Stephen Wallenstein ’69 and George Fisher co-authored Open Breeches: Guns at Cornell in 1970. The 600-page manuscript was never published, but serves as one of the most comprehensive accounts of the crisis that ensued at Cornell surrounding the takeover. According to Donald Downs ’71, author of Cornell ’69, “the manuscript has attained cult status among the few Cornellians who know of it.” The following compilation of excerpts from the manuscript –– organized in a timeline –– is being published here for the first time.
February | The Creation of the Wari House
In February 1968, the Afro-American Society [AAS] requested [that] the Dean of Students office establish a black women’s cooperative … Until September 1969, female students at Cornell had strict residency requirements. Except for a few seniors, they were not permitted to live off-campus … The chairman of the Faculty Committee on Student Affairs expressed hope that such a living unit would alleviate “the stresses” experienced in dormitories. He explained, “They would like a primarily black environment where they can relax and feel comfortable.” … Most of Cornell’s 100 black girls remained in dormitories; 13 girls moved to Wari House, the black women’s cooperative. … When Cornell established Wari in 1968, some of the immediate neighbors resented not being consulted or informed of the University’s plan to establish a de facto segregated dormitory in a private dwelling in their residential neighborhood.
April 4 | AAS Seizes Economics Department
On the morning of April 4, 1968, about 50 members of the Afro-American Society took over the Economics Department Office at Cornell University. They were protesting allegedly racist remarks made in classroom lectures by a visiting professor of economics, Father Michael McPhelin, an American-born Jesuit priest who had spent many years in the Phillipines. The students charged that “racist philosophy is being taught in Economics 103,” a large introductory lecture course. … The three black complainants alleged that, “the lecturer has consistently and subtly constructed a philosophy of racism; to clarify, we do not mean individual or overt racism, but institutional racism, that type by which attitudes of white superiority are perpetuated.” The basis for this charge was McPhelin’s belief that economic theory and development were Western in origin, and his praise for the “achievements of Western Civilization” and the “economic superiority of European nations,” which he occasionally linked to “good human resources,” in turn associated with a favorable climate. The black students had viewed McPhelin as a racist almost since the course began.
No charges were processed against the black students for their occupation of the economics office or their hostaging of its chairman. A pledge to cleanse the campus of “institutional racism” made many faculty uneasy about the administration’s commitment to pressure full academic freedom, including a professor’s right to teach the truth as he sees it. While admitting that McPhelin should have paid more attention to the black students’ questions, they could not condone the “extreme” actions to which the blacks resorted.
The groundwork was laid for the subsequent clash the following April between the defenders of academic freedom and the all-out pursuers of social justice.
Winter | AAS Demands the Establishment Of a Black College
On October 11, 1968, President [James A.] Perkins confirmed the appointments of a 17-man advisory commission, composed of nine white faculty members and eight black students, to draw up a Black Studies program. … On Friday, Dec. 6, at the meeting [James] Turner was to address, 40 black students showed up and announced the [black studies] advisory committee no longer existed. They claimed full control of the program. … Students [had] radicalized to the need for an all-black college.
Most Cornellians didn’t realize that the blacks themselves were divided about how hard they should push their new militancy. Actually, by November, a schism had developed within the Afro-American Society. … The “separatism” of blacks helped disguise the extent and nature of their internal factionalism and may well have promoted a reckless militancy by one faction. … In January, the AAS named James Turner, a 29-year-old graduate student in sociology at Northwestern University, as its choice for director of Black Studies.
February 28 | Two AAS Students Grab Perkins by the Collar at Symposium on South Africa
Cornell scheduled a four-day symposium on South Africa, from February 26 to March 1, 1969 … A black leader, Eric Evans ’69, and an SDS leader, Bruce Dancis ’69, preceded [President] Perkins at the microphone, demanding justification for the University’s continued investment in the banks that deal with South Africa. … Thinking that the University still had holdings in banks aiding the South African economy, Perkins said, “We’re not pulling out right now, but don’t worry, we’re not putting more money in until we investigate.” Perkins referred to the past, when the Board operated “without any reference to campus or social policies.” At that moment Gary Patton ’72, a militant sophomore from Los Angeles who had positioned himself on the side of the stage, rushed to the lecturer, and grabbed Perkins by the collar, lifting him to his toes. … Blacks in the audience began to beat congo drums … Still holding onto Perkins, Patton grabbed the microphone with his other hand and attempted to speak. The audience was booing. Perkins was flushed and speechless.
