50 Years of Influence: Golden Eagles Reunion Convenes, Honors History-Making Black Alumni
“Being in this white environment...you have to be self-confident about who you are and whose you are.”
Gerald Bruce Lee, CAS/BA ’73, WCL/JD ’76, addresses a group of students and alumni peers seated around the perimeter of the McKinley Media Innovation Lab. It’s a Saturday, thick with late afternoon light and draped in a light fall chill. Lush trees sway outside the floor-to-ceiling window while Lee reaches back in time, recalling his earliest campus visits more than 50 years before.
“I’m the most unlikely person you’ll ever find at American University,” Lee says. Earlier on, scooting chairs had punctuated people’s speeches as more attendees plugged into the circle, joining the intergenerational conversation. But by this point, the room is awash with silence. Only Lee’s voice glides atop it. “I grew up in southeast Washington.”
Back in the mid-60s, Lee was one of 10 high schoolers scrunched into “a truck going from 16th and U Street” to AU. He participated in Youth Black Pride Incorporated, a job-training program connecting inner-city students to night-school opportunities at the university. “So, think about that: being Black as night coming up here to American University and saying, ‘Is this Washington?’”
Once in class, he remembers scanning the room from his seat up front and wondering, “Do I belong? Am I smart enough to be here?” His mother had told him college was a destination for “very smart” people. DC schools had only started desegregating a few years before, in 1964. Prince George’s County in Maryland wouldn’t hit the mark until 1969—a full 15 years after Brown vs. Board of Education. But when Lee earned an A on his first college paper, his internal dialogue started to shift.
“I go to my high school counselor because I decide I want to go to college full time,” he says. “As a matter of fact, [I’m] going to American University,” he tells her. Her response? “Gerald, you're not college material.” But he knew he was up to the task, and he had the B-average grades to prove it. Miss Avery would ultimately eat her words, but he still considers how she “might’ve just shut down [his] dream” if he hadn’t had the same self-assurance. What if she had dissuaded someone else like him from going to college—someone who was more than capable but “didn’t know it”?
Lee’s message to present-day students is simple: “If you’re here, you belong.” You may not always find people who look like you in class, he admits, “but can’t nobody outwork you.” In fact, nobody can keep you from becoming a presidentially appointed US District Court Judge, serving Virginia’s Eastern District. They can’t keep you from joining your alma mater’s Board of Trustees, either. Lee knows because he lived it.
Pamela (Pam) Harris, CAS/BA ’72, CAS/MEd ’73, is an educator, involved alumna, and social-justice consultant with one of the country’s four education-equity nonprofits. Her fellow-Eagle husband, Tyrone (Ty) Harris, CAS/BA ’72, WCL/JD ’75, is also an active alumni activist and mentor, and the two collaborate with DMV organizations to forge cross-discipline partnerships. Pam, a natural at moderating community discussions, sets the stage for the intergenerational conversation. She believes in intentionality—in creating safe yet bold spaces where critical dialogue can flourish. (“Good faith, good trouble” is her mantra.) She gently steers the conversation around the room, inviting attendees to introduce themselves from where they’re seated in an assortment of chairs.
“We see you. We are here to hear you,” she assures the Black students looking on, representing a range of campus groups and each of the university’s schools. “We are here to...understand what is important to you, what you’re passionate about, what you’re curious about, what you may have doubts about.”
Often, when younger people meet with more senior community members, “the assumption is going to be, I'm only here to learn from [my elders’] experience,” she notes. But she considers this view outdated—“a 20th century lens.” Instead, she says, “We have so much to collaboratively learn from and teach one another, if we’re going to survive and co-lead in the world that we are now living in.”
The Early Black Leaders of OASATAU
Attending AU “was an experience coming out of DC public schools,” Jim Gary, Kogod/BS ’72, explains. “I think at the time when we started, it was 150 of us out of 15,000.”
The 60s ushered in an era unlike any other. 1964 marked the passing of the Civil Rights Act and 1965 the instatement of the Voting Rights Act. The 1968 Tet Offensive riled up domestic discontent with the Vietnam War. And in the spring of the same year, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated.
