55 years after Black student activists occupied the Bursar’s Office, students see unresolved problems and progress
May 22, 2023
Content warning: This article contains discussions of racial violence.
When Leslie Harris (Weinberg ’70) thinks back to his college years at Northwestern, he recalls an unwelcoming campus community that was at times hostile to Black students and other students of color.
Harris said a white student assaulted one of his classmates from high school on the street and recalled members of the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity dressing in blackface at a party.
While Harris said his experiences left him with no “allegiance” to the University, he did graduate knowing he made a difference on campus. In May 1968, his sophomore year, Harris occupied the Bursar’s Office with more than 100 other students to advocate for resources and institutional support for Black students.
Students strategically selected the Bursar’s Office, an administrative building with cash holdings and financial records. The occupation ended after 38 hours, when University administrators committed to increasing support and services for Black students in admissions, curriculum, counseling, scholarship, housing and facilities.
A turning point in student activism at NU, the Bursar’s Office Takeover served as a peaceful but powerful confrontation of an educational system that failed to support Black students. Fifty-five years later, many student demands remain unmet.
The road to the Takeover
In 1966, after the implementation of the NU Chicago Action Program — an initiative to increase Black enrollment by recruiting from Chicago Public Schools — NU admitted the largest group of Black students in its history.
Before that year, an average of five Black students enrolled annually. In 1966, NUCAP’s first year, NU accepted 70 Black students, 54 of which enrolled.
However, many of these students faced discrimination and a lack of institutional support on campus.
Discrimination on campus
In the 1960s, a fraternity party featuring blackface was not out of the norm, according to several Black alumni and Charla Wilson, the archivist for the Black experience on campus. Black students walking down Sheridan Road in the ’60s heard racial slurs multiple times and were even hit with water balloons at times, she said.
Judge Stanley Lewis Hill Sr. (Medill ’70) said there was little to no support for the first large group of Black students that were not student athletes.
“We had to make a way out of no way. The University (did) not recognize some of the things that we needed in order to have a happy college experience,” Hill said. “(We had to) make a way out of no way.”
Hill helped reactivate the Alpha Mu chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity. It still exists as a Black fraternity at NU.
Overt and hostile racism plagued the campus in the 60s, according to Wilson. In several cases, Wilson said white students paired with Black students in dormitories would switch rooms to avoid living with a Black person. In addition, Black students convening in communal spaces were more likely to face noise complaints, she said.
Black women experienced an especially hostile environment filled with harassment, according to Hill. White fraternity members would aggressively shout at women as they walked down Sheridan Road toward Allison Hall, he said.
‘If something’s gonna go wrong, I’ll be with my friends’: The Takeover
According to Harris, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., which was one month before the Takeover, as well as the popularity of the Black Power movement, were catalysts for the occupation.
In April 1968, the premier Black student organizations on campus, For Members Only and the Afro-American Student Union, sent a set of demands to NU’s administration. The groups demanded the school recognize institutional racism on campus, create a space for a Black student union, direct admissions to set a goal of Black students representing 12% of the student population and hire more Black faculty members.
After the University failed to meet the demands by May 2, the occupation ensued the next day. It ended after 38 hours when University administrators said they would commit to increased support and services for Black students.
James Turner (Weinberg M.A. ’68), one of the protest leaders and president of the AASU, spoke with Jack Hinz, then dean of students. The resulting negotiations, which involved multiple students, led to a May 4th agreement. That agreement established the Black House and led to increased attention to Black history and literature in the curriculum.
Hill, who participated in the Bursar’s Office Takeover, said he is proud that several student demands at the time were met, including the creation of the African American Arts and History curriculum.
Another Bursar’s Office Takeover participant, Joanne Williams (Communication ’71), said students inside the building felt uncertainty all night. She didn’t know when they would leave or what might happen.
“I was a little bit afraid. But I felt what we were doing was important,” Williams said. “And all my friends were there. So I said, ‘If something’s gonna go wrong, I’ll be with my friends.’”
Students and Evanston residents passed food and supplies to the protestors through the windows of the Bursar’s Office, according to Williams.
