1969 was a historic time, and while 55 years later you can easily remember to commemorate man walking on the moon, the Stonewall riots and the first ever Woodstock festival, another 2024 milestone took place right here at UNM.  

The Black Student Union (BSU) is celebrating its 55th anniversary this year. The official anniversary will be marked in December, but Black History Month is setting off months of commemorations.   

“The Black Student Union at UNM had been in existence prior to this 55 years, but 1969 is when UNM officially recognized it as a chartered student organization. That type of advocacy and love put into ensuring that black students, beyond their experience, had a community is so special,” African American Student Services (AASS) and UNM alumnus Brandi Stone said. “My team now has also been so awesome, and I'm just really proud of them in addition to our students and everyone who's just leaning in and contributing to the community.”   

Newspaper clipping
Charles Becknell Sr. throughout history

Taking it back to 1958 in Albuquerque, only five Black students were at UNM out of 8,000 attending. This startlingly small total is after 37 years of UNM allowing open admission to all qualified students. That’s why the 1964 Civil Rights Act was so vital in pushing universities and the country as a whole in the right direction.  

“You had the Civil Rights Movement, you had the women's movement, you had the antiwar movement, and you had the Black Power Movement; you had all of these revolutionary movements that were taking place,” UNM Religious Studies Professor and former Africana Studies Director Charles Becknell Jr. said. “You now have a different student body with different political, cultural, and social challenges happening throughout the country that really transformed American colleges and universities. You're bringing in a diverse group of people into this academic space, but you're also bringing in their political identities, and their social and cultural identities.”  

While the niche community of Black students at UNM began to grow, it was a fight to maintain an established connection long term. Stone believes those five students, growing bit by bit, laid the building blocks for the BSU through informal events and internal support.   

“I think New Mexico's always been a challenging place because there is a community of Black folks who have always been here, but it's largely unseen to dominant culture,” Stone said. “As Black students were coming here, they were really leaning into the small community that they had here, but they experienced challenges, right? There wasn't representation in the classroom. There weren't classroom topics that spoke to their culture. Beyond the athletic side, there was really not much for them to engage in, so from there, the BSU sought out space for them.”   

With the bedrock of BSU in place–the students themselves–it was the advocacy of Black UNM faculty and community members that solidified the charter of the BSU in 1969.   

“This all came off the heels of Black student activism, and there is a tension that comes with that and still exists to this day. You have students who want the same rights and responsibilities and the access that was afforded, everyone. BSU is really more than just creating a space where people can come and feel a sense of belonging. BSU was a political movement directly attached to the Civil

Barbara Brown Simmons, 1969
Barbara Brown Simmons, 1969

Rights and Black Power movements,” Becknell said.  

You may know the following trailblazers: Barbara Brown Simmons, Charles Becknell Sr., Harold Bailey. Their work, among many others, to make Black voices heard at UNM and beyond cannot be overstated; each has their own renowned background of advocacy and leadership. Simmons, who spent decades after graduating investing in BSU in person (despite living in another state) passed away in 2022. 

“They were really instrumental and really stabilized the work of the center. Barbara Simmons helped to really create so much of the foundation of the work, so it’s bittersweet and it’s sad because she was so pivotal and just such a foundation to our center. I'm really excited that students now get to learn about her legacy and get to think about how they're going to create their own legacies on this campus and continue to give back,” Stone said.  

Becknell was also able to view history being made from his own home. He has plenty to say about the role his father played in the most critical decades of establishing Black power at UNM.   

“Universities were very resistant to BSU and Black Studies because it challenged Eurocentric norms and traditions. There's always been this tension, so to speak, because it had to assert itself as a viable discipline within the academic space that valued traditional disciplines as credible. You had that sort of intellectual, theoretical challenge in the establishment so it wasn't an immediate embrace,” Becknell said.  

Combined with an official charter, tenacious Black students and these legendary leaders, BSU had the momentum to expand and create.    

“They're bringing this revolutionary political identity into a space like the University of New Mexico and on other college campuses around the country where ideas were reverberating,” Becknell said. “Out of the BSU’s came the demand for African American or Afro studies, so there's a cultural component tied to an intellectual desire to really flourish on college campuses and universities intellectually and culturally.”  

