UR Student Organization of Black Awareness

UR honors original Student Organization for Black Awareness members

February 13, 2024


University of Richmond undergraduates in the Student Organization for Black Awareness (SOBA) were at the forefront of the civil rights movement taking place on colleges nationwide. They held the first-ever Black History Week on campus in February 1974, two years before President Gerald Ford officially recognized Black History Month.

As the 50th anniversary of that week approaches, the University is honoring founding SOBA members for their leadership and dedication to fostering a greater sense of belonging.

A new exhibit dedicated to SOBA and the 1974 Black History Week will be on display in the Dining Hall from Feb. 20 through Feb. 22 and then featured at the formal Black Excellence Gala on Feb. 24. 

Morgan Russell-Stokes, dean of student equity and inclusion, said her office also plans to unveil a plaque recognizing the original SOBA members at the gala celebration. Afterward, the plaque will be installed at the Student Center for Equity and Inclusion.

“Introducing Black History Week at a time when Blackness was not celebrated nationally by everyone — whether you were Black or not — says a lot about their tenacity, their bravery, their willingness to put themselves out there,” said Russell-Stokes, who is also the director of the Student Center for Equity and Inclusion.

Stanley Davis, a 1974 graduate, and his classmates from Richmond and Westhampton Colleges formed the organization in early 1973 to help ensure Black students’ inclusion in the full university experience.

“We were welcome … but not welcome,” Davis recalled. “There was no social life for us on campus. The majority of us, we would go off campus to VCU or down to Virginia State University in Petersburg or across town to Virginia Union University to see friends.”

Track star, artist, and 1974 alum Norman Williams, the first Black athlete in UR history to receive a full scholarship, also remembered feeling isolated. “At first, I didn’t call it home,” he said.

Forming SOBA marked a turning point for Davis, Williams, and their peers. Davis became president, lined up a faculty sponsor, and helped the group with nearly two dozen members gain designation as an official UR student organization.

Wanda Starke, a 1976 graduate and the first Black student on The Collegian staff, was also a founding member. “Everybody has a need to see somebody who reflects who they are,” she said. “When you see people who look like you, it communicates, ‘Yes, I see you. Yes, you matter.’”

Aptly, the students chose “shades of unseen beauty” as the Black History Week theme. Events included performances, guest speakers, a dance, and a rap session.

Davis remembered the rap session being especially meaningful, bringing students together with faculty members to discuss concerns. “The faculty and a couple of administrators started to understand what it was like to be on the Richmond campus as a Black student,” he said.

SOBA provided mentorship, sponsored events, facilitated communication with faculty and administrators, and created valuable space for members. It laid the groundwork for organizations that came afterward such as the Black Student Alliance, Sankofa African Student Alliance, West Indian Lynk, and the University of Richmond Black Alumni Network (URBAN).

Ultimately, the Student Organization for Black Awareness lived up to its name.

“We weren’t invisible anymore,” Davis said. “Now everyone knew there were students on campus of color who wanted to be included in university life and who were willing to share experiences and to work together and learn together.”