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Northwestern commemorates 1968 takeover of Bursar's Office

President Schapiro, alumni join program: 'Living the Legacy - From Protest to Progress'

EVANSTON - Hundreds of alumni, students, faculty, staff and guests gathered at Northwestern University this week for an emotional reunion to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1968 takeover by black students of the Bursar’s Office in Evanston, a sit-in that transformed the black experience and the history of the University.

Many of the alumni were students here a half-century ago who participated in the takeover, and they returned to mark the milestone, recount their stories and join in several days of events in May that highlight a year-long remembrance of the pivotal event.

Related: Official 50th anniversary commemoration site

“Welcome home. I’ve been waiting to meet you for a long time,” said Provost Jonathan Holloway, opening a takeover commemoration symposium in a packed auditorium in Norris University Center for the kickoff event Thursday (May 3). “On a very personal note, I thank you. I would not be where I am, and many of my peers would not be where they are, if not for you — for your bravery and your vision. My hope is that in this weekend of reflection and commemoration, it will become home to everyone.”

The symposium, “Living the Legacy — From Protest to Progress,” included former students and black alumni who returned for the commemoration.

On May 3, 1968, more than 100 Northwestern students peacefully occupied the Bursar’s Office at 619 Clark Street to protest the black student experience. The occupation lasted 38 hours, ending with a negotiated resolution in which the administration responded to a list of eight student demands.

The protest resulted in the “May 4th Agreement,” as it is popularly known, that had a significant and enduring impact on the course of the University. The takeover helped spur progress, ranging from increasing black student enrollment and financial aid, to revised housing policies and the expansion of “studies of black history and black culture,” among others.

President Morton Schapiro said he was grateful that “Northwestern students care enough about this place to put their lives on the line to try to make it better.” Speaking at the symposium, he said, “This is an ongoing battle, and the struggle obviously continues.”

 “The Bursar’s Office takeover 50 years ago this week was a significant and transformational event in the history of Northwestern University,” the President said before the anniversary. “It was a turning point in the empowerment of our African-American students, in the building of a more enriched curriculum and in the wider impact it had on diversity and inclusion at Northwestern. It still resonates profoundly with us today."

Standing up together

Many of the students who participated in the takeover returned to remember the event and to share their stories. At the symposium, student protest organizer John Bracey Jr., student negotiator Kathryn Ogletree ’71 and Jeffrey Sterling ’85, president of the Northwestern University Black Alumni Association (NUBAA), all spoke. They were joined on the stage by President Schapiro, who also spoke, and by moderator Jabari Asim, associate professor of writing, literature and publishing at Emerson College and an author, poet and playwright.

Asim opened the program speaking of constructive learning, observing that the goal should be “to learn without repeating, advance without retreating,” and he called the protest events of 50 years ago “a launching pad.”

Ogletree, who was 18 and the president of For Members Only (FMO) at the time she helped lead the protest, remembers how she and other black students felt unwelcome in those days both on campus and in the streets of Evanston, where whites sometimes shunned them or threw beer cans at them as they walked by.

But the experience of standing up together for their rights, against all odds, she said, was what she treasures to this day. “It was the experience of a lifetime,” Ogletree observed. “I’ve bonded with people at Northwestern University in ways I never bonded with people elsewhere.”

Bracey, who was active in the civil rights and black liberation movements in Chicago, remembers helping organize student protesters at Northwestern, which had been recruiting students from the South and West Sides of the city at the time in an effort to integrate the University.

Bracey noted that many of the students already had been radicalized by the times and by racial unrest in Chicago and around the country. “From the moment they got here, they challenged racism.”

Revisiting 1968

During 1968, a year marked by the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., as well as demonstrations and student activism at campuses across the nation, Northwestern experienced its first major student sit-in.

From May 3 to May 4 in 1968, African-American undergraduate and graduate students occupied Northwestern’s business office to demand changes that would move Northwestern towards equality for all students around the University’s recruiting, admissions, student residence policies and academic offerings.

After a peaceful resolution that established a starting point on those and other matters, Northwestern made progress on many of the demands. To learn more about this event in Northwestern’s history, please visit the University Archives site.

“The celebration of these events reminds us of the important issues of the past that still challenge us and many members of the black community today — and essentially underscores and acknowledges our history,” said Jabbar Bennett, associate provost and chief diversity officer.

burs850Alumni gather at the takeover site. Photo by Jim Prisching

"Just kids 50 years ago"

After the symposium, some 150 alumni, guests, students and staff marched Thursday from Deering Meadow to the Bursar’s Office, where the crowd gathered and took photos as Sterling unveiled a commemorative brass plaque beside the entrance.

“Northwestern Alumni NUBAA,” it reads. “In honor of the more than 100 Black students who occupied the Bursar’s Office for 38 hours on May 3 and 4, 1968. The University’s first-ever sit-in led to an agreement that resulted in a better existence for Blacks on campus and a better Northwestern. Dedicated May 3, 2018.”

Then the crowd moved west along Clark Street and stood on the steps of the Rebecca Crown Center, where alumna Kimya Moyo ’69, a resource team member at the University of Cincinnati, delivered a poignant poetry tribute to the students of the protest, calling out their names throughout as the crowd repeated the names after her.

“We were just kids 50 years ago,” she repeated at every refrain, delighting the audience and finally concluding with moving lines from a poem, “For My People,”  by renowned poet Margaret Walker ’35. Some alumni in the crowd recited the lines along with Moyo, at the end:

“Let a new earth rise. Let another world be born. Let a bloody peace be written in the sky,” she said. “Let a second generation full of courage issue forth; let a people loving freedom come to growth. … Let a race of men now rise and take control.”