Stone and Becknell credit BSU with the creation of AASS as well as the Africana Studies program (then called Afro Studies.) BSU similarly, championed Diversity, Equity and Inclusion initiatives on campus (DEI.)   

“We credit our lineage to the Black Student Union's advocacy on our campus. BSU has led the way in a lot of our work on our campus. The fact that we have a black living learning community today is a credit to that work. I think that there are some things that are still the same, but we also want to acknowledge that there's a lot of things that have come as a result of Black student activism,” Stone said.    

Student in yellow dress walks down runway
BSU Fashion Show 2024

This year, Members of BSU who are also members of historically Black fraternities and sororities also officially launched the charter of the National Panhellenic Council. After over a decade of Black fraternities and sororities under the Multicultural Greek Council, BSU students finally pushed to get all of the historically black fraternities and sororities under the proper council.   

“Being Black is an ancestral identity. I think about my grandparents' experience, my parents' experience. I celebrate the progress that Black people have achieved, but I've often had to look at my future through the eyes of others. It also means having to navigate powerful, interlocking forces that are designed to diminish human capacity, life chances, and human aspirations, and all the while achieving greatness and excellence.” – Charles Becknell Jr.   

These additions have helped UNM become a safer space for Black students. Stone credits her  career now as director to the AASS and BSU when she was a student.  

“The Powerful Movement of Educated Sisters and other young Black women who really empowered me. I became really active and really fell in love with the work. Seeing other collegiate Black leaders really leading efforts in their respective fraternities and sororities and student groups really empowered me to then find my voice on this campus,” Stone said. “Being able to be a part of some of that social justice movement work and now watching students do the same thing is such an awesome experience.”    

Becknell had a similar experience, having been a part of BSU during a very tumultuous time in Black history, culminating with the filmed murder of Rodney King.    

“I've been at UNM my entire life in some way, shape or form. My experience in BSU came at a very revolutionary time period for young African-American people. It was energetic, and there were many issues to grapple with and really gravitate to,” Becknell said. “It also came at a time when UNM was trying to figure out how to save money. If I think about being exposed to the time period today, I think it's important for young people to identify the issues that they're passionate about and embrace them and use BSU as a platform to bring equity into the university.”  

In 1968, it was estimated that just four years after the Civil Rights Act, that colleges were under 1% black. While that number went up dramatically over time, alongside higher education enrollment in general, that estimation as of 2021 is still at only 15.7%.  

UNM’s African American students represent 2.7% of the total student population as of 2023. The university’s goal is to practically double that percentage by 2027.   

Conscious Lee speaks at UNM conference

“It's a safe space and it's a brave space, right? It's safe for Black students. but it also means we want you to live authentically yourself and we want you to find what that authentic Blackness means to you, which can sometimes be scary to do, right–to live out who you want to be.” Stone said.   

As of now, Stone says AASS serves likely close to almost all of these students. Two-thirds of UNM’s African American students sign in every year at some point when arriving at AASS; Stone knows, however, even more engage with us beyond the physical walls of AASS through programming across UNM and in the community.     

“Students hold each other accountable which really makes it special because they are setting the rules of engagement for this space that they want other black students to engage in.”  

Making UNM Black youth comfortable in spaces like these is key in propelling them forward towards advocacy and action.  

“The hangups that previous generations had about progress are not as evident. Not that they don't exist, but I find a profound degree of hope for marginalized people because of that,” Becknell said. “Still, at the same time, there are still folks who are resistant to progress, so that never changes. The challenge that I see is not getting caught up in this utopic idea that we're progressing so far ahead that we let our guard down and allow the struggle to be minimized because the challenges still exist.”  

Despite the improvements for Black rights and respect on campus and in the community, it’s a neverending fight against continued hardships.   

“The history of BSU and 55 years is a celebrated moment, but also a rekindling moment. Use this time and this moment and this landmark of 55 years as motivation and inspiration to advance forward and not just celebratory as a 28-day period. It should mean something, and to keep challenging ourselves to bring value into every day, every week, every month and every year,” Becknell said.   

While this story is being published during the confines of February, it cannot be emphasized enough that Black history should not be contained during one month.  

“Black history is U.S. history, right? Accomplishments are being held beyond the 29 days or 28 days of February. So much of our campus experience and our vibrant culture is because of Black students. Lean in a little bit more to this,” Stone said.