Jerry Varnado and James Garrett Started the First Black Student Union

This is the thirty-sixth entry in the series Honoring Black History.

In the aftermath of the Watts Riots of 1965, Jerry Varnado and James Garrett looked around and decided they needed to shake things up on the predominantly white campus of San Francisco State University. Together, they created the first Black Student Union and kicked off a campus movement that demanded schools of higher learning take the needs of their black students seriously.

James same to San Francisco State partly to organize and partly to take classes and avoid the draft. A veteran activist, Jerry had been a Freedom Rider and he’d also been involved with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). He wanted to agitate for change on campus.

Jerry was the chapter president of Alpha Phi Alpha, a black fraternity. A Mississippi native, he’d joined the Air Force before ending up at San Francisco State. He was also active in the (Negro Student Association) NSA, an organized club for all black students. He and James met at a party and instantly hit it off.

The two began meeting to discuss strategies for organizing on campus. Even though their ideas seemed like the sort of thing the NSA would be interested in, it became clear the NSA was not motivated to agitate in the same way James & Jerry wanted it to; their group needed its own identity. Tricia Navara, a fellow student, dubbed them the “Black Student Union” (BSU) and the name stuck.

“Our thing was not simply to understand the world. Our duty was to change it,” Garrett recalled. “Everybody on the campus who identified themselves as a black person, whether they were a student, faculty, worked in the yards, you were a member of the Black Student Union by definition.”

Pretty soon word of the BSU spread beyond the San Fransisco State campus and the group began getting calls from other schools. First from a group at Stamford, then other colleges, high schools, and even elementary schools. As the BSUs spread, they put collective pressure on schools to diversify, to create more liberal admissions policies, and to change their treatment of black students. Ibram Rogers referred to the movement as the Black Campus Movement.

With the power of the BSU behind him, James Garrett boldly proposed that San Francisco State should have a Black Studies department. He wrote and submitted a proposal to the faculty in the spring of 1967. Later that year, racial tensions at San Francisco State came to a head and students of color (the BSU among them) kicked off a legendary strike that led to the creation of a Black Studies Department (along with a slew of other significant changes).

Our educational system is by no means perfect, but the BSUs around the world have a legacy of agitating for equity for black (and brown) students. Their work has led to the creation of ethnic studies departments and schools around the world. And they have made great strides in pushing for schools to have greater black representation with their faculty. And all of that is thanks to the chance meeting of two young men at a frat party who decided they were going to make things better for themselves and their fellow black students.

As an interesting side note, the Black Studies Department at San Francisco State grew into the College of Ethnic Studies. This year the College of Ethnic Studies at San Francisco State will celebrate its 50th year!

Further Reading

  1. Blow it up!: The Black student revolt at San Francisco State College and the emergence of Dr. Hayakawa, by Dikran Karagueuzian, 1971
  2. “On Strike! Blow It Up!” Code Switch podcast, 2019
  3. “Remembering the Black Campus Movement: An Oral History Interview with James P. Garrett” by Ibram Rogers, M.A., Temple University
  4. “The Black Student Union at SFSU started it all” SFGate, 2010

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