It’s been four decades since African American students occupied Willard Straight Hall, conducting the first armed occupation of a university building in this country.
It's been four decades since armed African American students occupied Willard Straight Hall, forever changing the campus. For current undergraduates, that's two consecutive lifetimes. But even after all these years, the events of April 1969 remain a source of controversy.
By Beth Saulnier
It might have been just another protest, another takeover of a university building in the turbulent Sixties. If it weren't for the guns.
On the afternoon of Sunday, April 20, 1969—Parents' Weekend—a group of African American students emerged from Willard Straight Hall after a two-day occupation. An Associated Press photographer named Steve Starr was there, and he captured an image that would win a Pulitzer Prize: a group of young black men exit Cornell's student union toting weapons. The Straight, a Gothic fortress of a building that seemed to embody the proverbial ivory tower, provided a powerful symbolic backdrop. But the thing that clinched it—the factor that, arguably, earned Starr his Pulitzer—is the man at the center of the photo.
The students on either side of him are carrying their rifles with one hand wrapped around the stock, their eyes cast slightly downward; considering that they're armed, their mood is relatively non-threatening. But the image of Eric Evans '69, one of the leaders of Cornell's Afro-American Society (AAS), delivered a different message—one that announced that black militancy had come to Cornell, that the campus and perhaps higher education itself would never be the same. Evans is holding his shotgun straight up in a pose of victory, his finger an inch from the trigger. Snaked around his waist and shoulder is a bandolier studded with ammunition. His head is held high, his expression steely but placid. "Oh my God," Starr reportedly said before he snapped his famous picture, "look at those goddamned guns!"
It was forty years ago this spring that black students at Cornell conducted the first-ever armed occupation of a building on an American campus. It wasn't, despite the common misconception, an armed takeover; the guns were smuggled in after the Straight was occupied, in response to an incursion by fraternity brothers from Delta Upsilon who tried to oust the black students. Whether the occupation was a brave act of conscience or a crime that merited punishment was deeply controversial at the time, and its legacy continues to be a matter of debate. Many see it as a watershed event in the battle for civil rights on the Hill and elsewhere; others call it the beginning of the end of academic freedom.
To mark the takeover's fortieth anniversary, Cornell Alumni Magazine caught up with some of the key players in the events of spring 1969 and its aftermath: AAS leaders Tom Jones '69, MRP '72, and Homer "Skip" Meade '69; AAS member Andree-Nicola McLaughlin '70; student government leader Art Spitzer '71; professor emeritus Walter LaFeber, then head of the history department and a vocal member of the faculty; former Cornell Alumni News editor John Marcham '50, who covered the events extensively; and University of Wisconsin professor Donald Downs '71, who observed the events as a student and went on to write Cornell '69: Liberalism and the Crisis of the American University.
Those who were students during the takeover have taken divergent paths. Jones—who, in a radio interview, infamously threatened several faculty members and declared that Cornell "has three hours to live"—went on to become head of the nonprofit workers' retirement fund TIAA/CREF and a Cornell trustee; he now runs his own private equity firm in Stamford, Connecticut. (In 1995, he endowed the Perkins Prize for Inter-racial Understanding in honor of former President James Perkins, who was widely derided for his handling of the unrest and resigned at the end of the school year.) Meade and McLaughlin both earned PhDs and went into academia, she at Medgar Evers University and he at the University of Massachusetts. Spitzer, an attorney, is director of the ACLU's Washington, D.C., office.
Speaking just days after the inauguration of America's first black president, they pondered the tumultuous times on the Hill in the late Sixties, as well as the legacy of the takeover at Cornell and beyond. Even four decades later, some facts remain murky. For example, while both Downs and Marcham are convinced that the cross burned outside a black women's residence that spring—a factor in catalyzing students to take over the Straight the following day—was in fact the work of African Americans trying to stir up sentiment, McLaughlin strongly disagrees. Even the precise number of students who occupied the Straight is unclear. In his coverage immediately after the takeover, Marcham reported it to be "some 50-100." The 1970 Cornellian said it was 110. Downs pegs it at around eighty, and Jones recalls it was about 120.
Although the takeover is commonly claimed as the catalyst for the formation of the Africana Studies Center, its establishment was not one of the seven terms of the agreement hammered out between the Cornell administration and the AAS to end the occupation; in fact, trustees had approved funding for the center the previous week. As President Emeritus Dale Corson (then provost, he was intimately involved in the administration's response) noted in an essay in the Cornell Chronicle on the takeover's twentieth anniversary in 1989: "The program was in place and a director had been recruited months before the Straight takeover. I know of no aspect of the program that grew out of the Straight incident. All the takeover did was make it difficult for us to deal with our various university constituencies."
More than any single event before or since, the takeover polarized Cornellians. Particularly among the faculty—who agonized over whether to punish the occupiers in an era when the campus mood was highly volatile and expulsion could mean being drafted to Vietnam—it caused personal rifts that, in some cases, never healed. Outraged that the AAS students weren't punished for their actions—in addition to taking over the Straight and stockpiling firearms, the occupiers damaged property and brusquely ousted more than two dozen visiting parents from their bedrooms—some alumni severed ties with the University, refusing ever to attend Reunion or donate money. But as Marcham notes, alumni giving actually went up immediately after the takeover. While some Cornellians saw the upending of the established order as the death of the alma mater as they knew it, others embraced it as the dawn of a new era of equality, with Cornell in the vanguard.