Harris said the demonstrators exhibited remarkable courage.
“I’m proud that we all stood together. That we thought we were gonna be kicked out of school, but still, everyone stood together to do it,” Harris said. “We had watched police in other takeovers go in and attack people. But still, the students stood together. And I’ve always been so proud of them and their courage and their willingness to sacrifice their futures to make a statement.”
55 years later, resources appreciated but obstacles remain
Despite some progress from the Takeover, many Black students’ original demands remain unmet today. The University has yet to issue an official acknowledgement of institutional racism at the school. Student groups are still pushing for increased financial aid for Black students, separate housing options for Black students and a designated Black counselor for academic and mental support.
The Black House, however, offers cultural events and a safe space for community, according to Wilson and Weinberg senior Natalie Jarrett. Jarrett says she sees both the house and the African American Studies department as essential resources.
Mary Pattillo, chair of the African American Studies Department, said she appreciates that the Takeover helped spark her program.
“The first thing I take from it is always how incredibly intrepid, courageous, dedicated and inspired were these 19-, 20-, 21-, 22-year-olds,” Pattillo said. “I’m always humbled by what they were able to accomplish.”
“I see the Black House as commemorating history. That’s your first impression,” Jarrett said. “There’s thousands of photos that archive and maintain history, contextualize the present and give space for black students to enjoy that history.”
Weinberg sophomore Danielle Adekogbe said she joined FMO and the African Students Association her freshman year.
Now FMO’s assistant vice coordinator of programming, Adekogbe said she feels supported by the staff at the Black House who are willing to lend an ear to students.
“(The Black House) is just a place where we can escape from what feels like a very bleak environment at the school,” Adekogbe said. “It’s filled with joy and peace.”
Despite that support, Adekogbe said adequate resources for Black students remain missing on campus.
Adekogbe said she did not have a Black professor until she enrolled in an African American Studies course this quarter. As a computer science major, she said she sometimes struggles with the lack of Black students in her classes.
“It really does feel very isolating at times,” Adekogbe said. “Higher Black enrollment is so necessary, so students don’t feel isolated in their experience.”
Similarly, Elanta Slowek completed the School of Professional Studies’ Digital Content Management Certificate this March. Slowek said there were few Black students in her classes, which made her feel ostracized and obligated to speak for all Black people in discussions.
“I have not taken advantage of the Black House. I honestly didn’t even know it existed,” Slowek said. “So clearly, Northwestern did not make that clear to me at all.”
Students revive Bursar’s Office Takeover demands
In the past ten years, Black student activists have continued calls for more resources and enrollment of Black students, as well as asking for reduced policing around campus and in Black spaces like the Black House.
In November 2015, students protested at the groundbreaking of the Walter Athletics Center to demonstrate their solidarity with student activists at other universities and call for greater representation and resources for Black students at NU.
Following the protest, student organizers released a list of 19 demands, which later grew to 34. Many of the demands — including increased enrollment of Black students and increased hiring of Black faculty — echoed the list sent to the University in 1968.
Today, four demands from the Takeover still have not been met, according to current activists. In an April statement sent to the University, Black activists demanded in-person meetings with administration, an end to policing of Black spaces, consultation by Multicultural Student Affairs on decisions involving the Black House and the fulfillment of the original Bursar’s Office Takeover demands.
One day after the statement, which received signatures from 23 student organizations and more than 400 students, was sent to the NU administration, more than 200 student activists attended a painting of The Rock and protested to bring awareness to their demands.
University Spokesperson Jon Yates said Vice President for Student Affairs Susan Davis and University President Michael Schill have met with the student organizers. He added Davis and Schill will continue to meet with the organizers as they work to address issues raised in the petition.
The University did not respond to questions about the administration’s intended response to specific demands from the list.
Jarrett said she hopes the University begins to “take Black demands seriously.”
In the future, Adekogbe said she wants to see Black experiences at NU be transformed.
“My hope is that the Black experience truly does become better and truly becomes an experience of joy and (an) experience of peace,” Adekogbe said. “I really want it to be better for all of us.”
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