“It was a very tense time,” Gary explains. “But we pulled ourselves together as a community, and I’m happy to say we’re still that way.” Fifty years back, Black students banded together, even staking out a meeting spot for themselves in Mary Graydon Center and dubbing it the “soul corner.”
In 1967, such students would go on to found the Organization of African and Afro-American Students at American University—one of the first Black Student Unions in the nation to take root at a primarily white institution (PWI) of higher education. They referred to themselves as OASATAU (oh-SAH-toh).
The group’s founding year positioned it only one year behind San Francisco State’s, which debuted mere months before Stokely Carmichael’s proclamation of “Black Power.” Representing the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Carmichael popularized the term while using it in a speech during the 1966 March on Fear—a key Civil Rights demonstration in the Mississippi Delta. The Black Panther Party would form shortly after, furthering the movement that challenged institutional power and called for racial equity.
Student activism surged on campuses across the US, rippling well into the 70s. Through their organizing, Black students succeeded in establishing the first African American Studies courses and programs in US higher education. Many also petitioned for additional Black faculty. At AU—although a request for a black studies department was blocked by administrators—students secured more black studies courses. OASATAU members also helped found the full-ride Frederick Douglass Scholarship Program, which, in 1968, helped 25 Black students kickstart their journeys at AU as members of its inaugural class.
Beyond fighting for the satisfaction of Black students’ academic needs, OASATAU worked to meet their cultural needs. Leading musical acts—like James Brown, B.B. King, Curtis Mayfield, and Sly and the Family Stone—were welcomed to campus, as well as visionaries like Muhammad Ali and Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture). OASATAU also sponsored and ran a free breakfast program for local youth, demonstrating groupwide commitment to community care.
Two-time NCAA track-and-field champion Andrew “Butch” Bell, CAS/BA ’69, SOE/MEd ’70, known for his winning hurdle sprints in 1967 and 1968, also discussed the athletic activism of the era. He gestured to African American runners Tommie Smith and John Carlos who won gold and bronze medals, respectively, at the 1968 Olympics. Standing silently on the podium following their event, the two lifted their fists—sealed in black gloves—while the US National Anthem blared. The pair would lose their spots on Team USA for conjuring this symbol of Black Power.
“[It’s] not too different from what we’re experiencing now with Kaepernick,” Bell says. “We grieve because [between] what we want this country to be [and] what it is purported to be, there is that gap.” And, according to Bell, it’s up to the people on platforms—whether literal or metaphorical—to call attention to this chasm.
In their own way, student members of OASATAU spoke truth to power through protest. On one notable occasion in 1969, students banded together during what became known as “the Gregory Affair.” In collaboration with the Student Association, OASATAU petitioned the university to host a “mock inauguration” for Dick Gregory: a Black civil rights activist and comedy figure who addressed AU students after losing to Nixon in the presidential race. Despite initial pushback from the university, protestors prevailed—demonstrating how young adults could exercise their influence and sway institutions. OASATAU would also campaign to receive university funds for community service initiatives.
This same vibrant community spirit remains intact decades later, as many senior Black alumni gather for a cross-generational forum, shortly after attending the Golden Eagles Reunion in Constitution Hall. An Alumni Association–hosted luncheon, the reunion recognized 1970, 1971, and 1972 graduates (and older) and welcomed them back to campus half a century after graduation.
Ty Harris, a former OASATAU leader, shared compelling remarks at the luncheon and intergenerational conversation alike. “The relationships that we built here formed the foundation for us to still be like different branches of the same family tree 55 years out,” he says.
Retired accountant Leslie Epps, Kogod/BS ’69—one of OASATAU’s two founders in attendance, alongside Bertram “Atiba” Coppock, CAS/BA ’69—equates his Black AU community to “a family of 50 years” that convenes almost annually. The most recent reunion he attended linked Black alumni across four decades. “That tells me that our legacy hasn’t gone anywhere besides straight up,” he says.
