Like many colleges and universities nationwide, Tulane University has a troubled past when it comes to race. The school’s namesake, Paul Tulane, was a wealthy New Orleans merchant whose fortune likely had ties to slavery. When he endowed the school in 1881, it was explicitly for the education of “young white persons." After a court battle, Tulane admitted its first black students in 1963. Now, more than 50 years later, some say the university still has a long way to go to make its campus truly welcoming to black students.
A group of black women students is organizing for both cultural and policy changes to make that happen.
Several dozen students were gathered in a classroom at Tulane one evening this fall, and at the front was not a tenured professor, but another Tulane student, Lexi Frame. She had taped several large sheets of paper to the chalkboard and each one had a concept written in marker: "race," "privilege," "paternalism," and "white savior complex."
Frame, who is black, directed the classroom of mostly white students to form small groups.
"Can everyone make sure to grab their word? And you’re going to be writing down your definition of it," Frame explained.
This workshop was one of many Frame has led to help her peers become more informed around issues of race and diversity. Like the students in this classroom, Tulane's overall student body is majority white and upper-income. Frame said her experience is that many students arrive at Tulane ill-prepared to interact with people from different races or classes. Frame and the other students who facilitate these workshops are called "community engagement advocates." They get paid for their work, and participate in their own trainings that they get college credit for. The community engagement advocates aim to prepare students for on-campus interactions, and for their community service requirement in the larger New Orleans community.
"We're at least trying to get them to start to open up their mind to the idea that, like, they are not the only type of person in this room, or they might have certain privileges or certain disadvantages," Frame said. "Really just starting to be more aware of themselves among society."
In addition to her work as a community engagement advocate, Frame is a member of an organization of black Tulane students called Les Griots Violets, French for the “purple griots.” A griot is a West African storyteller. The Griots Violets are trying to change the culture of Tulane, which they say is hostile to black students. Frame notes that the undergraduate black student population has fallen in recent years - to around 7 percent.
"Enrollment of black students has been decreasing year after year, after year, because quality of life here for black students is actually quite horrible," she said.
"We need to come together and do something"
On a different day this fall, members of the Griots Violets gathered around a table in the multicultural affairs office. They’re six black women, and they were all wearing their signature purple berets, a tribute to their name and to the Black Panther movement of the 1960s and 1970s. They formed their organization after Tulane graduate student Abi Mbaye realized black enrollment had fallen at Tulane over the last two decades.
"I texted a few people in my community and I was like, 'we have a problem. We need to come together and do something,'" Mbaye said. "And then we just came together, and we started planning."
Mbaye is no stranger to organizing around this issue. She participated in student protests as an undergraduate in 2015, in reaction to how the university handled racist acts on campus.
Mbaye and the other Griots Violets say many black students still don't feel like part of the Tulane community. In a 2019 survey members conducted of 37 black students, a majority said they would transfer from Tulane if there weren't repercussions, like credit transfer problems. Nearly all said they did not “believe that Black students feel like they belong at Tulane.”
"It didn't shock me, but it hurt me," Ph.D. candidate Kamiya Stewart said, who conducted the survey.
The Griots say one way to make life better for black students is to support them more. They’ve proposed a so-called “equity fee.” This would be a $240 student fee that would fund services not just for students of color, but also for students with disabilities, or those struggling financially. They said the goal is to make sure everyone has an equal opportunity to learn and thrive.
"Even if we are a centering the most marginalized individuals, which are poor black people, white people are still benefiting," Stewart said.
Griots Violets member Raven Ancar said the fee will help help recruit students and professors interested in equity.
"Students that want to go to an equitable university like this are going to apply here," she said. "So then slowly we would be changing campus culture."
Change is slow
Tulane’s administration says it will consider the fee.
"Supporting diverse students is a very important priority for Tulane and we intend to carefully consider this proposal by our undergraduate student government leaders," Tulane spokesman Michael Strecker wrote to WWNO in a statement.
The university also said it's actively addressing concerns around race. The administration created the "Presidential Commission on Race and Tulane Values" in 2015 in response to the student protests that Mbaye participated in. Mbaye was a member of that commission. Psychology professor and associate provost Michael Cunningham still serves on it.
"This is my 25th year at Tulane, and I would say that I see Tulane on an upward trajectory," he said. "Of course, there's always room to grow, and we can do better." Specifically, Cunningham said the university needs to hire more faculty of color, and do a better job of convincing the prospective black applicants it admits to actually enroll.
"It's not about admitting. It's about yield," he said. Tulane provided figures showing that 33 percent of accepted undergraduate applicants decided to come last fall. Strecker said the yield for African-American applicants was lower, but would not provide the figure.
"The African-American students whom we admit often have competing offers from many other top schools, which makes it more difficult for us, and our peer institutions, to achieve the same yield rates for them as we do for the overall student population," he wrote in an email.
Despite the challenges, Cunningham said he thinks Tulane is headed in the right direction.
As a result of the work of the Commission of Race and Tulane Values, the university added an undergraduate course requirement around race and diversity. And while Tulane’s black enrollment is small, Cunningham says it’s on par or better than black enrollment at other elite private institutions. And it may be improving -- in 2019, Tulane enrolled the largest group of black first-year students in at least a decade.
"I think change is slow, but I think we're working toward that," he said.
But many black students feel the pace of change is too slow, like Raven Ancar who helped write the equity fee proposal with other members of the Griots Violets. Two days after Ancar and the other authors of the proposal went public with their names, they found a bunch of bananas outside their dorm room door.
Despite this racist incident, the equity fee got support from the majority of the undergraduate student government. For the Griots Violets, this is a preliminary step towards what they see as real systemic change and a way to live up to Tulane’s mantra: "Not for oneself, but for one’s own."
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated Tulane's mantra is "Not for oneself, but for one's all." This error has been corrected.