The 1969 Trenton State College Seal’s opening to the organizations section of the yearbook reads “a vital factor in the machinery of Trenton State… wheels in motion… innovating … instigating … providing solutions … a chance to do something with your ideas … to develop … to mature … to meet people … to learn to work with them …. to share. Organizations are you.” This powerful description rang even more true to the fast-growing Black and Latino student population in the 1970s, with the enrollment demographic of Black students jumping from less than 50 in 1968 to 200 in Fall of 1970, along with 26 Hispanic students. By Fall of 1972, 426 Black students and 35 Hispanic students were enrolled full-time. And while the presence of students of color grew as a result of college readiness/support programs such as Upward Bound and Project CHANCE, they still consistently made up less than 10% of the greater student population. So, when there are so few people who look like you in the place where you learn, live, and grow, community becomes the most important and powerful.
Community among students became evident in the impact of formal student organizations, specifically “The Divine Nine” greek organizations. “The Divine Nine” is a colloquial referring to the The National Pan-Hellenic Council (NPHC) which is made up of nine historically Black fraternities and sororities: Alpha Phi Alpha, Alpha Kappa Alpha, Kappa Alpha Psi, Omega Psi Phi, Delta Sigma Theta, Phi Beta Sigma, Zeta Phi Beta, Sigma Gamma Rho and Iota Phi Theta. Four of these Greek organizations were active at Trenton State at the time of the African American Studies department’s inception and acknowledged in the yearbooks: Alpha Phi Alpha, Alpha Kappa Alpha, Delta Sigma Theta, and Omega Psi Phi.
Alpha Phi Alpha is the first Black fraternity to be established. It was founded in December 1906 at Cornell University, with the iota iota chapter developed at Trenton State College in 1974. Notable members of this fraternity include Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, W.E.B DuBois, Thurgood Marshall and Paul Robeson.
“Goodwill is the monarch of this house. Men unacquainted, enter, shake hands, and depart friends,” says Sidney P. Brown in his poem “The House of Alpha” which is commonly quoted by Alpha Phi Alpha brothers.
The other well known historically Black fraternity is Omega Psi Phi, which was the first historically Black fraternity founded on a historically Black campus. It was founded in 1911 at Howard University, and the Iota Gamma chapter was established at Trenton State in 1970.
“If it hadn’t been for The Divine Nine, and specifically Omega Psi Phi, I can confidently say I would not have graduated,” says alumnus and Omega Psi Phi brother James “Chico” Chambers.
The first historically Black sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha, was founded in 1908 at Howard University, and Trenton State’s Zeta Sigma chapter was established in 1971. The award-winning organization follows the motto “By Culture and By Merit” and was home to notable figures such as Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, and The College’s very own Gloria Dickinson. Dickinson had a pivotal role in the foundation of the African American studies department and utilized her knowledge about AKA’s principles of Sisterhood, Scholarship, and Service to All Humankind to uplift the African American student population.
Last but not least, Delta Sigma Theta, the largest historically Black sorority, was founded at Howard University in 1913 and its Iota Beta chapter was established at Trenton State in 1971. The motto for this sorority dedicated to public service especially within the Black community is “Intelligence is the Torch of Wisdom.” Trenton State alum Dorri Scott is a proud Delta Sigma Theta, and has continued to support her community beyond graduation through advocacy.
Another formal student organization that gave Black students a place to congregate and bond with other Black students is the African American Association, which is now known as the Black Student Union. In the early 1970s, due to the influence of activist Malcolm X, the association was named the Afro-American Association before evolving into the African American Association. Other organizations are the Black student newspaper Ultimme Umana: La Voz Oculta and literary magazine Fire II.
These organizations demanded places on campus for members to gather for a variety of purposes, to do anything from lounging around to studying to producing articles for Ultimme Umana. One of these places was the Lake House.
The Lake House started off as The Black Room, the first of which was established in Holman Hall in the Spring of 1970 after students of color demanded a designated place on campus for them.
“We wanted a place where we could meet and gather,” said Chambers, who was among the students who advocated for The Black Room. “A place where we could go and feel safe and at home.”
The first Black Room did not last a week before it burned down. Not long after came the second Black Room, located in Phelps Hall.
“We camped out there,” said Chambers. “[Don Evans] found a group of us there at 1 in the morning and he essentially said ‘don’t y’all have homes? Don’t y’all have places to go?’”
With the official formation of the African American Studies department came its home base, The Gerke House and then it was moved to The Lake House. The Lake House was located across from Lake Ceva, sandwiched between Holman and Crowell Hall.
“[African American Studies] was a home away from home on campus” said James “Butter” Allen ‘76. “There was a kinship because we would meet there and then disperse to go someplace else to do something.”
Eventually the George Jackson Center and Union Latino Americana room were formed and existed prior to the renovation of the Brower Student Center (BSC) in 2015.
“90 percent of any and everything in some shape, form, or fashion was birthed out of African American Studies, whether it had been in the Gerke House, the Lake House, or the George Jackson Center” said Allen.
In the quest for community among Black students on campus, there was also a movement for connections to the larger Black community, including strengthening the connections to Trenton.
There was a divide between the College and the city of Trenton because the majority of Trentonians did not have the resources to attend a higher education institution despite its proximity. The name change from Trenton State College to The College of New Jersey accentuates this divide, however Trenton is still inseparable from the College’s history as shown by the denomination of Trenton Hall to commemorate the city.
Through programs such as the TRIO Upward Bound Program and Project CHANCE, Trenton residents were able to come to Trenton State. Students were able to take advantage of the resources on campus and advocate for injustice in Trenton.
Black students were also encouraged to form connections in their larger community. For example, Chambers detailed a class trip to the south as part of the first African American literature class, taught by Dr. Carol Jackson in 1971.
“I went from that class to Mountain Bayou, Mississippi with a group of us to study the formation of an all Black town and the intention was for us to come back and report,” said Chambers.
Campus visitors such as Muhammed Ali and Richard “Dick” Gregory brought their powerful convictions about racial injustice to campus for students of color to learn from. These guest speakers exposed students to a variety of Black voices and ideologies.
“The problem between white people and black people is the worst problem in the whole
world, and for the last 450 years we’ve gotten nothing but conceit, conniving, and jiving.” said Ali in his 1972 appearance at the College. “I’m not here for the publicity or the change. I want to do all I can to help my people.”
By learning about and engaging with Black communities beyond campus, Black students are able to form bonds with those communities. The inception of the African American Studies department at Trenton State gave Black students a formal and informal community, and allowed them to find a place in their larger community.