Carving Out Communications Channels
Not only did early Black leaders claim physical space for themselves at AU, but they also developed bespoke publications and communications resources aimed at serving the direct needs of their community. Gerald Lee speaks to the significance of UHURU—OASATAU’s own newspaper established in the early 70s. Lee himself served as its first editor. The paper’s title implicated Swahili, embodying the term for “freedom,” and the publication addressed a more niche audience than the general student newspaper, The Eagle. UHURU took on a broader scope, offering a window into the goings on in DC at large—in Black neighborhoods, local schools, and more. Pieces also wrestled with topics like financial aid and student government decisions. “We talked about...whether or not we were getting our fair share,” Lee told American Magazine.
But their efforts didn’t stop there: Pioneering students also dreamed up the Spirits Known and Unknown Urban Communications Workshop, a broadcast show based out of WAMU FM. Gerald Lee teamed up with Russell Williams, SOC/BA ’74—now a two-time Academy Award winner and retired AU professor emeritus—to vouch for Black radio programming. Following a meeting with station representatives, Spirits Known and Unknown debuted in November 1971.
Slated for Saturday mornings, the show featured interviews, music, news segments, poetry, sports updates, and more. Joy Thomas Moore, CAS/BA ’72, CAS/MA ’73—mother of Wes Moore, Maryland’s first Black governor—took up the role of the show’s first newscaster. The motto “each one teach one” also pointed to the show’s function as a multimedia learning tool, creating opportunities for Black students interested in communications. In an interview with American Magazine, Gerald Lee estimates that between 35 and 40 students involved went on to pursue professional production and/or engineering, building off the robust training they received through the radio workshop. Mark Harris, SOC/BA ’80, even filed on-air sports reports as a high schooler, before enrolling at AU and joining OASATAU. The show ran for nearly two decades, establishing itself as a community staple.
Today, this rich multimedia legacy persists in a stunning publication like The Blackprint—an online journal produced by students of color and affiliated with the National Association of Black Journalists—and the multiculturally inclusive Mosaic newsletter.
Decorated sports journalist David Aldridge, SOC/BA ’87, also in attendance for the intergenerational discussion, paid homage to the student leaders of the 60s and 70s who preceded him. “I want to thank the Golden Eagles who are here today because y’all paved the way,” he says.
Aldridge—who boasts more than half a million Twitter followers and serves as editor in chief of The Athletic—made a point to pay that same kindness forward in three simple steps: one, asking students to pull out their phones; two, dictating his personal cell number aloud; and three, inviting them to “call anytime.”
He applauds the earlier generations for making this all possible: “I tried to create a path for the people behind me to follow, but I’m in your debt, and I can’t thank you enough for what you did before us.”
Cultivating Understanding Across Generations
As the conversation creeps close to the end of its allotted time, Pam Harris acknowledges, “we pulled together this time...knowing that it was going to be the beginning of a continuation.” She assures attendees that contact will be sustained, so they can “convene again before too long”—perhaps even quarterly and over a jointly created agenda. There are so many connections still to be made. She knows this is just the start.
So, as emcee, she asks the students to think, reflect, and then share: “What does it mean for us to see you, to hear you, and for you to do the same with us?” She adds, “We’ve got to put effort into building that culture.”
Amaris Levitt—a fourth-year SIS student and undergraduate representative for The Blackprint and the femme-focused group Sister Sister—lifts up her story. She requests advice for navigating her identity in international contexts. Specifically, her academic interests center around East Asia, and her professional goals put her on track to traverse the globe.
“I will then, again, be [the one] Black woman in a space that’s going to be predominantly Asian,” Levitt shares. How will racism reveal itself in transnational contexts? she wonders. How can she expect to be received in Asia—not only as a Black woman but an American one? How can she also hold space for the racially charged hardships many Asians endure?
“I find myself seeking resources, especially [from] Black alum[ni] and Black scholars, for Black women who have also experienced being the only one,” Levitt says.
