April 22, 2013

Cornell Alumni Share First-Hand Experiences of Willard Straight Hall Takeover

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Two alumni — Henry Williams ’71 and Irving McPhail ’70 — reflected on their memories of the 1969 Willard Straight Hall Takeover and its aftermath at an event Friday commemorating the 44th anniversary of the Takeover.

On April 19, 1969, more than 80 student members of the Afro-American Society occupied Willard Straight Hall for 36 hours, asking the University to investigate the cross-burning that occurred in front of Wari House, then a black women’s co-operative house, and asking for black students to be treated equally under the University’s judicial codes. After negotiating with the University, the occupants peacefully exited the building.

Both Williams and McPhail directly experienced the effects of the Takeover. McPhail participated in the highly-publicized event of 1969, while Williams arrived on the campus just months afterward, when tensions continued to run high.

According to Williams, who began Friday’s commemoration with a speech organized by Black Students United at the Africana Center, the change in racial tensions before and after the Takeover was very apparent.

“Tensions were extremely high on campus at that point in time,” said Williams, who came to Cornell in the fall of 1969. “I already knew about the Takeover at Willard Straight because I read about it in the papers, just like people did across the globe. This was a major institution; there were black students who took over a student center with weapons.”

The effect that the Takeover had beyond the University is not to be overlooked, according to Williams. New York State codified legislation against armed conflicts or the disruption of public order on college campuses a month after the event, according to New York State Education Law.

“Understand [that] the people that went into Willard Straight Hall jeopardized and sacrificed a lot to prepare this institution to be the institution that recognizes who you are and is helping you get an education,” Williams said. “[They were] 18, 19, 20-year-olds who decided that they were going to make a difference.”

According to Williams, the black community on campus was incredibly close-knit at the time, with only 250 African-American students enrolled in 1969 — a significant increase from the 24 students in 1960 — who came from urban centers all over the country. At Cornell, the students to joined together against an atmosphere without much support for black students, he said.

“The institution was not comfortable with people of color,” Williams said.

After Williams spoke, attendants walked from the Africana Center to Willard Straight Hall in a “re-enactment walk,” passing by the plot of land on Wait Avenue that was home to the first Africana Center. The first Africana Center burned down in 1970 as a result of a fire that was caused by someone whose identity was never discovered, according to a previous Sun article from 1970.

After the walk, a commemorative dinner was hosted by the African, Latino, Asian and Native American Programming Board in the Ivy Room, with performances by multicultural organizations and a keynote speech given by McPhail.

While Williams stressed the power students have to push change and make a difference, McPhail focused on putting into perspective the need for self-education and the drive among black students during the time of the Takeover.

“Most of us came to Cornell with the belief that somehow, our presence and our education could be used to not only serve our individual purposes, but also serve the purposes of uplifting our communities,” McPhail said. “Now, unbeknownst to most of us at the time, we were actually participating in a grand experimental design.”

According to McPhail, this solidarity and self-identification is often misconstrued and seen as violence-based black power movements, rather than an effort to become engaged as equal participants in society.

“Out of this crucible of self-education came the idea and the notion and the struggle for Black studies,” McPhail said. “This is not a story of a bunch of African-American students from the hood who came to Cornell who had nothing better to do than take over Willard Straight Hall and have guns brought in and go to the front page of Time magazine. That is a trivialization and a marginalization.”

Both McPhail and Williams stressed the responsibilities that the current generation of students has to making a difference.

“How are you going to make a contribution? What are you going to give back?” McPhail asked the audience. “For me, that’s what WSH is all about … taking education and using it as a platform to become an advocate and an activist for [that] kind of positive social change.”

Original Author: Noah Rankin