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Black History Month: Student group finds new life

February 5, 2019

KOKOMO, Ind. –  You have to understand the times.

That’s how Bob Hayes explains why he and a handful of friends founded the Black Student Union (BSU) at Indiana University Kokomo in 1969, after growing up at the height of the civil rights movement.

When Hayes left campus few years later to raise a family, the group faded away, and was just a memory by the time he returned in the mid-1990s to finish his degree.

Seeing a growth of more open racism in the country, current senior Danté Butler decided it was time for the BSU to make a comeback in 2018 — and Hayes was one of the first people he called to help.

“We need Black culture here on campus for African Americans and for everyone else around us, so they know our culture and they’re comfortable and accepting of it,” Butler said. “The foundation is the same as it was before. Our mission is to promote Black culture at IU Kokomo, and lift up the community by doing some good.”

Hayes mentored Butler through the process of starting the organization, and along the way became a mentor and example for him as he prepares to graduate in May with a degree in sport and recreation management.

Both Butler and Hayes emphasize that the Black Student Union is open to all people interested, and is not just for African American students.

“The common thread from then and now is awareness and exposure to the African American or Black culture in the U.S.,” said Hayes, B.S. ’95. “When you have that exposure and intermingling of people of different races, our entire society rises. When you understand a group of people, you can’t hate them.”

When Hayes enrolled in 1969,  African Americans were reeling from the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy, who had provided a glimmer of hope for advancement of human rights. On their televisions, Walter Cronkite provided a solemn update of the dead and wounded each day in the Vietnam War, fueling a simmering discontent with the war.

“We as students in high school had just come through some of the most turbulent times in U.S. history,” said Hayes, adding that a visit to Kokomo High School by Kennedy in 1968 “planted the seed of me being a little bit of a radical.”

He looked around and saw 50 or fewer African American students, and decided it was time to act.

“All the major universities had a Black Student Union,” he said. “We wanted to have one in Kokomo, to bring things to the administration we felt were important to us as students. I think we did have some impact on the campus. We got some Black history classes, and we were proud of that.”

While Butler has noticed a growing African American and minority population during his time on campus – the most recent numbers show 129 African American students and 424 minority students — he felt the time was right to bring the organization back to campus. It provides a safe place for African American students to be supported by their peers, and also friends who can guide them to resources in Kokomo’s African American community.

“It’s important to have a safe haven where everyone understands you,” he said, adding that it also gives them an organized group to serve the community. Several members are tutors and mentors at Kokomo’s Carver Community Center.

However, Butler welcomes students of all ethnic backgrounds, noting that it provides an opportunity to learn about a culture different from their own, and how to navigate it in a safe environment, where someone can make a mistake and be corrected in friendship.

Hayes is proud to see the group becoming active again, and looks forward to their leadership in representing minority views on issues to the campus. He also encourages the members to interact with other minority student groups, calling it a learning experience for all.

“Exposure to cultures and people different than you makes you more prepared to work on the global scale,” he said, noting that Delphi, the company where he works, sends its employees all over the world on business.

“You’re going to be where you are in the minority, where people of color are in the majority,” he said. “How do you handle that? You can go back to your interaction with a Black Student Union, if you so choose, and you can understand and feel better about how you handle yourself in a foreign environment as a whole.”

The pair have become friends, as Hayes attends IU Kokomo basketball games to watch Butler play, while Butler goes to Kokomo City Council meetings to watch Hayes in action as its president.

“He gives me advice on the Black Student Union and also on life in general,” said Butler, from Indianapolis. “If I have a problem with school, with family issues, with anything, I can always go to him and get an answer I’m satisfied with. I go to his city council meetings and watch how he conducts himself.”

Hayes has also talked to him about preparing to enter the job field, or potentially go to law school.

“It’s been a blessing, because I feel like I’m getting smarter when I take advantage of his knowledge,” he said. “I’ve been trying to be a sponge around his knowledge. He’s been very influential on me.”

Watch a clip of the interview with Hayes and Butler here.

Indiana University Kokomo serves north central Indiana.

Last updated: 02/05/2019