On the 50th anniversary of the founding of Du Bois College House, Black students raised concerns about the perceived changing demographics and comparatively poor living conditions of the historic college house.
Du Bois was founded in 1972 and became a center for "Black intellectuals searching diligently for an African identity and perspective within a historically White institution of higher learning." Today, however, students have noticed that the rising numbers of non-Black residents at Du Bois and issues with poor amenities contradict the context in which the house was founded.
A need for community
At the end of the 1960s, Penn admitted record numbers of Black students, who faced racial prejudices while attending college — experiencing harassment from white peers, frequent stops by the Philadelphia Police Department, and disregard from their professors. In response to increasing pressure from students, Du Bois College House was founded in 1972 to promote the retention and academic success of Black students.
Fifty years later, however, students have noticed a significant number of non-Black residents, which has made them uncomfortable — especially considering Du Bois' original goal of providing a haven for Black students.
Many current residents said that they were motivated to live in Du Bois for a sense of community. College sophomore Olivia Haynie, who currently lives in Du Bois and is a former staffer for The Daily Pennsylvanian, said that she felt the need for a safe space at Penn.
“Being at a [predominantly white institution], you really feel like you need to have a community of other Black students. It's just hard to get that naturally,” Haynie said.
But when Haynie’s mother visited her residence, she was confused by the racial demographics, considering the college house’s history.
“We’ve passed multiple students, but none of them are Black,” Haynie recounted of her mother’s visit. “I think Black people make up the majority of the residents, but it feels closer to 50/50."
Du Bois resident and College first year Sarah Oburu said that the primary place she has seen devotion to fostering community is Du Bois’ fourth floor, which is reserved exclusively for first-year students.
But with increasing numbers of non-Black residents in the rest of the college house — including those who ranked Du Bois last in the housing selection process — Oburu said she feels that the house is less of a safe space for Black students than it was 50 years ago.
“If people don’t want to be here because it was their last choice, [Penn] should give these opportunities to incoming students or other Black students who want to be here," Oburu said.
Former Du Bois resident and Engineering sophomore Matthew Romage said that it is important that there are spaces on campus where minority students feel safe and comfortable.
“Being a Black person at a PWI, you can kind of feel very out of place when you look at the demographics of the people around you and realize that you're very much in the minority," Romage said.
College junior Emilia Onuonga, a former columnist for the DP, remembers going to Du Bois her first year for kickbacks and other social events. But with the change in demographics, she felt that Du Bois “is losing its cultural significance.”
Push for change
Despite the history of Du Bois' founding, Penn's official stance is that Du Bois welcomes students of all races and backgrounds. Since its doors opened, Du Bois has never given priority to Black students in its housing application process, Faculty Director of Du Bois William Gipson told the DP in 2020.
"White students and administrators perpetually misunderstood the purpose [of Du Bois], often assuming that it was only available for Black students,“ the Du Bois website reads. “From its inception, the Du Bois program never rejected students on the basis of race."
After seeing that Black students struggled to find housing in Du Bois, 2021 College graduate Kristen Ukeomah — then-Undergraduate Assembly representative who lived in Du Bois — lobbied in 2020 for Black students to receive priority in the Du Bois housing selection process and for the creation of a program community for Black students.
“If it was more codified somewhere that Du Bois was a space for Black students, it would get at the issue of non-Black students being unaware of the fact that this is a cultural space,” Ukeomah said.
Ukeomah said she started the project after speaking to Black students who wanted to live in Du Bois but were not selected.
“That's when I started my project, I think my junior year, because I noticed it was overwhelmingly not Black,” Ukeomah said.
While Ukeomah was not able to bring her project to fruition, she still believes that Black representation at Du Bois is important.
Students including Oburu reported that they knew Black first-year students who ranked Du Bois as their first choice, but were not chosen.
“Why would you take away that opportunity from Black students? Because of our algorithm?” Oburu said.
Executive Director of Business Services Douglas Berger, who oversees residential and hospitality services including student housing, said that the University has to abide by fair housing laws — meaning that neither residential communities nor housing applications consider race.
Poor amenities, living conditions
Students who have lived in Du Bois reported that comparatively poor amenities deterred them from returning. Romage and Ukeomah both cited this as the primary reason they didn’t return to the college house after their first year.
“Rodin had an elevator and AC and, at the time, Du Bois didn’t have AC,” Ukeomah said. “The functionality of the building sucked.”
The summer after Ukemoah’s first year, Penn installed air conditioning in both Du Bois and Kings Court English College House in 2019.
Earlier in 2009, the University considered adding an elevator as part of a major renovation. However, Berger said that the cost of having to build a separate structure attached to the college house led them to abandon that plan.
Students added that they would like to see improvement in other aspects of Du Bois, including the amenities and upkeep of the college house. They said that they felt the University did not care about their living amenities as much as other residential buildings.
“Our basement is unfinished. We only have six washing machines and six dryers for everybody in the building,” College first year Tytianna Pope said. “We're getting overlooked, ignored — which [explains] why a lot of Black students are leaving Du Bois.”
According to Berger, the company that supplies the University with washing and drying machines has a population-based formula used for all college houses.
Students compared Du Bois to the newer college houses on campus such as New College House West, Penn's newest residential building, and Lauder College House, which opened its doors in 2016. They pointed out that the three high rise college houses include rooms with full kitchens, whereas Du Bois only has kitchenettes.
“I feel like Du Bois is the cheapest dorm for a reason,” Onuonga said. “There are a lot of amenities in other dorms that compel people away from Du Bois.”
Wharton first year Bijon Gayle, who lives in Du Bois, said Du Bois was not his first choice in the housing selection process because there are newer buildings on campus that have elevators, full kitchens, and more washing and drying machines.
“It would be nice for Du Bois to have some renovations and have some nicer amenities,” Gayle said.
Berger added that there are other buildings also in need of renovation, including Stouffer College House, which is undergoing its first-ever renovation. The renovation will add an elevator, making the building accessible. The University strives to keep college houses equal, but when most are 50 years and older, "there's limitations to what [Penn] can do without basically tearing the building down and redoing it," Berger said.
"If [students] can understand that we have a fairly transparent process on how these things are done, and we follow it and we've been following it for over 20 years now — that might help [students] understand how our decisions are made," said Barbara Lea-Kruger, director of communications and external relations at Penn Business Services.
On April 1, current and former residents and members of the Penn community gathered outside of Du Bois to celebrate its 50th anniversary. Penn alumni recounted their experience in the college house, including Penn graduate Brian Peterson, director of Makuu: The Black Cultural Center.
Peterson lived in Du Bois for four and a half years as an undergraduate at Penn before returning to pursue both a master's degree and Ph.D. at the Graduate School of Education. Peterson said he hoped that despite its changing demographics, the college house could still foster community.
“The house is grounded in those values that people still feel like Blackness is the center,” Peterson said. “We have to do a lot more to think about how to leverage all the different opportunities on campus, but still figure out, 'What does it mean to be a part of Black Penn?'”
Oburu, who attended the 50th anniversary celebration, said she hopes that Du Bois will become more reflective of its history.
“As the world is diversifying, we need to continue to provide safe spaces for Black individuals,” Oburu said.
Onuonga said she hopes that the increase in non-Black students will prioritize Penn’s consideration and upkeep of the college house and its residents.
“We know that Penn has the resources to invest in Du Bois, and yet they have not done so,” Onuonga said. "[It] is really saddening that it doesn't just take this being a house with predominantly Black students [as a reason] to want to invest in it."
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