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SABU, the story continues

SABU celebrates 50 years and anticipates an exciting next era at W&L

By Stef Chiguluri
April 13, 2022

W&L students enjoy Island Wheels food truck at SABU's 50th birthday bash_

W&L students gather at the University Chapel parking lot to enjoy food from the Island Wheels food truck and celebrate SABU's 50th anniversary on April 10.  Photo by Stef Chiguluri

LEXINGTON – Sunday marked the exchanging of a new era for the Student Association for Black Unity at Washington and Lee University when the incoming executive board was announced.

Students gathered in the University Chapel parking lot to celebrate SABU’s 50th anniversary and its new leaders. The atmosphere was filled with warmth, scents of fresh Caribbean inspired food and chatter.

Outgoing President Amber Morrison, ’23, announced the new leaders – including incoming president Naija Barakat, ’24.

“This year is SABU’s 50th year, so it’s really consequential to think about how long we’ve been here on this campus, not only as SABU formally, but as Black students in general,” Barakat said. “So next year is not as exciting as the 50th, but the fifty-first means that it continues."

Amber Morrison hands the SABU presidency to Naija Baraka..jpg

Amber Morrison, 23', hands off the SABU presidency to Naija Barakat, 24', at SABU's 50th Birthday Bash on April 10. Photo by Stef Chiguluri

SABU is a student organization that seeks to create and maintain Black/African American/Caribbean American consciousness, awareness and identity, according to the Office of Inclusion and Engagement. It also works to ensure W&L is inclusive of and accurately represents these students.

W&L admitted 15 Black men in 1970 – the most they ever had up to that point. The following year, these men – led by Walter Blake, ‘72, who had been admitted in 1968 – founded SABU to fulfill their political, social and cultural needs, and provide protection when necessary according to The Columns.

Current Black students said SABU has successfully created a space for them to feel like they have a space to come together and unite at a predominantly White institution.

Incoming Vice President Mariam Drammeh described her experience.

“Coming to W&L, I was really nervous because obviously there’s not a lot of Black people on campus – not a lot of POC’s [people of color] in general,” Drammeh said. “So, I was really nervous about feeling isolated.”

Graphic of Black vs. White Undergraduate population at W&L

W&L is a PWI according to the W&L Fact-Book 2021- 2022 Volume 1. Graphic by Stef Chiguluri.

Drammeh said SABU has made her want to give back to her community because of what its members have given to her.

“They’ve made me constantly feel included and like I have a place on this campus,” she said.

SABU faculty mentor Michael Hill has enjoyed watching Black students achieve their goals. Hill is also a professor of Africana Studies and program chair at W&L.

“SABU is a front row seat to human potential,” Hill said. “In the most intellectual terms, in the most abstract terms, it’s watching folks move from a nascent or incipient facet of their identity.”

He often uses the phrase, “Lay claim,” to guide members of SABU and students in general.

“Here’s your chance to lay claim, and, in fact, the space is depending on you to make that move,” Hill said. “If you don’t bring the entirety of who you are into the space, then the overall culture of the space will be impoverished.”

He said it has been fulfilling to watch leaders in SABU take advantage of the space they are within, especially at a PWI with a challenging history.

Morrison said they focused on advocacy and educating other students during the 2020-2021 school year in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minn. But SABU’s work was not resonating with the student body or administrators. The SABU executive board shifted its focus this year towards what Black students needed.

“We can’t change the school we go to. It’s still named Washington and Lee University. His dead corpse is still there. I can’t change that,” Morrison said. “But I can, at least, make sure that we get from the administration, and from this university, all the privileges and benefits that any other student would.”

SABU has hosted various events with music and food that catered specifically towards Black students on campus.

Students line up for food from Island Wheels.jpg

Island Wheels food truck owner Eric Vasson serves students Caribbean inspired food at SABU's 50th Birthday Bash on April 10. Photo by Stef Chiguluri

SABU member and former Secretary Tiwaniya Tyler, ’24, said she looks forward to the continuation and expansion of the events SABU has recently begun hosting such as the cookout and the Black Future Leaders Experience Conference.

Barakat already has plans in the works for the cookout next fall and Black FLEX. SABU hosted Black FLEX for its third year this year, and it was in-person unlike its virtual format last year due to COVID-19’s effect on the W&L campus.

“I want to continue the tradition of it being in person so that it can be an actual place for people to network and get to know each other,” Barakat said.

Black FLEX serves to provide a space for Black students to become the most distinguished version of themselves through workshops and panels according to the OIE.

Hill said he anticipates Black FLEX could become a regular installment on W&L’s annual event calendar. He hopes the new leaders of SABU will use Black FLEX to create trans campus collaborations.

He envisions institutions across Virginia – even as far as the University of Virginia and the Virginia Technological University – coming together at W&L to participate in Black FLEX.

“I feel like we have an opportunity to do something special in the valley at a consortium level – looking at a small group of campuses that sort of create a sense of community that’s driven by shared endeavors and shared enterprises,” Hill said.

Barakat also received feedback last year as former event coordinator. She said young Black men wanted more avenues to drive their careers forward. She wants to get the Career and Professional Development Office more involved with SABU to provide these young men with what they need. 

She is focused on the big picture as she takes over.

“My main thing is promoting community and securing SABU’s legacy on this campus,” Barakat said.

Drammeh agreed and said the incoming executive board has exciting plans.

“I really hope people continue to support us and look forward to what we have for the future."

SABU members dance to the wobble.

Tiwaniya Tyler, 24', Julia Seay, '24, and Niani Benjamin, '24 dance to the wobble at SABU's 50th Birthday Bash on April 10. Photo by Stef Chiguluri

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