A Festival of Exposure

Broadside spread on the Festival of Black Exposure

Black students at George Mason College (GMC) felt excluded from campus life during the tenure of Chancellor Lorin Thompson because he prevented the formation of a Black student union.[1]  Black undergraduates at other predominantly White schools experienced similar difficulties throughout the 1960s and 1970s. A scholar examining campus Black power movements, Joy Ann Wlliamson, explains why: “Many Black college students felt alienated and disaffected from their new academic settings" due to "overt or veiled hostility from White classmates, faculty, and administrators.” [2]

The few Black administrators at GMC like Andy Evans, a newly hired admissions advisor, sought to address Black student concerns.  He joined forces with the Office of Minority Affairs and Reverend Dr. Darius Swann, Professor of Religion and Special Assistant to the President for the Office of Minority Affairs.  Together, they promoted the creation of a campus organization called Ujamaa, a Swahili word expressing ideals of brotherhood, villagehood, and Tanzania's Socialist President's goals.  In the mid-1970s, the Tanzanian national leader, Julius Nyerere, was an icon of anti-colonial liberation and African culture in Black America. The George Mason version of Ujamaa intended to foster links between Black people in the university and Black residents beyond the campus. It was decided that the best way to launch the student organization was to sponsor a Black Festival of Exposure.

In February 1975, Ujamaa reached out to sympathetic academic departments and Mason officials to plan the big event.  Ujamaa President, Octavia Stanton Caldwell, wanted to “‘expose’ GMU to its own Black population" and promote the "ebony lifestyle to White segments of society."[3] The festival hosted major Black social and political leaders, cultural organizations, and academics. An exhibit presented by Dr. Carlton Funn titled, “The History and Culture of Minorities,” highlighted how media framed the experiences of Black people in the United States. A panel discussion on educational testing techniques, led by Dr. Clyde Aveilhe and Professor James Fox, addressed the issue of biased intelligence evaluations, an issue that the university avoided when discussing its admission criteria.

Speakers like Julian Bond, a civil rights activist and Georgia Congressman, and Leila Foley, the mayor of Taft, Oklahoma, spoke on diverse subjects such as the connections between mainstream America and Black politics.  Special attention was paid to the struggles of Black women in racist and sexist societies, as well. Meanwhile, Black and non-Black community members were encouraged to learn from the presentations and reflect on relevant issues that they faced in their lives.

The Festival drew different audiences from Fairfax County.  Organizers had worked hard to get the word out by advertising in local newspapers such as the campus Broadside and the Northern Virginia Sun. Students from local high schools also attended; they learned new ideas that may not have been covered in their classes and enjoyed meeting Black Mason students in a festival atmosphere.

Octavia Stanton Caldwell, Ujamaa’s first president and the first Black woman to win the student body presidency in 1975, spoke to a large group.  She emphasized the importance of coalition building through student organizing. She practiced what she preached.  Her campaign for student body president was directed by members of Ujamaa, women from her Women Studies courses, and international African students. Caldwell also served as student representative on the Council of Minority Affairs and belonged to the Board of Officers for the Black Collegiate Consortium of Virginia. [4]

Ujamaa went on to build solidarity networks with Black student organizations across the state of Virginia, including the student government of Richmond's HBCU, Virginia Union University.[5]

By Sira Anissa I Thiam

Octavia Stanton Caldwell 1975

Photograph of Octavia Stanton Caldwell, Ujamaa president and student body president (1975)

Julian Bond Speaks at GMU

Coverage of the Black Festival of Exposure by the Northern Virginia Sun

[1] Virginia State Advisory Committee to the United States Commission on Civil Rights, George Mason College: For All the People? A Report of An Investigation (Richmond, 1971), 14; https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=uc1.31822027480276&view=1up&seq=1.

[2] Joy Ann Wlliamson, "In Defense of Themselves: The Black Student Struggle for Success and Recognition at Predominantly White Colleges and Universities," The Journal of Negro Education 68, no. 1 (1999): 92-105. Accessed July 23, 2021. doi:10.2307/2668212.  See also: Joy Ann Williamson, Black Power on Campus: The University of Illinois, 1965-75 (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2003).  Ujamaa icon, Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere, was admired by Black students in American institutions of higher learning: Monique Bedasse, "'To Set-Up Jah Kingdom'": Joshua Mkuhululi, Rastafarian, Repatriation, and the Black Radical Newtork in Tanzania," Journal of Africana Religions 1, no. 3 (2013), 293-323.

[3] “Julian Bond speaks at GMU,” Northern Virginia Sun, February 8, 1975. https://virginiachronicle.com/?a=d&d=NVS19750208.1.2&srpos=32&e=-------en-20--21--txt-txIN-Julian+Bond+george+mason-------

[4] Laura Carlan and Barbara Tricarico, “SG Elections to Be Held,” Broadside, April 21, 1975, Special Collections & Archives, University Libraries, George Mason University..

[5] “Ujamaa Plans Black Art Festival.” Broadside, February 3, 1975, Special Collections & Archives, University Libraries, George Mason University.

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