01 Mar 2018

‘We were just doing what needed to be done’

Four alumni recall the forces and factors that drove them to found the African-American Student Union, a vehicle for change that would have immediate—and lasting—impact


Edited by Jennifer Gillespie

From left: Clifford Darden, Lillian Lincoln Lambert, Theodore Lewis, and Leroy Willis (photos courtesy of HBS Archives)

Just over 50 years ago, at the end of a summer that saw race riots across the United States as well as the confirmation of Thurgood Marshall as the first African American Supreme Court Justice, five African American students arrived at HBS. What they encountered—a predominantly white, male campus—seemed out of step for the times and the liberal Northeast. Their deep disappointment led to a resolve that catalyzed an increase in the number of black students at HBS, the hiring of black faculty members, and the creation of more socially relevant electives. By establishing the African-American Student Union (AASU) in 1968, the five founders also hoped to support incoming black students and enhance their educational experience. Little did they know that their call for change would result in a legacy that would have lasting impact at the School.

This year HBS is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the founding of the AASU by Clifford E. “Clif” Darden (MBA 1969, DBA 1982), Lillian Lincoln Lambert (MBA 1969), E. Theodore “Ted” Lewis Jr. (MBA 1969), George R. “Bob” Price (MBA 1970), and A. Leroy “Roy” Willis (MBA 1969). In commemoration of this milestone, four of AASU’s founders (Price died in 2012) reflect on their time at the School, the creation of the organization, and the importance of having a student body that mirrors the real world.



LILLIAN LINCOLN LAMBERT grew up in Powhatan County, outside Richmond, Virginia, where she attended segregated schools. “We had great teachers who often told us that you’ve got to work hard because you have to be twice as good as your white counterparts just to compete,” she says. After high school, she worked as a maid and as a typist in New York City and Washington, DC, and then attended Howard University, where she enrolled in a business class taught by Professor H. Naylor Fitzhugh (MBA 1933), one of the first African American graduates of HBS and later known as the “dean of black businessmen.” Fitzhugh encouraged Lambert to apply to HBS, where she was the first African American woman to attend the School during the early years of women’s acceptance into the two-year MBA Program. At the time, all women in the program lived in graduate housing at Radcliffe College.

LAMBERT: I took the train from DC to Boston and a cab to the dorm at Radcliffe. The lady who met me at the door made me feel like I didn’t belong there. She told me my room wasn’t ready, so I walked to a park and began to ask myself what in the world was I doing here. I was tempted to leave, but then I thought about the fact that I had so much riding on this decision to be here, and there were so many people who supported me. The next day when I arrived on the HBS campus, for a while I didn’t see any blacks at all. Eventually I saw one and then another. I had very mixed feelings and felt really out of place. I can’t say I faced overt racism or sexism—it was more a feeling of being invisible.

CLIF DARDEN arrived at HBS having driven across the country from his home in Los Angeles, California. As a high-achieving business major at the University of Southern California, several professors, including an HBS alumnus, encouraged him to apply to HBS. Darden hoped an MBA would help further his interest in a career focused on service and academia.

DARDEN: The environment that I found myself in at HBS was not so strange to me. That may sound a bit odd, but being the only black student in the classroom was something I encountered in high school and all the way through my time as an undergraduate at USC. I cannot tell you the number of students at HBS who would come up, after they got comfortable with me, and say things like, “You know, Clif, you are the first black person I have ever held a conversation with.”

TED LEWIS grew up in Philadelphia. After graduating from Washington University in St. Louis, where he studied architecture and sociology, Lewis joined the Peace Corps, working for two years with a local housing authority in a small city in southern Peru. Later, Lewis decided to pursue a career in business, prompting him to apply to HBS.

LEWIS: I was expecting Harvard University to be a more racially diverse campus, but because the location of HBS was isolated from the undergraduate campus, I thought that it was probably going to be much more male and much whiter. I wasn’t really shocked until I found out the actual number of African American students. I must admit I was really disappointed in Harvard. Its reputation was that it was the best of the country’s educational institutions, and would be leading in a number of social justice issues.

ROY WILLIS was born in 1939 in Halifax County, North Carolina, and moved to Norfolk, Virginia, when he was 12. Though an honors student, Willis was denied admittance to the College of William & Mary during the early days of desegregation. He later enrolled in the newly integrated School of Engineering and Applied Science at the University of Virginia, but was denied a transfer to the university’s all-white College of Arts & Sciences when he wanted to change his major to chemistry. His persistence won out, however, and Willis became the college’s first African American graduate. Before applying to HBS, he worked at DuPont, served as a lieutenant in the US Army, briefly attended law school at Howard University, and worked at an IBM subsidiary.

