April 16, 2009

Moving Past a Footnote in History

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Reuben Munday ’69 was a member of the Afro-American Society, the group that took over the Straight.
The following article was first published in the May 1999 issue of The Bookpress.

For more than 30 years now, whenever I mention that I was a member of Cornell University’s Class of 1969, people want to know whether I participated in the “armed occupation” of Willard Straight Hall. When I tell them that I did, they want to sit down to talk about the details of what happened and the objectives that the African-American students sought to accomplish.
Recently, I have declined to participate on panels on this topic because, frankly, I’m tired of talking about it. I want to talk about Jim McConkey’s creative writing class and nights that I spent at Dan and Dorothy McCall’s small blue house discussing the great American writers of the 20th century. I want to talk about eminent professors at the College of Arts and Sciences who were more than willing to meet with me at the Temple of Zeus in Goldwin Smith Hall to have coffee and discuss with me my youthful ideas. There is a wonderful feeling of euphoria that I remember that comes over you when you just sit quietly on the Arts Quad on a spring day.
I could tell you about the two years that I spent as a staff writer for Cornell’s Office of Public Information in Day Hall. Or I could tell you about the priceless knowledge that I gained from graduate courses taught by John Heinrich Clarke and Dr. Ben Jochanon at the African Studies and Research Center. But, no, I know you want to know about the “Straight Takeover.”
I’m writing this article because I recently recognized that my declination of invitations to speak on the topic of the Straight Takeover brought back surprising emotion. Maybe this topic was not really finished personal business, as I claimed. I decided that it might be useful to accept the invitation to write this article as an opportunity to face once again the agonizing circumstances that led to my presence in Willard Straight Hall in April of 1969. I realized, as I began to gather my thoughts, that my distaste for the topic was not a result of an uncharitable unwillingness to share my knowledge of an event that has been attributed meaningful historical significance by some but rather by my desire to move on with my life. My desire not to be stuck. I am a strong proponent of facing the past squarely and learning from it. To be stuck in the past, on the other hand, seems self-defeating to me. …
To the African-American students at Cornell who are interested in the events surrounding the occupation of Willard Straight Hall, I am glad that you are interested in the history of African Americans at the University, but I hope that you will not choose to be stuck in that history. You are living in a very different time that calls for very different ways of thinking. It would be a waste for you to try to relive the experiences of those of us who went before you. For­tunately for you, you have a reasonably large black alumni group that is anxious to share its experiences with you and can identify with the challenges that Cornell presents to African-American students. Unfor­tunately for us, we did not have the support of such a group.
Please don’t waste your valuable time trying to defend your “equality” or your right to be at Cornell. You are desperately needed by your community and I am giving you permission to take four years to prepare yourselves. I even hope that you will manage to have some fun. Many of those who are so quick to sit in judgment of you would do well to engage in more introspection and self-evaluation.
Diversity is reality, not an idea dreamed up by African-Americans, Native- Americans, Hispanics and women to harass other “innocent people.” The opposite of diversity is delusion. If the great universities of this country are really interested in the pursuit of truth, they will continue to seek to include intellectually capable representatives of all segments of our society. If not, it will be the universities’ loss, and the excluded segments will have to make the best of the limited resources that are available to them. Our determination to move forward is part of our “merit.”
Remember that Frederick Douglass improved his reading skills by tricking young white boys in Baltimore into correcting his pronunciation of words. Remember that Booker T. Washington, an ex-slave, literally walked to Hampton Institute to get his education. Remember that the students at Tuskegee Institute, not only built the buildings on campus, they also made the bricks. Our inclusion in significant numbers among the student bodies on Ivy League campuses is very recent history.
I realize now what I did not have the opportunity to experience in my 20s. The opportunity to get a Cornell education is the opportunity to develop something much more powerful and productive than a gun; it is the opportunity to have a university-trained mind. Take advantage of that opportunity.
To those who think that we were responsible for “closing the American minds” and/or destroying “academic freedom,” I think that you are wrong. A part of the problem in the first place was that the American mind had been closed to people like us for a very long time. At Tuskegee there was a period when students were not permitted to walk across campus with books because the sight of blacks with books upset southern whites. Black college presidents who were seeking to raise funds to support their schools’ academic programs were routinely asked to sing Negro spirituals as part of their appeal. Professors with nice cars wore chauffeur caps when they drove their cars on campus to create the impression that the cars did not belong to them. I guess you have to be a part of a community that has “academic freedom” to bemoan its loss.
Hopefully, the incident at Willard Straight Hall will just be a historical footnote in the great future of Cornell University that we should work together to create. For those who are still angry about the incident, angry that we “got away with it,” I can only repeat the advice that I am given when I try to offer some of the details of what I have experienced and learned from African American history: “Things aren’t like that any more. Let’s move on.” Thank God, I have been able to do so.

Reuben Munday ’69 is a partner at Lewis and Munday, a Detroit-based law firm. The firm is one of the largest African-American-owned law firms in the country.