth of resources for current and future UMKC students.
“Without that support, a lot of us wouldn’t have made it,” Boyd Jr. said. “The main objective of TAASU was to graduate black folks and not flunk out.”
Since its inception, TAASU has boasted a wide range of graduates from PhDs to attorneys, politicians and much more. Members of TAASU were serious about graduating from UMKC, but were even more serious about supporting one another.
That legacy lives on today.
The organization already considered African American students as members, but most students wanted to be a part of TAASU because they understood the mission. If they were going to win, then TAASU was going to win.
The need to celebrate African American heritage was important to TAASU, so much so that it implemented Black History Week at UMKC.
“We went in, and we had a strong discussion on what was important to the black students at UMKC, as well as the black community,” Boyd Jr. said. “We were only allowed one week, so we utilized everything we had for that one week, and the entire community came out for it.”
Spending over $10,000, they were able to put on the first week. It brought national acclaim to UMKC, with guest speakers such as Muhammad Ali, Julian Bond, Rev. Jesse Jackson, Rev. Andrew Young and Rev. Joseph Lowery. Poets Nikki Giovanni and Don Lee also participated, and the play “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” was performed throughout the week, along with many others.
Due to TAASU’s influence on campus, the university offered Black History, Black Literature and Upward Bound, a program led by Jackson Van Treece that recruited minority students.
Building a good relationship with UMKC’s administration gave TAASU the ability to go to various departments with concerns regarding black students on campus.
Fifty years later, TAASU is still going strong and making an impact on UMKC.
“TAASU has a legacy here on campus, and we continue to build on that legacy,” said current TAASU President Cameron Johnson.
“We create spaces for conversation to enhance ourselves, but how are we truly enhancing ourselves if we are only looking at struggles that belong to us?” said Johnson.
Johnson believes a key to TAASU’s ongoing success is its willingness to understand other cultures and heritages. TAASU speaks to African American people and students as a whole to ensure they are all aware of what is taking place in the world around them.
TAASU still hosts events like the Annual Freedom Breakfast, Hump Days and Fish Bowl Session, along with the Legacy Conference, which seeks to develop African American leaders.
“TAASU has a more ‘behind-the-scenes’ active role, meeting with the deans of schools and chancellors, trying to get organizations funded and so on,” said Johnson.
Without a doubt, a win for TAASU translates to a win for UMKC. And a win for UMKC benefits the Greater Kansas City area and beyond.