The Umoja House Beginnings:

A Legacy of Black Student Activism for Racial Equality and Acceptance


As Rememberd by Leon D. Caldwell, Ph.D. '91 and '93G

Catalyst and First Gryphon of the Umoja House 


The history of the Umoja House is one of continued struggle for the recognition, safety and quality of experience for students who are in numerical minority at Lehigh University.  The story of the Umoja House does not begin the revolutionary move of one student or a group of students in the late 1980’s.  The Umoja House is a continuum of the seeking acceptance and equality at an elite private higher education institution with its own history of wanted to maintain a status at the exclusion of others.  Thus as I write the history of the Umoja House it cannot be written out of context of the student movements preceding its formation.  Although invisible at the time the late 1960’s and early 1970’s history of the Black Students Union and room in University Center set the precedent and provided the cultural energy for the Umoja House. This needs to recognized and that story told as well. 

The Context of Campus Culture 

The Umoja House was born in the aftermath of one Lehigh’s darkest days, the 1986 on campus murder of Jean Cleary (a white female student) by a Black male student. This is important to know because it explains the hostile climate that confronted the entering class of 1987.  The campus trauma of having a classmate, friend or fellow student was racialized.  Black students, particularly males, were targeted by law enforcement, vilified by fellow students and intellectually questioned by some faculty and staff as fit for the institution. The campus tragedy gave way to campus climate and culture framed as “intolerance” but it was down racist, bigoted and violent.

Believe it or not, the campus murder was unknown to many of us applying and visiting for Challenge for Success recruiting activities and was equally muted by the admission, the Dean of Student and administration.  Part of damage control was to say nothing and continue about the business of education even in the face of law suits and national attention. In a nutshell we were clueless until we arrived on campus to begin freshman year about the campus murder and no one could predict the racial climate for the following year.  In retrospect there were many casualties of this campus trauma experience.  Some Black students left the university, some who persisted under performed under the intense questioning of their humanity, others began to isolate themselves from the campus culture in off campus rented safe houses to preserve themselves and academic investments under the pressures of the racial climate and culture. Even with the passionate protections of President Peter Likins the student body was predominantly of a pedigree who framed affirmative action as reversed racism and equity as a unnecessary competition for “their jobs”.  This was a dark and defining moment in Lehigh’s people of color history.

Lehigh was emotionally and physically violent.  Many Black male students were attacked by White male students (frat boys) encouraged by keg consumptions.  The physical altercation usually followed by a racial slur like Nigger, monkey, etc. In all cases Black and Brown students were forced to defend themselves.  The campus was overtly hyper masculine, overwrought with racial and income privilege that had given the majority students an illusion of superiority and ownership of the place after all they owned mansions on the “Hill” overlooking the Bethlehem.  

The Umoja House as a Student Housing Solution

The invention of on and off campus ethnic student enclaves created during the late 70s and 80s was a higher education strategy for recruitment and retention.  At Lehigh, the concept of the Umoja House was an act of self-preservation in addition to campus efforts to diversify it’s student body. Because of a mathematical probability of being assigned a dorm room in campus housing lottery dwindled drastically for Black and Brown students.  Given the low enrollment numbers of Black and Latinx students we were, by sheer numbers, not selected in the campus housing lottery after the first year. 

This reality led many of us to retreat to off campus apartments in friends circles created by athletic teams, Challenge for Success or UC table talk.  Although these ad hoc housing arrangements fostered a sense of disconnection and at times isolation they also created the problem that the Umoja House would solve.  I am not sure if the housing isolation contributed to the attrition rate during that period but it certainly influenced the many students experience of Lehigh University.  While we watched our White peers fully embrace the benefits of campus life e.g, meal plans, collaborative study spaces, libraries of test banks and a place to relax and socialize the Black and Latinx students were left to create a learning and living experience that was distinctly different.  If it were not for the leadership and compassion of Assistant Dean of Students, Sharon Brown and her administrative assistant Rosalie Fruedenberger many of us would not have made it through Lehigh with any sense of the connection to the University.  As a matter of fact if was the Dean Brown’s commitment to our intellectual and spiritual growth that afforded our era to the top African American intellectuals of the 1990’s African Centered movement intended to counter the narrative of White supremacy and Black inferiority. It was this intimate access to Black intellectuals (i.e, conversations at dinner, driving to the airport, reading the bios before a speech or attending a small lecture) that provided the cultural language, ethnic pride, energy and historical concepts that influenced my desire to mobilize against what I understood to be a race based injustice.