WILLIS: I walked into my first class at HBS, and I was the only black in one of seven sections. When I saw that, I became angry. I was so disappointed. I said, “Oh my gosh, another segregated situation.” I thought that Harvard had run an unfair game of projecting itself as being so liberal. I associated the School with the Kennedy brothers and what they were trying to do—fighting for civil rights and for people other than just white people.

FALL 1967–WINTER 1968:

Building the Model

AASU cofounder George Price passed away in 2012.

WILLIS: I went directly to the dean of admissions and asked, “What is going on here? This is Harvard. Why am I in a segregated class? This is not right, and we need to do something about it.” I also went to see Dean George Baker because, at this time, I didn’t know there were any other blacks at HBS. He listened to me and said, “You’re right. We should try to do better than what we’re doing.” So over time I got to know him—he was really a great guy—and shortly thereafter I met Clifford Darden. Eventually, I realized there were several other black students at HBS—the late George Price, Lillian Lincoln, Ted Lewis, and Carlson Austin (MBA 1969).

LEWIS: Slowly, over a matter of weeks, we started sharing our points of view about what was going on at the School. There was a range of feelings about the fact that out of a class of 700 students there were only 6 African Americans.

LAMBERT: We had absolutely no idea of whether Dean Baker would be receptive to even discussing a change with us, or whether we’d be kicked out of HBS. It was a real risk we were taking, but we felt the need to take it because there was not only a shortage of black students, but also no real support system. For me, I was the only black female in the class, and it was things like where do I find a beautician, where’s the black community, and where do I find a church? As an older student who had lived and worked as an adult in the “real world”—and the same was true of Roy and Ted—I really felt the lack of those things.

DARDEN: Dean Baker was interested in what we were saying. At the same time, he had constraints as to what he could do. The faculty had as much say in the composition of a class as the Dean did. We found that out when we were pressing for the goal—not a quota—of 10 percent enrollment by African American students. The Dean was receptive to that, but later he ran into a roadblock because there were many faculty members who said, “No, that is a quota. We cannot have quotas here.”

LEWIS: Dean Baker said, “We’d love to have more African American students. We just aren’t doing a very good job of finding people who are interested.” Our immediate reaction was, we can solve that problem. We know where a lot of African Americans are, and in fact, they’re not hiding. They’re at major institutions around the country—some of them at historically black colleges but others at state universities.

DARDEN: Roy and I went on our first recruitment trip to mainly white schools—Stanford, UC Berkeley, and San Francisco State University. The others were going to different schools. It was either late February or early March, right before Dr. King’s assassination in April.

WILLIS: Clif and I met with Charles Brown, the head of the Afro American Student Association at UC Berkeley, where we got to understand what a black student union was. It became the model for us setting up our student union.


Founding AASU


View the special online Baker Library | Bloomberg Center exhibit, Agents of Change: The Founding and Impact of the African-American Student Union

• Read about and connect with African American alumni who are Making A Difference

DARDEN: Roy came away from that dialogue convinced that something other than just recruitment activities would be necessary to create the kind of progressive change needed at HBS. At UC Berkeley he and I agreed that we would combine our efforts to usher in an organization to be our collective voice at HBS. We also agreed that, subject to approval from our three colleagues, I would serve as the inaugural head of the organization, which we named the Afro-American Student Union.

WILLIS: All of us worked with the HBS administration and faculty—especially Professors Paul Lawrence, Jay Lorsch, and George Lodge —to increase the African American student population. It went from 6 in the Class of 1969 to 27 in the Class of 1970 and 58 in the Class of 1971.

LEWIS: The School funded our recruitment trips during breaks and the summer between first and second year. The Dean also provided scholarship funds to make sure that there were none of the usual barriers that might have caused individuals to say, “Gee, I’d love to go to Harvard, but I can’t afford it.”

APRIL 1968:

Turbulent Times

DARDEN: Dr. King’s assassination really had a major impact on me, so much so that I contemplated dropping out of the MBA Program. I had given up hope that this country could ever be what was stated in the Declaration of Independence—all men being equal. I traveled down to Atlanta and was on the roof across the street from the church where Dr. King’s funeral was held. By the time I got back to campus I had resolved, “No, I am not going to drop out. I am going to stay here and try to make a difference, and I am going to start with pulling this organization together.” I was determined to continue it and have an organization in place in September for incoming students.

LEWIS: The news of Dr. King’s assassination was a stunning shock, which left me cold and numb. It was lonely, since HBS went on as normal. My fiancée was in New York, and we talked, but I had little or no conversations with classmates on campus. I felt the hope that Dr. King inspired was being erased. There were a lot of turbulent and unsettling and horrifying things that occurred around the 1968 timetable. But I think, for many African Americans, it was a very positive era in which we were living. Sometimes it was overshadowed by tragedy, but in my mind those tragedies really didn’t define the era. We felt particularly emboldened—that we had nothing to lose.

