hen Julius Harper speaks, people listen.
When he preaches at Santa Clara Christian Fellowship, his congregants listen. When he was an account executive at A&E Television and The Weather Channel, his coworkers listened.
And when he wrote a Letter to the Editor published in The Heights in 1977 about the integration of Fenwick dorm, students listened.
Harper, BC ’80, arrived at Boston College in the summer of 1976, ready to begin the six-week Black Talent Program (BTP) designed to attract students who wouldn’t fit into the typical academic profile of a BC student on paper but showed potential and a commitment to learning.
The BTP was BC’s first step toward affirmative action. The program was instituted in the spring of 1968 after $100,000 was given from the Michael P. Walsh fund. It was originally called the Negro Talent Search. Run under the guidance of Charles Donovan, senior vice president and dean of faculties at the time, the program was intended to recruit high-risk students from the greater Boston area who were economically disadvantaged.
The BTP had a rocky start. In 1970, the Black Student Forum held a protest for more than 500 students—they accused the BTP of being “tokenism.” Later that year, white students complained that too much of the University’s resources were being allocated to the program—at the time the budget for the BTP was $500,000. The next year, the director of the BTP, Phillips, was dismissed after he suggested that the Black Student Forum should take over his administration. In 1974, the BTP said that the University was not adjusting the program’s funding to match tuition costs.
Harper applied to the program, but not because he was dying to go to BC.
“I didn’t really know too much about the school other than the fact that it was on the back of the SAT form,” he said.
When he was admitted, the Hartford, Conn. native decided that BC was the perfect distance from home, and he enrolled.
“Have you ever stopped to consider what the meaning of integration has meant in the past?” Julius Harper
All of the freshmen BTP students were assigned to live in Fenwick, which was integrated in the fall of 1978. When Harper lived there, white male students lived on the first floor, black male students lived on the second, and black female students were on the third.
At the time, Harper was concerned that having white students move in would mean the loss of the black community that had formed in Fenwick.
“Have you ever stopped to consider what the meaning of integration has meant in the past?” Harper wrote in his Apr. 25, 1977 Letter to the Editor for The Heights. If someone were to go to a company and ask if it was integrated and the answer was “yes,” it most likely meant that there was one black person there, he wrote.
“Let me make myself clear, integration is not what I am opposing,” the letter says, “what I oppose is the possibility of Black people on this campus losing a point of indentification [sic].”
Looking back, Harper said he thinks his concerns might have been a bit overblown. At the time, though, Boston was embroiled in a series of protests and riots about the desegregation of Boston public school bussing. At BC, it felt like an escape from whatever was going on in the outside world. It was safe and it was comfortable especially in Fenwick.
The black community isolated itself from the rest of BC, Harper said. There was a general paranoia about the rest of the school, something he now sees as unwarranted. So when the white students moved into the first floor of Fenwick, nothing really happened. Every floor just kept to itself.
It wasn’t that black students felt unwelcome, Harper said, but that there was no reason to go downstairs. They just had different social circles. The first floor listened to hard rock. The second floor listened to disco. The first floor had parties where you stood with a beer in your hand and talked. The second floor had parties where everyone was dancing.
“When we were youngsters, it was all about dancing and the music,” Harper said.
Harper’s activism extended outside the four walls of his Fenwick double when he entered into the Leonard persuasive speaking contest in April of 1977. He placed second for his speech, “Black Studies at Boston College Should be Expanded.” The classes for the black studies program at the time were very limited.
“I remember I took all of the black studies electives,” Harper said. “I think I exhausted the curriculum.”
So he spoke about how other elective options were extensive, but those for this program were limited. The only feedback he remembers getting at the time was from someone who told him he was very arrogant. At the time, he didn’t know what that word meant. Harper said he supposes that he could have seemed overly confident for someone of his age and background, but it was something he was passionate about, so Harper became the chairperson for the black studies committee.
The following October, he called for student support for the black studies program in a guest op-ed in The Heights.
“Black Studies needs your support,” he wrote, “not only verbally i.e., ‘Yea, I’m down for Black Studies,’ but physically and mentally. Come in and volunteer your help, offer ideas, get involved! Black Studies at Boston College can be a platform for change in the current system.”
He asked for students to get involved in the black studies advisory board, something that he wanted to ensure would promote communication in the best interest of the students. The only requirement is “DEDICATION to the continuation of Black Studies on BC’s campus,” he wrote.
