Northwestern commemorates 1968 takeover of Bursar’s Office by black students
April 30, 2018
EVANSTON --- Northwestern University will commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1968 takeover by black students of the Bursar’s Office in Evanston with several days of events in May that highlight a year-long remembrance of the pivotal event.
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.
“The Bursar’s Office takeover 50 years ago was a significant and transformational event in the history of Northwestern University,” President Morton Schapiro said. “It was a turning point in the empowerment of our black 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."
The University has invited faculty, staff, students, alumni and guests to participate in the commemoration, with activities culminating the first week of May. Many of the students who participated in the takeover will return this week to remember the event and to share their stories.
President Schapiro and Provost Jonathan Holloway said today (April 30) in a joint message to the Northwestern community: “As we reflect on the 1968 sit-in events at Northwestern, we are more committed than ever to providing a dynamic and inclusive educational experience.
“By embracing backgrounds and viewpoints different from our own, we can challenge our assumptions, test our ideas and broaden our understanding of the world,” they said. “It is only by understanding our history that we can map out a better course for our future as individuals, as an institution and as a society.”
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, black 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 at Northwestern.
“While the number of black faculty, students and staff have increased steadily at Northwestern and across the country, there is still more to be done, and it is our responsibility to reaffirm our commitment to help ensure the success of future generations,” he added.
Among the events planned is a symposium on May 3, “Living the Legacy -- From Protest to Progress,” that will include panelists President Schapiro, student protest organizer John Bracey Jr., student negotiator Kathryn Ogletree ’71 and Jeffrey Sterling ’85, president of the Northwestern University Black Alumni Association (NUBAA).
The NUBAA website lists many of the events and programs taking place May 3 – 6. These four days of activities will include more than a dozen events, including the premiere of a takeover documentary, a theatrical event, a musical performance, a processional across campus, a groundbreaking at the Black House, along with marches to The Rock, the Bursar’s Office and Rebecca Crown Center, a candlelight vigil and a celebration of the “NUBAA 50.”
The University is committed to continue working diligently every day to ensure its campus remains a place of inclusion and equity, one that reflects the world, and in which every student, faculty and staff member feels welcomed whole-heartedly and without reservation.
The upcoming commemoration will include a memorial, a musical tribute from alumni and first-hand accounts from alumni and student leaders.
“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, Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, (WCAS); E. Patrick Johnson, Department of Performance Studies, School of Communication/Department of African-American Studies/WCAS; Lesley-Ann Brown-Henderson, Campus Inclusion and Community, Student Affairs; and me,” he said.
Sterling, president of NUBAA, has worked with the University for years to help Northwestern continue to make progress on issues of importance to black students, 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 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 black students now to more than 10 percent.
- NUBAA’s annual Salute to Excellence and Awards gala dinner, May 5 in Chicago, has helped bring back black 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.”
One student who participated in the takeover 50 years ago, Wayne Watson ’69, went on to become a triple alumnus, earning his bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate 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.”