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NU’s O’Bryant Institute celebrates 40th birthday

Talia Whyte

Black alumni and the larger Northeastern University community came together last week to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the John D. O’Bryant African American Institute and its contributions to student life.

Over the last four decades, the Institute has evolved into the official home for African Americans on Northeastern’s campus. Born in the ’60s amid the racial angst roiling throughout the country, the O’Bryant Institute continues to provide social and academic support. It has also been the staging ground for rallies in support of the Jena Six and affirmative action policies on campus.

“There is a history of black students organizing here at the Institute against racism on campus,” said Institute program coordinator Stanley Porter. “I have seen students and teachers challenge racism and discrimination through discussions at the Institute. But it is also a place where students come together here to relax and let down their hair.”

Mattapan resident Trina Reney Bryant graduated from Northeastern in 2004 with a degree in journalism and history, and is now pursuing a master’s degree in education at the school. As the only person of color in her graduate program, Bryant feels a sense of community at the O’Bryant Institute.

“I think [the Institute] has had a profound history on campus,” Bryant said. “It has become a support system for students of color. Whenever I look for support from other black students or professors, I get it here.”

Over the years, the Institute has received the support of both local and national figures, including City Councilor Chuck Turner, playwright and actor Ntozake Shange and the late Coretta Scott King. In 1992, the Institute was named after noted education advocate John D. O’Bryant, the first African American appointed vice president at Northeastern and the co-founder of Roxbury Community College.

The university brought the infrastructure full circle last year, as Richard O’Bryant, son of John D. O’ Bryant and an assistant professor of political science at Northeastern, became the Institute’s new director. As his father did, O’Bryant says he wants to create innovative ways to recruit and engage students of color in the Boston community, including the implementation of more minority scholarships and multicultural programming. O’Bryant would also like to close the gap in technological and Internet access between the city’s predominantly white areas and its communities of color.

“I did my graduate work at MIT in technology,” O’Bryant said. “I want to look at ways to implement free wireless Internet in the communities surrounding the campus, and how Northeastern can play a role.”

While the Institute has played a role in racial reconciliation at Northeastern, it doesn’t mean the campus is immune to bigotry. A swastika and racial epithets were found spraypainted in a corridor of a Northeastern freshmen residence hall on March 19. According to Northeastern spokesperson Fred McGrail, the university’s Division of Public Safety is investigating the incident, and believes it has identified the offender.

“We are looking into this issue, and we hope to work with the school and the police, as well as have a dialogue with students about this incident,” O’Bryant said.

The recent racial incident was on the community’s mind when black alumni gathered at the Institute last week for a series of events to celebrate the milestones attained by people of color on campus. But as master’s student Bryant said, the John D. O’Bryant African American Institute offers proof that Northeastern’s black community is a united force.

“I am proud to be part of Northeastern’s history,” Bryant said.