Spring 2018

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Eva Jefferson ­Paterson, North­western’s first African American student body president, addresses the crowd of ­protestors on Deering Meadow in May 1970. Courtesy of University Archives.

Reflections of a Black Student Activist

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Eva Jefferson Paterson ’71 is president and co-founder of the Equal Justice Society in Oakland, Calif., which seeks to transform the nation’s consciousness on race.

Learn more about the history of the 1968 Bursar's Office takeover and plans for the 50th anniversary commemoration.

Tell us what you think. E-mail comments or questions to the editors at letters@northwestern.edu.

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This may marks the 50th anniversary of the black student takeover of the Northwestern Bursar’s Office. Civil rights attorney Eva Jefferson Paterson remembers what the University was like before and after the sit-in and the profound impact of those days on her life and career.

by Eva Jefferson Paterson

It’s August 1967. My father is home from a yearlong tour of duty in Vietnam. I have been accepted to Northwestern and am so excited. That summer I read an article in Seventeen magazine that says many sororities at Northwestern do not admit Blacks or Jews. This is very disturbing.

That fall, my parents drive me from Mascoutah, Ill., near East St. Louis, to Evanston. I remember putting many of my clothes in one of my dad’s old military footlockers. When I arrive at my room in Willard Hall, I am greeted by a girl from California with long, frizzy hair — a sign of things to come. Later that afternoon, a very, very blond girl from Ohio joins us in our triple. She takes one look at me, leaves and spends the night in a hotel. She is later assigned to a single room down the hall.

If memory serves me well, I went through rush week but only lasted for three houses. At the third house I was put into what I was later told was the “goon room,” the place for those the sorority had no intention of rushing. After that indignity I retreated to Willard Hall and ultimately met the three women who have been my friends for 50 years, Susan Ginsberg Baronoff ’71, Lyda Phillips ’70 and Virginia Dzurinko ’71. I have often joked that the four of us were like one of the groups in WWII movies — the Black, the Southerner, the Jew and the Italian.

That first year at NU was mind-boggling and changed me in profound ways. Black students —although I entered calling myself a Negro — met off campus. The powers that be did not allow us to meet in on-campus facilities because we were not an officially sanctioned group.

Over the course of that year, 1967, and into the new and momentous year of 1968, discussions turned to political action. Led by graduate student James Turner ’68 MA and fellow freshman Kathryn “Twig” Ogletree ’71, ’76 PhD, there were calls for militant action. I often felt out of place because I had grown up in a desegregated Air Force milieu, but the arguments I heard made sense to me.

I was at a student senate meeting on April 4, 1968, when word came of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. Chicago and most of the rest of the country burned with literal and figurative rage at the murder of the nonviolent dreamer.

A month later, we took over the Bursar’s Office.

Charla Wilson, the Archivist of the Black Experience for Northwestern Libraries tells the story of the sit-in.

We gathered in Allison Hall in the wee hours of the morning of May 3 and then ran over to the Bursar’s Office. Recently I heard that we had friends inside the office who allowed us entry. I am sure the statute of limitations has run out, so I am comfortable telling that tale. Once inside, I cheerfully called my parents and said, “Guess where I am?” They were not amused and told me that if I did not leave, they would cut off financial support.

I talked with James Turner about this, and he suggested that I go out and collect blankets, which I did. That felt very unsatisfactory, so I decided to become an independent person and went back inside the Bursar’s Office.

Turner and Twig successfully negotiated with the dean of students on our behalf, and 38 hours later we emerged triumphantly. The administration had agreed to a number of our demands, including the creation of what is now the Department of African American Studies and reserved housing for African American students.

James Turner talks with media
Graduate student James Turner ’68 MA, president of the Afro-American Student Union, talks with the media after the Bursar’s Office takeover in May 1968.

The following fall, as a result of our militant stance, the University hired Lerone Bennett Jr. of Ebony magazine to teach a course based on his book Before the Mayflower: A History of Black America, 1619–1962. I get emotional just thinking about what I learned in his class. I had no idea of the magnificent cultures that had existed in Africa. I had never heard of the Republic of Benin or the ancient Kingdom of Kush. The thought of my people thriving in vibrant cultures still fills me with deep pride. (I finally got to go to Africa in 2017 and felt so at home in Kenya.)