The crowd moved on to the Black House for a ceremonial ground breaking, where President Schapiro, Moyo, Provost Holloway, Sterling, Bennett and current FMO coordinator Kasey Brown turned over shovelfuls of earth in unison in honor of the renovation of the house to come.

Scores of alumni and guests then moved the into Black House for a tour and presentation on the project, which is in the schematic design phase. They were joined by other University representatives, including Vice President for Student Affairs Patricia Telles-Irvin.

The national events of 1968 marked a pivotal time in U.S. history. Activism throughout the country created a path for communities to begin an important dialogue about equality for all people. This week’s milestone marks a time in which African-American students lifted their voices to build a better path for our institution.

Northwestern is committed to continue working diligently every day to ensure that the University’s campus remains a place of inclusion and equality, one that reflects the world, and in which every student, faculty and staff member feels welcomed whole-heartedly and without reservation.

Leaders from Northwestern and NUBAA, have coordinated a number of commemorative events throughout the 2017-2018 academic year. For more information on these events, please go here.

On Friday, scores of alumni, faculty and visitors gathered in Alice Millar Chapel for a musical tribute to celebrate the events of 50 years ago, performed by the Northwestern Community Ensemble (NCE). There was also a moving theatrical performance by current students doing a staged reading of the words of nine students who participated in the takeover, sponsored by the department of African American studies.

The arts performances were followed by a “Voices and Visions” panel of former students, deans and administrators who had various roles as participants in the events that unfolded a half-century ago, as well as those who deal with these causes today. The panelists addressed the evolution of the black experience at Northwestern today.

“Over the past several months, faculty, staff, students and alumni have convened to plan and execute a series of educational events related to the Takeover in an effort to inform and engage campus community members about the historic event and to explore contemporary themes,” Bennett said in a message to senior staff.

“This programming has taken place during the winter and spring quarters, and has been overseen by Gene Lowe, Office of the President; Martha Biondi, Department of African American Studies, WCAS; E. Patrick Johnson, Department of Performance Studies, SOC/Department of African American Studies/WCAS; Lesley-Ann Brown-Henderson, Campus Inclusion and Community, Student Affairs; and me,” he said.

After the Bursar’s Office Takeover commemoration activities concluded on the main campus, black alumni convened at the Swissotel Chicago for the NUBAA Summit and Salute to Excellence Gala. The annual summit not only reunites classmates and friends, it also promotes the development of professional opportunities through networking and workshop presentations. This year’s summit presenters included Steven Rogers, senior lecturer at the Harvard Business School and a former professor at the Kellogg Graduate School of Management, current and past Northwestern trustees Paula Pretlow and Donald Jackson, and Northwestern’s vice president and general counsel, Philip Harris

The highlight of the summit was the screening of “The Takeover: The Revolution of the Black Experience at Northwestern University,” a documentary about the 1968 takeover of the Bursar’s office. A panel discussion of the film included Daphne Maxwell Reid, Northwestern’s first black homecoming queen and well-known television actress, and Harry Lennix, a critically acclaimed stage, film and television actor.

At its “Salute to Excellence” gala on Saturday night, NUBAA recognized alumni James Hill, Reid, Jackson, Wayne Watson and Lorraine Hairston Morton for their respective accomplishments in the fields of medicine, entertainment, business, education and government. A “legacy” award was given to John Bracey and Kathryn Ogletree, two of the leaders of the 1968 student protest.

Recent progress

Sterling has worked with the University for years to help Northwestern continue to make progress on issues of importance to African-Americans, and he credits President Schapiro with being a strong ally.

“One of the things the President has done is to create an environment for transparency, and Northwestern is not afraid of doing what it takes to make it a better university,” Sterling said. “There have been thousands and thousands of successes that have come for black students who have come through the University. It is not fair to paint the picture of our experience at Northwestern as being a negative one. Many of us look back and see this was the best four years of our lives. It just was tough.

“The overall arc of history here is that there is an evolution that represents progress here, and while past generations have protested, more and more now it has occurred through partnership and collaboration with the University — and that’s a model,” he said.

Sterling, who grew up in inner city Chicago, cited a number of issues about which, he said, NUBAA has taken an active role and there has been significant progress in recent years, among them:

  • A steady increase over time in the enrollment of black students at Northwestern, bringing the percentage of African-Americans now to more than 10 percent.
  • NUBAA’s annual Salute To Excellence and Awards gala dinner, coming May 5 in Chicago, has helped bring back African-American alumni to engage with the University, and many of them have contributed to scholarships.
  • The creation of the NUBAA Archives, a special collection inside the University Archives, with documents and collectors’ items from the black alumni community that has also led to more alumni engagement.

“The history of Northwestern’s black alumni is the history of Northwestern University, symbolically and literally,” Sterling said. “To have that history in this archive here, it encourages and compels our alumni to contribute and speaks highly of the University.”

Building for the future

One young student who participated in the takeover 50 years ago, Dr. Wayne Watson ‘69, went on to become a triple alumnus, earning his B.A., Masters and Ph.D. at Northwestern. He described himself as but one of dozens of students who participated, but also who saw the experience as “transformative, transactional and defining” for him and for others.

Watson was 22 at the time of the takeover, a junior on a wrestling scholarship, coming from the Englewood neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side. Today he is 72 and retired as President of Chicago State University, Chicago’s only university serving a predominantly minority student population. He also was president of two colleges during his long career and chancellor of Community Colleges of Chicago.

“I’m a triple Wildcat,” Watson said proudly, “and Northwestern is what it is today, because we opened the door to that 50 years ago.

“If we just celebrate, we fail,” Watson concluded. “We must start by laying planks in the platform that we are beginning to build for the future. We can get together and have a party, but we must build for the future too.”