The result of this condition of inequity was to approach the administration, President Likins, with a list of demands. I had dreamed the scenario to be hostile like the sit-ins of the 60’s and 70’s during the Civil Rights era which in all honestly was still be fought as much as many tried to believe the movement had achieved it’s goals of putting the one Black person in a position.  I had prepared to speak to President Likins, whom I invited to listen to me at a previous on campus event, in a tone reminiscent of Chuck D (Public Enemy), Asa Hillard, Wade Nobles, Niam Akbar, Frances Cress Wellsing.  I was prepared to fight for the liberation of Black people. I was prepared to meet the hostility of this violent institution with DEMANDS for equality!  However, I was met with an engaging, compassionate and open college president whom revealed his experiences as an adoptive parent of two African American children.  He listened and asked my why was this important.  Luckily I had listened to the lectures and equally important remembered a few lines from Public Enemy in response to his questions.  His questions were not of interrogation, they were for authentic insights. I remember explaining to him why we wanted to be called African American students not Black (this came straight out of combination of KRS-1 and PE rap lyrics). I got to explain to him the conditions for which Black and Brown students lived, studied and experienced Lehigh. He was shocked and more importantly, committed to action. Soon after the Commission of Black and Women Students was launched under the direction of Dean Smeaton (I think).

The Umoja was one of the “demands” that I mentioned to President Likins.  Influenced by my time observing and experiencing at the DuBois House on University of Penn’s campus I thought why not have something like this on our campus.  So I remember talking to friends who lived in the DuBois House about how it started, how is was funded, who lived there and how it was the center of the Black student experience. This is what Lehigh needed a place.  We needed more than programs we needed a safe space where we could launch our academic careers and retreat to preserve ourselves for another attempt to matriculate in hostile waters.
It took more convincing of my peers than the administration about the viability. Once the German House was identified as a location for our housing venture I had to convince the university there was a demand.  This of course came with challenges.  Question about living in a coed dorm.

I became the first Gryphon. Mary Hall (I think that was her name) was the Hall Director. I begged Donn Worgs to be the President, he gave me one condition, that he didn’t have to do much. We agreed! The next step was to convince a small group of Black and Brown students to trust the process and buy into the cultural need for us to create our own space on campus.  This was a straight up cultural and racial pride persuasive arguments. It took some convincing but we were able to get the numbers needed to start the house.  We trusted each other. The fact is that many of us previously lived with each other in smaller units.

Around the corner from where I grew up in the 1300 block of Frazier St in West Philly is the House of Umoja. I remembered that the Umoja meant unity and the intent of the Lehigh’s Umoja house was to a place for cultural unity for Black and Brown students and the entire student body in general.  Umoja is a unifying principle for how we should live.  As an African centered humanist I firmly believed that Black people could demonstrate what unity looked like for the rest of the campus.

The Umoja House concept moved into implementation with several key people on campus.  Henry Odi and David Joseph, at the time campus housing administrators, some key students Jodi Rose (now Bronner) were part of the conversation about what needed to be proposed to the campus. I remember writing the proposal on a typewriter and writing several drafts.  I don’t remember how we put it all together but it was submitted to housing and the rest is history.

Others can tell their experiences of moving in and living at in the Umoja House the Fall of 1989.  For me it was a vision realized. It was the place to nurture, commune, convene and recharge. The Umoja House was the catalyst for careers, relationships and culture not just for Lehigh students but for others in the Lehigh Valley.  The Umoja House was inclusive. It was the meeting place to organize and mobilize. 

I am sure my recollection of over 30 years is not complete. There are probably gaps. However, what is not lost is that 30 years ago a legacy at Lehigh was created.  As the originator of the idea and the name for the Umoja House it would not have been done if others didn’t see and believe in the vision to create a place to celebrate our Unity.