The percentage of black students at Oberlin, which rarely exceeded four percent from 1900 to the mid-1960s, rose from roughly three percent in 1966 to eight percent in 1972. Responding in part to student pressure, President Fuller launched the college into a massive recruitment effort in 1971, with the goal of fifteen percent students of color by 1975 approved by the faculty (a goal which Fuller believed they reached). Among other things, this made possible a more unified black community; in 1969, for example, the Afrikan Heritage House, or Afro House, was established as a program dormitory and center for the campus black community.
The recruitment effort also accompanied changes in campus race relations, as the Christian rhetoric of the civil rights movement shifted in the mid and late-1960s to the language of separatism and revolution. Across the nation, according to historian Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz, “black students felt under intense pressure to identify themselves with other blacks and to adopt a militant posture.” The combination of “high visibility, elevated ambition, academic insecurity, and militancy made these complicated and difficult years for black collegians, especially those on largely white campuses.” For black gay men, this difficulty was intensified, especially towards the mid-1970s.
“Everything had become an issue,” Barry Smith (OC 71) recalled of Oberlin. “And in some ways you kind of wished you could have a little privacy.” A communications and studio art major from an upper/middle class black family in St. Louis, Smith thought Oberlin Gay Liberation “was incredibly brave [and] wonderfully outrageous,” but he “was not ready to take that step.” He did involve himself with the Oberlin College Alliance for Black Culture (OCABC), founded in 1967, which later became ABUSUA, a student organization that endures today. Black students in ABUSUA felt Gay Lib was a “white thing by and large; that’s what I was hearing,” Smith recalled. “And the gay African American students weren’t going into ABUSUA announcing that they were going to the [Gay Lib] dance.” Black students were “not pro-gay folks,” Smith felt, “but if you question any family, you’ll find a [gay] cousin, a brother, a sister, somebody back up in there. So it’s sort of like ‘live and let live,’ but publicly ‘No, I’m against it.’ It was that kind of hypocrisy going on.”
Ruth Spencer (OC 72) used the same phrase—“live and let live”—to describe Oberlin’s black community. Raised in a “well respected black family” in a small town in Southern West Virginia, Spencer’s mother a college professor and her father a high school principal. As a young woman, she was “tomboyish,” played sports with the neighborhood girls and boys, and didn’t like “frilly” clothes, but she also knew there was “a certain persona” she had to maintain in order to conform to community and family standards.
A psychology major at Oberlin, Spencer played in the women’s basketball team, where she was aware of a number of lesbian teammates. But she was “not really having any significant internal inquiries” regarding her own sexuality. Like many Oberlin students in the early 1970s, she “underst[ood] sexuality to be a continuum,” but would have nonetheless identified as heterosexual. It wasn’t until the late 1970s that she came to identify as lesbian. “I think it’s a conscious choice I made,” she said. “I’ve been with and experienced both men and women, and in the end I prefer to be in a relationship with women,” she said. “I’m not saying it’s a choice like do I buy a blue suit or a brown suit. It’s not that level of choice, but something much more intricate, much more sophisticated, and much more inter-psychic.”
The “live and let live” attitude Smith and Spencer recalled of the late 1960s seemed to have faded towards the mid-1970s, as the campus black community grew and militant separatism became more popular. Tony Stafford (OC 76) remembered eating lunch with a white male student he had long admired from a distance, when “there was a voice that said, ‘Excuse,’” he recalled. “And I turned around and saw there were seven Black women. And they proceeded to say, ‘What the hell are you doing? What the hell are you doing?’ all to me. It was the most terrifying experience in my life. It was like, if you were a Black male, you should be at Afro House; why are you sitting here with a white man?” But while there was intense pressure from the black community, there was “no place for gays” at Afro House. “I always thought of marching together, all the Black homosexuals, and marching down to Afro House,” Stafford recalled.
In the mid-seventies, an article appeared in the Review equating homosexuality with white supremacy and American imperialism. Students harassed and left a dead chicken outside the room of one black gay man who lived at Afrikan Heritage House. The student reportedly wrote a reply, published in the Review, in which he talked about misperceptions of gay men in the black community. Later, after “an outrageous practice of ‘outing’ black students to the African American community in general in the hopes of scaring them back into the closet,” David Neiweem (OC 75), a white student active in the Gay Union, recalled meeting with friends and “a relatively sympathetic” Dean Langeler to work towards a solution. Langeler also remembered the meeting:
There was a speaker that came to campus and argued the position that white people tried to make black people gay as a form of genocide. And there was a white student who brought a black student to my office. The white student did most of the speaking and told me that there was a lot of harassment going on in Afrikan Heritage House…those students had gone to that lecture and felt completely put down. And it was so troubling that they weren’t coming out of their rooms. They had gone into isolation.
Karen Dennis (OC 76) felt that the campus anti-Bakke coalition, a broad-based group of organizations protesting the famous “reverse-discrimination” case, marked the beginning of a frank dialogue between different student groups. As a white delegate from the Gay Union, she discovered “that for a lot of Black students…Gay Union was an alien place and not a safe place.” In her opinion, “that had a lot to do with what we had gone through politically in the world, the politics of separatism and nationalism.”
Through the coalition, “we had to learn to talk to each other—people who had not talked to each other all their lives,” she recalled. “I thought because we all had the same fears that this was going to become hostile and horrible.” Instead, “it was a very liberating experience.” Soon after, the Gay Union screened a film about the first openly gay minister ordained by the United Congregational Church, and for the first time in Dennis’ memory a substantial number of black students came to a gay-sponsored event.