Moving the ‘BUS’ Forward to Maintain its Strong Legacy, Honor its History

Kent State’s president of Black United Students is working to keep the organization and the Department of Africana Studies thriving

While Julian Grimes was growing up in Akron, Ohio, his great-aunt, Lois Foster, long-time vice president for United Way of Summit County, Ohio, saw his leadership potential.

Foster, who died in 2020, was a mentor to Grimes,  now a Kent State University junior, and he is doing his best to live up to her expectations.

Grimes is the current president of Black United Students, or BUS, one of Kent State’s oldest student organizations, which is credited for starting the formal observance of February as Black History Month in 1970, six years before it received an official federal designation.

It is a large legacy for any student to carry forward, and Grimes is keenly aware of the historic magnitude of BUS at Kent State and the responsibility on his shoulders.

“I’m going to ride this ‘til the wheels fall off and then I’m going to walk it even farther,” he said, describing his dedication to the organization.

A visual media production major, Grimes arrived at Kent State in 2021, and through his time spent at the E. Timothy Moore Student Multicultural Center, learned about BUS and its headquarters in Oscar Ritchie Hall, a building named for Kent State’s first Black faculty member.

A friend suggested that he take part in BUS’s annual Renaissance Ball, a talent show, where Grimes wrote, directed and acted in his play, entitled, “The Cycle” about the life of a Black man in America, and how to break out of the cycle. Grimes came to Kent State wanting to be an actor, but his current goal is to have his own production company to be able to write and produce his own stories. Though just a freshman at the time, Grimes won the event. 

 Other BUS events followed, and Grimes knew he had found his place within the larger Kent State community. “I wanted to be more involved,” he said. He later took a spot on the BUS executive board, serving as treasurer, and in May 2023, was elected president for the current academic year. His goal is to get re-elected to a second term as president in May.

“I have always wanted to be a leader,” he said, “I wanted to be the guy in the big chair. By God’s grace, I won.”

Julian Grimes, 2023-24 president of Black United Students.

His term began with a baptism by fire.  

Shortly before Grimes’ election, the Ohio Legislature introduced Senate Bill 83, directed squarely at diversity, equity and inclusion programs, which would have, among other actions, banned colleges from having student groups based on race, sexuality or gender identity.

“Almost immediately I was thrown to the wolves, as soon as I was elected, Senate Bill 83 was on the table,” Grimes recalled.  

BUS began planning a protest to coincide with the annual commemoration of the May 4, 1970, shootings on the Kent Campus, which resulted in the deaths of four students and wounding of nine others during a student protest of the Vietnam War.

“We had to do a protest, but we wanted to be very respectful of everybody there and the past, but also embody what May 4 is all about in the first place,” Grimes recalled.

Mwatabu Okantah, Professor and Chair of the department of Africana studies

Professor Mwatabu Okantah, chair of the Department of Africana Studies and faculty advisor to BUS, said student leaders often are surprised to learn how the job of president is more challenging than they expect, but he has watched them grow into the role and Grimes is no different.

“He’s charismatic and well-spoken, his background in the arts helps, and he has his finger on the pulse of his generation,” Okantah said.

Okantah, who served as vice president of BUS when he was a Kent State student in the early 1970s, said BUS plays an important and historical role on the Kent Campus, from its founding in 1967, to its 1968 protest and student walk-out that resulted in the university having to negotiate with the organization and agree to their request for a Black studies program on campus, which evolved into Africana Studies.

One of more than a dozen Black student organizations on campus, BUS is the only one specifically organized to deal with the administration on university issues that affect Black students, Okantah said.

“It’s a rich history and now Julian’s generation is the generation I’m trying to get to understand how they’ve inherited this,” Okantah said. “Julian understands that and he’s doing the work to reach out to the current generation so they can understand it.”  

Grimes recently was one of the featured speakers at Kent State’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration, where he shared the story of Foster and how she always encouraged his potential.

During his remarks at the MLK celebration, Grimes noted how the Department of Africana Studies was struggling with low enrollment, and how as BUS president he takes that as a personal challenge.

“That’s the biggest thing I have had to do so far,” Grimes said.

To help, Grimes formed a task force of BUS members to “storm high schools” throughout Northeast Ohio to speak with juniors and seniors about the Africana Studies major at Kent State.  

At the same time, he is working to make sure Kent State’s Black students understand how fortunate they are to have a department of Africana Studies and Oscar Ritchie Hall

“We’re trying to get as many people, as many black students in and out of Oscar Ritchie Hall as possible, so the campus knows this building is not being taken for granted,” Grimes said.

Okantah praised Grimes’ work to increase enrollment in Africana Studies, which he said has not yet returned to pre-pandemic levels. “We’re more vulnerable now than at any other point in our history,” he said.

A banner in the office of Black United Students in Oscar Ritchie Hall.

Grimes credits his success to his faith in God and his close-knit family which includes his parents and two siblings. Staying close to his family, particularly his 97-year-old great-grandmother, is the main reason Grimes chose to attend Kent State, over Howard University, a historically Black university in Washington D.C.

During a recent visit to Kent State’s May 4 Visitors Center, Grimes was taken by the history and noted how that same great-grandmother, originally from Birmingham, Alabama, lived through the civil rights struggles of the 1960s, and how much he appreciated knowing the Kent State was preserving that history.

“I tell people Kent State is an amazing school,” he said, noting how, as a predominantly white university, Kent State extends great support to its Black student population. “Kent State does a great job with holding and supporting Black United Students and giving us the respect that we need to make sure that we can help our students and help our community.”

POSTED: Monday, February 19, 2024 03:49 PM
Updated: Tuesday, February 20, 2024 02:19 PM
Lisa Abraham
Lisa Abraham