When the first residents moved onto the fifth floor of Fluor Tower in the Fall 1995 semester, they became the inaugural class of Somerville Place. The newly minted African-American floor, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this week, was created to help students transition to a predominantly white institution and create a support system of belonging and retention.
Mark Pearson, who graduated from USC in 1999, lived on the floor during its first year. Pearson, now a faculty member at the Rossier School of Education, said he opted to live on the floor because he was the only black student in his classes at his high school boarding school. When he came to USC, he turned to Somerville Place to provide a different environment.
“I was literally the first person to step onto that floor,” Pearson said. “I figured that’s where a lot of black freshmen were going to be, and I wanted to be immersed.”
In Somerville Place and Pearson’s first semester, the O.J. Simpson verdict, long considered a racially divisive case, came down in Los Angeles. A few years before, the destructive civil unrest had raged around USC’s campus in response to the acquittal of four white officers on charges of beating Rodney King, a black man.
Pearson said with the advent of the floor, “no one would ever question” why it was needed.
In its 20 years, Somerville Place has served 574 students, according to numbers from the Center for Black Cultural and Student Affairs. The floor is named after John and Vada Somerville, who were social activists and black dental students in the early 1900s. On John Somerville’s first day at USC, back in 1903, his white peers presented an ultimatum to the dean saying they would resign if their black classmate were allowed to stay. Stay he did, and John, and later his wife Vada, became the first black students to graduate from the Ostrow School of Dentistry.
John Somerville’s favorite quote was, “Do not wait for your boat to come in, row out and meet it.” The floor has stayed true to its namesakes’ mission of being proactive within the black community and working to carve out a safe space for students of color at USC
On Thursday, past and current residents will come together to celebrate the legacy of the Somervilles and reflect on the accomplishments of the students who have lived on the floor. The banquet will be held in the Ronald Tutor Campus Center. Former Somerville resident and singer-songwriter Aloe Blacc, who lived on the floor from 1997-98, will perform.
Though the times have changed in this country since the mid-1990s, Somerville Place programming continues to address student life concerns for black students. Shernae Hughes, the current residential assistant for Somerville, said she aims to provide the resources black freshman need to feel confident and comfortable in college. Hughes lived at Somerville last year as a freshman.
“It was a very hectic year,” Hughes said. “Literally every week, two or three stories were coming out about instances of police brutality and things of that nature. I was so happy that I didn’t have to defend black humanity in my own safe space, at my place of residence, where I lived.”
The demographics on the floor are in flux. This school year, Somerville Place has 22 residents who identify as African American. Not all students who live on the fifth floor of Fluor Tower are Somerville residents. For the past three years, the floor hasn’t been completely filled with 32 black students, said Corliss Bennett-McBride, director of the CBCSA.
The Office of Admission used to sponsor a multicultural overnight weekend in April, a few weekends before final school decisions had to be made. Students said seeing how residents interacted in a familial way tipped the scales for them to attend USC. Bennett-McBride said since then, the number of African-American students on the floor has decreased.
The University no longer funds that overnight program, but the CBCSA still works to bring prospective and admitted students to see the floor.
Yet Somerville remains a place for social activism, scholarship and community service. Many of the students who lived on that floor later became Black Student Assembly presidents, Troy Camp members and National Pan-Hellenic Council leaders.
“Each floor is different,” said Bennett-McBride, who has selected 18 of the 21 cohorts of Somerville residents. “I’ve seen that it’s created a sense of belonging, professional development and whoever participates in it gets that feel that this is my home away from home.”
Past residents said maintaining community among black students is essential to retention and empowerment at such a large school.
“We’ve kicked down some doors,” said Ian Chestnut, who lived on Somerville Place in Fall 1996. “I hope generations today are benefiting from those doors we kicked down and that they’re still kicking down doors for generations to come.”
Of the freshmen who entered in the Fall 2015 semester, the percentage of students who identify as African American sat at 7 percent, according to statistics from USC. This is a 1 percent increase since Fall 2012.
Yet, current resident Tola Oseni, a freshman majoring in business administration, said the diverse backgrounds of residents are welcome. On Mondays, Hughes holds “Woke Workshops,” which touch on news items involving the black community. The talks, ranging from respectability politics to colorism, are open to all. Non-black students also usually attend, Hughes said.
“It’s nice to have [non-black students] there and see that they’re understanding and trying to move forward with us as opposed to just being in the room,” Oseni said. “It’s nice to know they’re there for us.”
Like other floors in residence halls, Somerville Place receives funds from Residential Student Government, Building Government and Assistant Residential Area Supervisor I to put on events. Because of its specific mission and similar goals, Somerville RAs have also relied on the resources from the CBCSA. These include additional stipends and the time spent by Bennett-McBride and her team in executing events.
Each year, the students who pass through Somerville Place bring a different culture to the floor. However, what has stayed consistent through the years is the safe space feeling that comes with living around people who understand where you’re coming from.
“I really care about this population. It’s my family, and I need to do more for it,” Hughes said. “That’s why I got more involved in this space and BSA and the whole black community.”