April 12 | Trustees Approve Black Studies Center
At its April 12 meeting in New York City, the Board of Trustees approved the administration’s plan and established a Center for Afro-American Studies. Negotiations had proceeded secretly all along, with faculty bypassed throughout. Most students and faculty still knew no details of any plans for a separate black facility. The center would develop a major in Afro-American Studies at the undergraduate level.
April 18 | A Cross Burns Outside Wari House
Early on Friday morning, a cross was burned in front of Wari House, the dormitory for black girls. Directly, a series of false fire alarms went off in 10 dormitories and one academic building. Hundreds of students were routed from their beds by the false alarms … All day Friday, rumors about the cross burning and false alarms spread through Cornell. What did they mean? Was there a connection between the cross burning and the reprimands? What might happen next? … Within a few days, it became a sign of “racism” to speculate that the cross burning might have been planned or approved by black radicals to “politicize” fence straddling blacks for what followed.
That afternoon, Mayor Kiely received another call from Counsellor Neal Stamp. “He said they had some pretty good information that nothing was going to happen over Parents’ Weekend,” Kiely recalled. “He told us they didn’t believe we’d have to keep our people on alert. ‘We’re going to have a pretty quiet weekend’ he said. I hung up the phone and just chuckled. I said, ‘I don’t know where he’s getting his information.’” Kiely did not cancel the police alert, which was already in effect.
April 19 | AAS Occupies the Straight
On Saturday morning, shortly before 5:30 a.m., between 50 and 100 blacks entered the south entrance of Willard Straight Hall and seized the building … While classes at Cornell can go on without the Straight, it is more important to more students than any other building on campus. … Edward L. Whitfield ’70, president of the AAS, later told a group of Cornell alumni: “When we went into the Straight, it was open. We asked the janitors to sit down for awhile. We asked for their keys; they gave them to us. We told them that if they had any duties before they left the building, they should do them. Like if they had to call the police, they should call them. Because what we were doing was not against the janitors, but against the University. They said, ‘Yes we do have to call the police, but we don’t want to do it because you all seem like such a nice group of fellows.’ So they called the campus police, and we stayed in and secured the building.”
At about 4:30 a.m., [Milton] Stevens [the food production supervisor of the Straight] unlocked the southeast doors, so kitchen employees could enter. The blacks entered the building through the doors Stevens had unlocked. There were approximately 10 non-students, teenagers from downtown Ithaca, in the Straight for at least a part of the occupation. … The campus police report indicates that the first word of the occupation they received came from a telephone call at 5:38 a.m. from Donald Yaple, a cook at the Straight, who ‘requested help.’ … At about 6 a.m., the custodians were told they would be released. Since all the doors were barricaded and wired shut, the blacks escorted the custodians out the service entrance. … At 6:02 a.m., [black WVBR Jazz disc-jockey Lee] Hutchinson introduced a ‘message of relevance,’ which was delivered by Whitfield [who] simply announced that the blacks had taken over the Straight because of Cornell’s ‘racism’ and lack of a program relevant to black students.
April 19 | D.U. Brothers Attempt to Take Back Straight
On Saturday morning, Santo La Quatra, a junior in the Hotel School, answered the [Delta Upsilon Fraternity] telephone, and was told of the occupation. … “They were tired of everyone taking care of the minority and ignoring the majority,” recalled Barry Stacer, a sophomore, D.U. [brother], and defensive end on Cornell’s football team. In a long taperecorded account of the incident, Stacer presented the D.U. side of the story, which was corroborated by other brothers. “… Some of us just wanted to throw the doors open and make it a true student union again. “… 13 [D.U. members] entered the Straight through the [WVBR] window. … On the stairway SDSers shoved themselves between the window and the remaining D.U.s. A scuffle broke out. … All D.U. accounts of the subsequent incidents insist that the fraternity men entered the building unarmed and with no intention to commit violent acts. … The Cornell Police report states, “As the remaining white students jumped out the window, the blacks inside were yelling, pushing and throwing things outside onto the group below.” … In a radio interview on [the following] Monday, Tom Jones gave his account of the invasion: … “I should point out here that if federal charges are brought against blacks for occupying the WVBR [studios] they similarly have to [be] brought against those whites from D.U. for breaking and entering into the studios of WVBR. … At the time, I was upstairs shooting pool. Screams came upstairs. … And the brothers went downstairs and we dealt with them. … We dealt with them by the only means that were available. We evicted them by the same entrance through which they had come.” … The D.U.s became campus pariahs.