This course and the takeover completely changed my self-image. We also learned — and this may have not been a good thing — that we could effectuate change really quickly. I think we thought that the revolution would happen that fast.

Finally, I became my own woman. I stayed in Evanston the summer of 1968 and shared an apartment with two other Northwestern students at 2115 Maple Ave. We decided to have a big party, so I went into Chicago to buy a dress and got off at the wrong L stop. I saw a large crowd of people and walked toward them. The Democratic National Convention was taking place in Chicago that August, and I had just inadvertently joined the protesters. I listened to speeches and accepted Dick Gregory’s invitation to walk down to his home on the South Side and have a Coke.

Mayor Richard J. Daley had forbidden protesters to march anywhere near the convention. Well, we marched a few blocks and then got tear-gassed.

Over the years at Northwestern, I became increasingly more radical or progressive. One of the hallmarks of those years was the teach-in, which involved speeches and presentations outside the classroom on various topics. I opposed the war in Vietnam and became a feminist.

In April 1970 I was elected student body president. The next month four students were killed at Kent State University. I flew to Washington, D.C., for emergency meetings with other students. When I returned to Evanston, protest demonstrations against both U.S. military action in Cambodia and the murder of the Kent State students were taking place on Deering Meadow.

There were thousands of people on the meadow. We were appalled and frightened by what had happened. Students were killed at Jackson State in Mississippi later that week. There were iron fences lining Sheridan Road that we took down. We tried to hand out leaflets to the commuters going home and were prevented from doing so by the police, so we blockaded Sheridan Road. It seems strange, writing these words, to think of what we did back then.

As student body president, I became the focal point for the rallies. Many people praised me for helping to maintain calm. I even persuaded students to douse their torches and not burn down Lunt Hall, the home of the Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps.

Years later I was asked to give a speech at the last minute. I was dog-tired, but once I started speaking, a certain energy was created. At the end of that speech, I realized that I was drawing on the energy of the audience and feeding it back to them.

Now when I think back on those days on Deering Meadow, I realize that I was channeling the desires of those assembled. We were against the war. We loved our University. We wanted to take a stand against the lawlessness of the Nixon administration. We were appalled and frightened that students much like us were shot and killed at Kent State and Jackson State. We did not want to create more violence. This may sound ethereal, but I truly believe that is why I was able to be an effective leader — I reflected the student body for that week.

Eva Jefferson Paterson speaks on Deering Meadow

The strike ended peacefully, and things went back to normal. That fall I applied to law school at Yale. But the school was not impressed with my 19 incomplete credits and declined to admit me. I finished my coursework at Northwestern and in 1972 was admitted to law school at the University of California, Berkeley. I graduated in 1975 and passed the bar.

Since then I’ve worked as a legal services attorney and civil rights attorney in the San Francisco Bay Area and have been involved in much impact litigation challenging racism and gender bias. My years at Northwestern and what I learned about my people and my race gave me the strength to fight the good fight.

On a personal level, I derive great pleasure from having gone to Northwestern. I drove down to Pasadena when we were in the 1996 Rose Bowl. I introduced myself to fellow Wildcat Stephen Colbert ’86, ’11 H when we were both on Amtrak’s Acela train on the East Coast while he was on The Daily Show. I cheered for our basketball team when we were in the NCAA Tournament last year, and I brag that the soon-to-be wife of England’s Prince Harry, Meghan Markle ’03, is a Wildcat.

Returning to Evanston in May to celebrate the takeover of the Bursar’s Office will be great. And the attendant planning has been wonderful. I learned that I was not the only black student who had come from integrated schools. I wish I had known that then.

Northwestern opened doors for me. Being there was part of a transformation that many in my generation experienced. We had come from small towns or big cities to Evanston. We were exposed to new ideas and fellow students with different life experiences. The black student movement, the antiwar movement and the feminist movement were all coming into their own. Being away from home and being able to think for myself changed me profoundly.

For the past 50-plus years I have had the honor and privilege to make my avocation my vocation. I can wake up in the morning and read the paper or watch the news and am able to engage with the struggles of our day. My years at Northwestern provided the groundwork for my life’s work. For that I am eternally grateful. Go Cats!