“In Don Brown we found standards which were excellent in all aspects relating to the degree of excellence required by Boston College and its minority population.” Julius Harper
Beyond the curriculum of the black studies program, there was a black studies library called the Black and Third World Studies Resource Center housed in Gasson Hall, of which Harper was the coordinator. He was comfortable speaking out about its importance, and he worked to organize a book drive to more than double the library’s holdings.
“The potential for the resource center is limitless,” Harper said to The Heights in March of 1978. “I anticipate that the library will be used by both Black and Third World students and white students in an atmosphere that is conducive to all parties.”
“He was very bright, very intense,” said Donald Fishman, a current professor in the communication department who had Harper in class as a freshman.
Harper didn’t fool around like some other students did, Fishman said. He was clearly dedicated to school and prioritized his time according to that and the student activism that made his name well-known on campus.
Harper grew into his high-profile status. When he arrived at BC, he wasn’t sure of himself academically. He kept to himself and didn’t develop relationships with professors because he wasn’t sure how he would be received—he said he worried about the hostility between ethnic groups. After his speech, Fishman gave him some encouraging words. Harper said that Fishman’s reaction made him more comfortable speaking with professors and letting them know he was there, sitting in their classrooms and waiting to learn.
That opened doors—letters of recommendation and support for internships were there for anyone, regardless of background, Harper said.
Harper’s work led him to become a voice that people wanted to hear—so much so that when the new director for the minority student program, Don Brown, was hired, The Heights asked Harper to weigh in on the pick.
“In Don Brown we found standards which were excellent in all aspects relating to the degree of excellence required by Boston College and its minority population,” Harper said in November of 1978. “From this point on I expect that we will continue to have administrators of the same quality.”
Forty years later, Harper and Brown found themselves eating chicken and waffles after connecting on Facebook. Both ended up in California, and Brown has gone to Harper’s church a few times. Harper said that he’s glad to hear updates about the AHANA program at BC. Its mission to attract more academically prepared students is more advantageous, he said. Sometimes it seemed that the BTP was looking for anyone, regardless of their intellectual prowess. Harper said that some of the people in it ended up doing well, but it wasn’t always a good use of the University’s resources. Despite some of his criticism of the BTP, Harper ultimately recalls his BC experience as an overwhelmingly positive one.
“Everything you did on Boston College’s campus was absolutely fantastic,” he said. “Boston College was very, very good to me.”
When he moved away after graduation, he didn’t find the city of Boston to be as welcoming as the 338 acres he had occupied for four years in Chestnut Hill. He was living with his wife—she worked for One Bank, and he worked for the John Hancock Insurance Company. She told him that when she took the bus downtown to work, white people would stand up rather than sit next to her. The year was 1989.
“I think that the desire to speak before people to influence people that has always been a part of who I am. And I think that's directly related to the roles that I chose to develop for myself, even as early back to the days when I was at Boston College.” Julius Harper
Harper and his wife decided they couldn’t raise a family in a place where their kids wouldn’t feel welcome on a city bus, so Harper flew out to L.A. to see what it was like there. He went to the beach and saw everyone roller skating—he felt like he was watching something on TV. He went home, packed everything into his car, and drove cross country. Neither he nor his wife had jobs lined up in California.
“When I got here, the Boston College diploma was like gold,” Harper said. “They loved it.”
A few weeks after getting to the golden state, Harper landed a job at KIIS-FM, sparking his career in the radio and TV industries. He said that he divorced himself from the “segregated” world he had been a part of in college.
“If some of my friends could see what I was doing now, they would call me a tremendous hypocrite,” Harper said. “But you know, I just, faced reality after having graduated from college, there was much more to the world … so all that radical stuff disappeared.”
And when Harper got into his 40s, he said he was called to ministry. So for about 14 years he balanced being a pastor and a broadcast executive. He found it exciting to do both jobs full-time.
“I think that the desire to speak before people to influence people that has always been a part of who I am,” he said. “And I think that’s directly related to the roles that I chose to develop for myself, even as early back to the days when I was at Boston College.”
When he retired from being a broadcast executive at 55, he decided to stay on as a full-time pastor. His kids were grown, and he wanted to change how he spent his days. So he works on his sermons every week, helps with administrative aspects of running the church, and helps manage people’s relationships with each other.
Harper said that moving out to California was one of the best things that ever happened to him, and attending BC was the other.
“It’s a great college, and it’s a true blessing to be a part of it,” Harper said. “You can’t really understand, you can’t really realize the impact of that school on you and what it will do for you while you’re there. Take advantage of it. Enjoy every bit of it.”
Featured Image from Heights Archives