April 19 | AAS Smuggles in Guns
SDS received this statement from the blacks occupying Willard Straight Hall: “ … Black students have [now] occupied Willard Straight Hall and will leave when the University has addressed itself to the following: 1. The University shall declare null and void all judicial proceedings of the past four months brought against the five Black students acting in the name of the AAS. The charges against them shall be dropped and the cases dismissed. 2. The University shall reopen housing negotiations so that Black students can discuss ways to make it beneficial to Black people. 3. The University shall make a full and thorough investigation of the recent cross burning and the subsequent actions of the campus police. A report of the investigation shall be presented to the AAS.” … Perkins was very, very concerned. The prospect of bringing in police frightened him terribly. … At a press briefing afterwards in Day Hall, [Vice President for Public Affairs Steven] Muller said that a decision had been made: “At this time there will be no police action against the students occupying Willard Straight Hall.”
Fulfilling an earlier promise [Ernest F.] Roberts [a law professor and the elected secretary of the faculty] telephoned Whitfield from his home at 7 p.m. Whitfield rejected all Roberts’ proposals. … Meanwhile, the SDS-[Interfraternity Council] teach-in in Bailey Hall was jammed to the gunwails.
[An agreement was later reached between the administration and the AAS, which ensured amnesty for the takeover and nullified the judicial board’s punishments against the students on behalf of the faculty.]
April 20 | AAS Exits Straight With Guns
The campus patrol reported that the blacks left the Straight at 4:10 p.m. armed with 17 rifles and shotguns, two handguns and an assortment of knives, clubs and spears. It cannot be determined when all of these weapons entered the building. … It is impossible to determine how many blacks seized the Straight Saturday morning. … The blacks marched up a hill onto Wait Avenue, and up the sloping lawn on Number 320. … Muller, Kennedy and Whitfield stood at the stairway at the bottom and in front of the building, which was located on a slope. The blacks had their guns pointed towards Muller and Kennedy. Whitfield produced a piece of paper and told the two administrators to sign it. … Muller and Kennedy persuaded the blacks to let them inside 320 Wait to work out the agreement. Once inside, the negotiators called the war council at the law school. Dymek, who had made a quick inspection of the Straight, reported to Perkins that the damage was minimal; the blacks had made an effort to clean up. The President then agreed to excuse the blacks for the damages; the University would assume any financial burden. … Whitfield read the agreement. … the agreement was signed in turn by [Whitfield,] Carter, Kennedy and Muller. …
President Perkins, very shaken, took the evening off to attend a concert on campus. He arrived home at 11 p.m. and found a Xerox copy of the final agreement.
April 21 | Perkins Addresses 10,000 Angry Students in Barton Hall
Most students greeted Monday morning with a sense of relief. … It was mid-morning before most students began to realize that the faculty was in revolt. Faculty sentiment was running vigorously against the administration’s action. The crisis was far from over.
[Perkins] was under pressure from the Board of Trustees to maintain order on the campus and assume some leadership. Perkins came down clearly, albeit a bit late, on the side of law and order in a taped statement for broadcast on all local radio stations, banning guns and disruptive demonstration. … It was decided … that Perkins would declare a “situation” of emergency on the Cornell campus. (The President’s proclamation was read to the radio audience at noon.) Perkins asked SDS to send some students for him to consult with. … Perkins also met with black leaders. The convocation attended by 10,000 Cornellians proved a disaster. For 22 minutes Perkins managed to avoid even alluding to the events of the weekend. … “We are at last and lately coming to recognize that the function of society is to serve the needs of the people who are members thereof, and that an unjust society has within it the seeds of its destruction.” … Finally, Perkins asked everyone to behave like “humane men” so that all could move forward together. Suddenly the convocation was over. … Most of the 10,000 people were angry, disappointed, disillusioned with their leader. In retrospect, the convocation stands out as a turning point in this history. … Many writers have observed that the overthrow of established authority becomes possible a) when the masses lose confidence in the ruling authorities and b) find their routine patterns of activity disrupted. In a masterpiece of inadvertence, Perkins succeeded in creating both conditions. He cancelled classes and called 10,000 people together in an extraordinary manner, pulled them out of their rooms, the libraries and lecture halls, only to exhibit the administration’s bankruptcy.
April 21 | Faculty Rejects Black Demands
Most faculty members were profoundly shocked by the photographs that appeared in Monday’s Sun. … [The history and government departments] were dismayed at the introduction of arms, but they were even more concerned with the patterns of leadership that had allowed this situation to arise. … At a special meeting of the Government Department on Monday morning … the following text was agreed upon: “ … if Dean Miller’s motion to declare the Conduct Board’s judgment null and void is endorsed by the faculty, we pledge ourselves to cease classroom instruction and to undertake a review of our relation to the University…” Only four people present at the Government Department meeting declined to sign.
