Amid a year of activism on campus for both racial minorities and undocumented students, more than 200 students gathered Friday to commemorate the 43rd anniversary of the Willard Straight Hall Takeover.
In April 1969, students members of the Afro-American Society took over Willard Straight Hall for two days to demand that the University to improve its treatment of black students. Protestors called for the University to investigate the cross-burning that happened in front of Wari House, then a black women’s co-operative house, and asked for black students to be treated equally under the University’s judicial codes.
As people settled into their seats Friday, some of the group’s organizers stood up from different parts of the room to share what the Takeover meant to them.
“It means taking a stand when our voices seem displaced or ignored on Cornell University’s campus. Having the multicultural community being as strong and unified as possible is what the Willard Straight Hall Takeover means to me,” said Raquel Smith ’13, president of ALANA.
At the commemoration ceremony, students also shared photos promoting diversity that they had displayed on campus. The Cornell DREAM Team — an organization of proponents of the DREAM Act — displayed a photo with students of all races holding up a sign that read, “Do I look undocumented?”
Shuva Islam ’13 said that he found listening to students’ perspectives both informative and enjoyable.
“I learned a lot about the history regarding [the Takeover],” he said. “I found a lot about things I didn’t know about before, like about [the difficulties facing] undocumented students.”
Although the 1969 Takeover was provoked by tension between African-American and Caucasian students, the commemoration event focused on a broader picture than relationships between blacks and whites, according to Smith.
“It’s not just about black or African-American students but it’s also about all students of color — all multicultural students that felt like they didn’t have a voice before but really have a voice now,” Smith said.
Renee Alexander ’74, associate dean of students and director of intercultural programs, agreed, saying that in the 1960s, the prism of racial issues only encompassed black and white.
“Diversity now means a whole lot more than black and white. It means a whole lot more than just race,” Alexander said.
Although Friday’s commemoration took on a celebratory tone, not long ago, the Takeover was barely a part of dialogue on campus, Alexander said.
Alexander, who arrived at Cornell one semester after the Takeover, said that when she was at Cornell, “[the Takeover] was rarely talked about — only in small whispers.”
Alexander said that leaders of the Takeover “were surprised to learn of” the commemoration because the Takeover “was such a controversial event when it took place.”
The Cornell that Alexander remembers was vastly different from what it is now. Back then, Alexander said that racial relations “were hostile, chilly at best,” adding that “it was hard, if not downright impossible, to interact with people across race.”
Susan Murphy ’73, vice president for academic and student services, also recalled that she did not interact much with students of other races during her time as a student at the University.
“I have since made very dear friends with members of my class who are African American ... but as undergrads, we never knew one another,” Murphy said in an email, adding that it was “my loss.”
Kristine Alexander ’13, vice president of ALANA, said that members of the community should continue to remember the significance of the Takeover, as well as the racial issues that provoked it.
“I think it’s important to remind people that we should be thankful for these things and that they affect us. I think it’s important to revisit it every year,” she said.