Mourners stream through Harvard Yard following Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in April 1968.
(Annual Report, 1968)

FALL 1968:

Assembling a Collective Voice

DARDEN: Roy and his wife graciously hosted a welcome party at their Cambridge apartment shortly after the arrival of members of the Class of 1970. They were the reinforcements needed to staff the new organization and make it fully functional and credible as the collective voice of black students at HBS. We were the first student group at HBS formed on some basis other than professional aspirations.

LAMBERT: We felt it made a difference that when you got to the School there was someone who you could talk to about what it was like to be here. What should I expect? Where do I go for this or that? And it was also about just seeing some faculty and staff who looked like you. When you walked down the hall at the time, there were no black and no women faculty members, so the women students I’m sure felt some of that. We dealt with both race and gender issues.

LEWIS: In the first year, I recall there being no African Americans on the faculty. In the second year there were a number of visiting professors—one in particular was Ulric St. Clair Haynes Jr., who later served as US Ambassador to Algeria and as dean of Hofstra University’s business school.

DARDEN: Within the year he was joined by Stuart Taylor on the Marketing faculty and Charles Johnson on the Finance faculty. I don’t want to say that, but for us, they would not have come. But we definitely kept the pressure on the administration. We also had in mind elective courses that would help us understand why things were as they were in the black community and to strategize how we could change that. With the launching of Professors Paul Lawrence and Richard Rosenbloom’s seminar on economic development in minority communities in fall 1968, the AASU began to have an impact on the second-year elective curriculum. The next fall, it was developed into an elective course, Organizational Development in the Inner City, and I became the course assistant, writing cases on innovative organizations that were founded to provide something other than a profit and that also had a social objective.

LEWIS: In founding the AASU, we were simply thinking of creating an organization that would be useful for networking, as a support group, and as a way of making sure the concerns of African Americans were given a platform at HBS.

LAMBERT: I’m pleased that it has been effective and that the School recognizes and appreciates the hard work that we’ve put into making the organization what it is today. At the time I was doing it, I had absolutely no idea it would have that impact.

DARDEN: There was no anticipation that this would become a notable organization on campus. We were just doing what needed to be done.


Fifty years later: Ted Lewis, Lillian Lincoln Lambert, and Roy Willis, back on the HBS campus.
(photo by Susan Young)

After graduation, the AASU founders took different paths. Clif Darden worked in economic development in the United States and Tanzania before returning to HBS to earn his DBA in 1982. His career in academia culminated in a tenured professorship in organizational theory and management at Pepperdine’s Graziadio School of Business and Management, where Darden worked for nearly 25 years before retiring in 2008. His service to HBS continued in the form of two, three-year terms (1995–2000) as a member of the School’s Visiting Committee. As the first African American woman to graduate from HBS, Lillian Lincoln Lambert found her niche in the male-dominated building services contracting industry, running her own company for 25 years in six states and employing more than 1,200 people. Now an author and public speaker, Lambert received HBS’s Alumni Achievement Award in 2003. Ted Lewis’s long career in executive recruiting had its genesis in the student recruiting he did at HBS. Lewis worked at several executive search firms and consulting companies, then worked for two decades at Accenture (formerly Andersen Consulting), where he was responsible for partner recruiting worldwide before retiring in 2011. A graduate of Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations, George Price joined Levi Strauss after HBS. He went on to pursue entrepreneurial ventures, founding Price & Associates in Silver Spring, Maryland. As a student, Roy Willis served as the first black head of HBS’s Business Assistance Program in Roxbury, and then worked at a Roxbury-based housing development company. Willis has spent his career focused on urban development projects and continues to run his real estate consultancy firm in the Los Angeles area.

From that first welcome party in the Willises’ apartment in 1968 to today, the AASU has evolved into an organization that sponsors networking opportunities, workshops, and social events for the more than 2,000 African American students who have followed the five founders in the past half-century. It also hosts the annual H. Naylor Fitzhugh Conference, drawing HBS alumni, other business leaders, and students from around the world. To a person, the founders are proud of what they helped build together—both a groundbreaking organization and the momentum necessary to effect lasting change at HBS.

“You know, inclusion should be an objective well beyond the educational world. If people do not learn and value inclusion when they are in school, it is going to be increasingly difficult for them to function in the real world,” says Darden in a final reflection. “If you don’t know how to talk to people who aren’t from your own particular racial or ethnic background, then how are you going to be the manager of a workforce?”

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