Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

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Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

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Alumni talk of racism at NU 40 years ago

In May of 1968, a group of black students chained themselves inside the Bursar’s Office to get the university to respond to a list of demands that they had submitted in late April and that the university had ignored.

The padlock on the doors and the bond between the 97 protesters forced administrators to finally accept that campus life wasn’t immune to the racism of the surrounding society.

At a series of panel discussions titled “1968 + 40: The Black Student Movement at Northwestern and its Legacy” on Friday and Saturday, co-sponsored by Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences and the Center for African American History, about 50 alumni spoke about their experiences at NU. Conversations revolved around the Bursar Sit-In.

“We were treated like objects,” said Kathryn Ogletree, Weinberg ’71 and the For Members Only spokeswoman during the Bursar Sit-In. She said the university tried to “maximize our exposure” to white students by scattering black students across campus – no two black students could live together. White students were allowed to change their rooms if they had black roommates, but it wasn’t allowed the other way around, she said.

Students wanted the university to improve its sensitivity to both race and class, said Martha Biondi, associate professor of the African-American studies department. This desire propelled them to submit a list of demands on April 22, 1968. Some items on the list called for the university to recruit more black students from inner-city school districts, to improve financial aid opportunities for blacks and to have black history reflected in the curriculum.

John Bracey, who was doing graduate work at NU at the time, helped guide the undergraduates who spearheaded the sit-in.

He said the atmosphere didn’t make black students feel welcome and that administrators thought black students would be changed for the better by coming to NU. But the black students “already had this sense of who they were” and weren’t willing to squeeze into the NU mold, Bracey said.

Greek life excluded black students, except for when one fraternity hosted an annual plantation-themed dance and asked female black students to dress up in bandanas and aprons and serve guests.

“Their response was, ‘It doesn’t mean anything,’ but it did mean something,” Bracey said.

During the sit-in, James Turner, Weinberg ’69, and other designated protestors climbed in and out of the Bursar’s Office windows to meet and negotiate with university officials in an administration building that is now the Music Administration Building on Clark Street. Thirty-eight hours after the students had chained the doors shut, the university began to draft a 15-point agreement including reforms in admissions, financial aid and housing policies.

While students inside the building did their homework or wrote press releases, Evanston residents brought over food for the students who had locked themselves inside the building at 619 Clark St., said Bracey.

“We ate better in there than we did in our dorms,” said Wayne Watson, SESP ’69, the only black wrestler on the wrestling team at the time.

White students “wanted to shake things up, too,” said Bracey. Some had also been subject to the administration’s insensitivity to class and “stuffy environment,” he said.

“Not every white student had a ski rack on the top of their car,” he said. To that end, a ring of white students surrounded the building so that law enforcement would have to break through them if they wanted to enter the building, he said.

NU’s African-American studies department also took shape a few years after the agreement, said Biondi.

Poet and fiction writer Angela Jackson, who began her career at NU in 1968, read an excerpt from her new novel, “Where I Must Go,” which traces a black woman’s experiences at a fictional Midwestern university. She said before her reading that she was so anxious to leave NU that she skipped her graduation ceremony.

“I was just glad to be out of there, I didn’t want to be bothered, I was glad it was over,” she said. “But I was so selfishly stupid to not have marched, depriving my parents of seeing that moment.”

Turner told the audience that even as the U.S. reaches a turning point in the possible election of a black president, racism has still not evaporated.

Communication sophomore Marcus Shepard agreed with Turner. He said that while walking down Sheridan Road one night last fall, a car filled with three white males yelled out, “Go back to where you came from!”, with a racial epithet at the end of the sentence.

Watson said he was pained that he didn’t see more current black NU students in the audience.

“Things have slipped backwards,” he said, pointing out the small number of black students on campus. In the class of 2012, there are 81 black freshmen.

Despite the challenges black students encounter to keep their progress intact, panel members agreed that the joint effort between For Members Only and the Afro-American Student Union in 1968 was a success.

“We won,” said Bracey, “because it took 40 years for them to invite us back.”


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Alumni talk of racism at NU 40 years ago