Local Residents Among Student Leaders at the University of Kentucky Black Student Union

By Ann Blackford, UK Office of Public Relations & Strategic Communications
Special to The Truth

In 1967 when Theodore Berry was a student at the University of Kentucky, he was one of about 100 Black students on the predominantly white campus. Berry had been involved with the Civil Rights Movement since an early age and considered himself an activist student while at UK. With the goal of making the university a better place, he was instrumental in finding a home and a feeling of belonging for Black students.

With the help of a few classmates, UK professors and staff, he founded UK’s first Black Student Union in 1968, and served as the BSU’s president until he graduated in 1970 with a degree in English Education and later, a law degree. At the time, BSU’s began popping up on college campuses all across the nation following in the footsteps of the first BSU organized on the San Francisco University campus.

Some significant milestones in the Civil Rights Movement actually originated on UK’s campus because of Berry’s activism. Of note, Berry and other students started a movement and engaged in talks with university officials about the lack of integration on the basketball team and its staff, which at the time, had no Black players. Berry also advocated for, and created the first African American history, literature, anthropology, and art course at UK. While Berry was a law student, he and others wrote the proposal for the first summer pre-law program to recruit 25-30 students who did not have scholarships.

“Twenty-five students were accepted to law school because of that program,” Berry said. “UK was the only university in the country at the time to take up a Counsel on Legal Education Opportunity (CLEO) program without being part of a consortium. We now have that as a result of what the BSU put together with cooperation from the university. They were very good to work with us and provided funding for transportation, meals, books, and tuition for the students. UK was the only university to have done that at the time. ”

Berry leaves behind a 54-year legacy of the BSU at UK, a thriving student organization of which every Black student at UK is considered a member. The current president, Jocelyn Grimsley, a junior from Columbus, Ohio, says the BSU s Black students and students of a different dissent, find a bond, confidence and a sense of community while attending a predominantly white institution.

“The mission of the BSU is to promote prosperity, unity and mentorship while creating a judgement free zone that celebrates all forms of blackness,” Grimsley said.

Ja’Mahl McDaniel, director of the Martin Luther King Center at UK, was a member of the  BSU when he was a student from 2011 – 2015, and now serves as advisor for the BSU. The MLK Center provides collaborative programs with the BSU, including advisory and financial support.

“Members of the BSU strive to be advocates for Black students and have conversations about issues that are central to Black students on campus. Also, being socially aware continues to be part of the BSU’s foundation,” McDaniel said.

The BSU conducts general body meetings every other Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. and anyone is welcome to attend. When Berry led the BSU in the 60s, members often met at his apartment and they would have a discussion around a topic, such as Black Identity. That tradition has remained in place to this day as the current general body meetings consist of picking a topic and having a conversation around that topic. The first meeting of the spring semester this year included members making vision boards to set goals and plan how they wanted to move forward the rest of the school year. Other topics have included a theme, such as loving your Blackness and Black at UK: what it’s like being Black at UK, personal experiences, and what they feel could be better.

The BSU serves the local community and hosts donation drives including food and clothing to the HOPE Center, and packaged food and meals for them as well. The BSU’s largest community service project of the year is coming up on March 5  called “Nurturing through Generations,” hosted by Mr. and Ms. Black UK.

“The initiative of the program will give college students the opportunity to pour into the next generation, made up of middle schoolers, by providing access to  leaders and mentors in the community. It will create a space for in-depth conversations that aren’t spoken enough,” Grimsley said. “The conversations are centered around five pillars: know yourself, love yourself, emotional intelligence, leadership, and dream and believe to know that failure is OK.”

Grimsley says that community service events such as this gives members the opportunity to reach out to the community and demonstrate how they can give back. While the BSU works to build community ties, they also work to promote student success by providing programs such as resume building and budgeting. But most important of all, the BSU membership strives to build each other up as human beings and as students about to venture out into the world after graduation.

Dakari Parish-Baker, BSU vice president, has been a member of the BSU all four of her years at UK leading in several distinct positions
“The most rewarding part for me has been the ability to create a space for minority students at a predominately white institution, to be authentically themselves in whatever capacity that may look like, and be able to be seen, heard, and share their triumphs and  struggles with others.”
To learn more about the BSU at UK, go to UK_BSU on Instagram.
The BSU leadership team at UK includes:

Jocelyn Grimsley, president, junior from Columbus, OH
Dakari Parish-Baker, vice president, senior from Toledo, OH
Dillon Howard, ambassador, senior from St. Louis, MO
Jordan Brown, co- activities director, junior from Atlanta, GA
Kyelon Hill, co-activities director, junior from New Iberia, Louisiana
Joel Paul, Jr., co-public relations chair, junior from Orlando, FL
Kennedi Brookins, co-public relations chair, sophomore from Atlanta, GA
Erika Wilkins, outreach director, sophomore from Louisville, Ky
Jamila Green, secretary, sophomore from Mt. Sterling, Ky
Orlando Williams, historian, sophomore from Toledo, OH
Tasia Chapman, graphic designer, senior from Louisville, Ky