In a crucial turnaround [of the Faculty Meeting at 4:00 p.m., Prof. S. Cushing] Strout decided that he was willing to see the President’s motion substituted for his own. … The President scribbled his resolution on the back of an envelope. With Strout’s endorsement, Perkins’ motion passed without debate and without consideration of its details. It reads: “The Faculty expresses its sympathy for the problems of the black students in adjusting themselves to life at Cornell. … The Faculty supports, in principle, the President’s action taken today to preserve law and order on the campus.” Dean Miller then announced his intention to submit to the Board of Trustees his resignation as Dean of Faculty, according to the promise he’d made to the AAS … [The motion that the Faculty does not want Miller to resign] was carried by an “emphatic voice vote.” (This would lead to complications later when Ernie Roberts, Secretary of the Faculty, did not state positively whether or not Miller had resigned.) … The whole faculty resolution was misunderstood and largely discredited by its first item.
As [students] listened to the news conference, students were still floundering in the wake of Perkins’ speech. …
The faculty seemed impervious to the needs of the blacks, recognizing only that black students had problems in “adjusting themselves to life at Cornell,” a statement considered grossly paternalistic and condescending.
[The students] believed that the faculty had willfully broken the agreement reached with the blacks the day before.
There are several reasons for this failure of communication: first, the faculty was trying to say something fairly. … Second, the resolution itself was not published in its entirety the next day by The Sun. Third, Roberts, secretary of the faculty and acting dean of the faculty in Miller’s absence, conducted the press conference in such a way as to give the impression that there was something to cover up. …
Roberts recalled, “I put it the way I did, because I knew of no dignified way of expressing what I felt the faculty was really saying: ‘The Cornell faculty has put itself on record as saying it is unwilling to give in to a bunch of armed niggers.’”
During the mid-afternoon convocation, Perkins had undercut his own authority and legitimacy. In the eyes of the student body, the faculty did the same thing later that day. They were left leaderless. A revolutionary crisis was brewing on the Cornell campus.
SDS had scheduled Bailey Hall for that evening. … Some 2000 people were waiting outside to get in for the SDS meeting. … SDS had prepared a program to enlist wide campus support for black demand.
The first speaker at the SDS meeting was a black, Skip Meade. As Meade came into the hall, the vast majority of the 2500 students jumped to their feet, stamped, cheered, raised clenched fists and shouted for revolution. Meade said nothing about guns for self-defense: “We achieved a great revolutionary victory here. For the first time students and blacks have not been dragged out of a building. They have come out walking and carrying guns. This is the first time that guns have appeared on campus.”
The meeting passed a resolution: “Cornell SDS and those who join them in Bailey Hall support the demands of the AAS and we are … angered by the failure of the administration and faculty to deal seriously with these demands.” Tom Jones and Eric Evans addressed the meeting and helped to inflame the crowd, but it was unclear at the time whether they wanted SDS to make the next move or just to support the blacks in whatever they did. … Everything was waiting on a final decision from the blacks.
April 22 | The Threat
On Tuesday evening, not a murmur of disagreement greeted Tom Jones’ proclamation from the very same platform: that the Barton Hall Community was the sole legitimate authority at Cornell … Broadcasters in the next room were threatened by Jones’ menacing tone. … Jones was denouncing a faculty dictatorship. … He proclaimed, “I would suggest the faculty have an emergency meeting tonight, if they can do so by 9:00 p.m., nullify their decision. After 9:00 p.m. it’s going to be too late … Cornell has three hours to live.
April 23 | Faculty Reverses Decision
On Wednesday, the vast majority of the faculty favored nullification. Some of those most staunchly opposed had simply stayed away. … Many faculty were convinced that they had to give in at all costs; others were ready to join SDS or the blacks in militant action if the faculty failed to reverse it.
May 16 | Perkins Announces Intent on Keeping Job
Published on May 16, the last issue of The Sun, Perkins said he had no intention of resigning. “If at any time the constituency here, students and faculty, felt I wasn’t up to managing this place, there are a lot of other jobs I could do that are a lot less painful than this one.”
May 28 | School’s Out for Summer
Perkins addressed a letter to the entire University Faculty. It concluded: “Many important ventures and prospects for the strengthening of the University lie ahead of us. I trust you will all have a restful and rewarding summer holiday. I look forward to seeing you in September.”
May 31 | Perkins Considers Resigning
When it learned the news was already out, the office of Public Information released its terse statement: “Cornell University President James A. Perkins announced today that he will request the Board of Trustees at its meeting on June 7 and 8 to start the search for his successor.
June 9 | Perkins Resigns the Presidency
[Perkins] said that his decision to resign was a cumulative one; it grew on him. “It looked like someone else was going to have a better chance than I to put the campus pieces together.”