Shanta Gyan, SIS/MIS ’18, senior communications advisor for the American Trade and Investment Initiative Prosper Africa, encourages Levitt to embrace authenticity and human connection. Such solidarity, she argues, is the key to success in international relations. “Know who you are,” she tells Levitt, and above all, remember, “people are people first, before you can even get to negotiating.”
Pam Harris chimes in: “These are the kinds of purposeful connections we’re striving to cultivate.” This community-focused mindset is reflected in an AU alumni–extended family saying: The light in me meets the light in you. We’re led to work and soar together for our higher purpose.
Gerald Lee agrees there is power in unity and lifts Ty Harris’ words: “Someone you know knows someone who can move your dream forward, but you have to ask.” Like Aldridge, Lee encourages students interested in his professional discipline—in this case, law—to connect with him. Families look out for one another; elders, already established in their careers, are uniquely poised to assist up-and-coming professionals by welcoming them into networks.
Ty Harris, too, sees the power in “pay[ing] it forward”—in relaying lessons that can translate across generations. “You don’t have to reinvent the wheel because the wheel has already been invented,” he says. He urges students to prioritize interpersonal bonds because “AU is one of the places where you can develop relationships that will last you for your entire life.” In college, students tend to focus on academics and career advancement—“but the relationships that you form are something that people don’t tell you about,” he says. “If you don’t take advantage of it, by the time you get a few years down the road, it’s like a missed opportunity.” Many Golden Eagles met their best friends, future business partners, and spouses at the university.
Kendra Harris, Kogod/BSBA ’83, dean of the University of the Virgin Islands’ School of Business and an author, also encourages students to seek support directly from their professors. In her experience, many educators felt positively motivated and more invested in the growth of students who displayed this sort of initiative. The opportunities for networking and growth, therefore, are endless.
“I can’t stress enough that this is an opportunity,” Andy Bell echoes. “Don’t waste it.” As a first-generation graduate who has gone on to see a long line of family members pursue higher education, including his grandchildren, Bell considers learning “the key to you, to our future, and [to] future generations.” When each class of Black students progresses through AU, they not only add a new layer to its history but also provide a new source of inspiration for students to come. “Do the best you can,” Bell says, “because people are watching.”
Rings of Solidarity
In the closing moments of the forum, Pam Harris invites attendees to form concentric circles. Current students compose the inner ring, turning their bodies outward. Then, the surrounding alumni fashion a circle of their own, encasing the students within. Pam considers it “an embodied metaphor,” meant “to center the presence of younger [generations] with older generations in a spirit of uplifting mutual regard.”
From her position in the outer ring, Pam states intentions to a hushed room: “I'm hoping that we can absorb the significance to be drawn from several memorable moments...of people standing in your presence, who are seeing you, who are hearing you, and who are striving to understand, in ways that matter to you.”
Chyna Brodie, a fourth-year undergraduate SPA student and AU’s Student Government president, also leans into the moment, offering her perspective as a speaker.
“My mission in being at AU...[has] been making sure that we’re good,” the two-time student government leader says. “There’s not enough people who are looking out for us.” So, she makes a point to elevate the perspectives of her Black peers. Part of having a platform, she argues, is, “leveraging it to help your people.” And “at the end of the day,” she adds, “it’s about that community.”
“This is the place to learn how to step outside your comfort zone, to explore, to experiment...[and] reach out to people,” Ty Harris says. “We didn’t know those things when we landed here in ’68.” One way to foster a robust intergenerational community is for elders to reflect on all dimensions of their experiences, pass down wisdom, and articulate what they wish they knew when first emerging onto the scene.
“Every student that’s here has made the first step that is so important,” Ty says. “You showed up.” The next step is to grow in consistency and welcome even more community members into the conversation—to include everyone from the newest Black student to the most senior alumni.
“We don’t really get opportunities like this, to see you all in generational leadership and what you all have accomplished and have given to us,” Brodie says—before both solidarity rings disband and music spills through speakers, signaling the start of an afterparty and networking session. “[It’s] such a gift within itself to be here...to feel that,” she says. “I’m just so appreciative.”