April 17, 2014

Students Took Over Willard Straight Hall 45 Years Ago

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Forty-five years ago Saturday, approximately 100 black students took over Willard Straight Hall and ejected University employees and Parents’ Weekend visitors from the building. Over a day later, the students marched out of the Straight with rifles, leading to weeks of response from a divided University, which became known nationally as “Cornell’s capitulation.”

Below is a brief history of the events that led to and followed the takeover, based off of the reporting done in a comprehensive Sun supplement published on the 10th anniversary of the Straight Takeover.

Nearly six years before the Willard Straight Hall Takeover, James Perkins was inaugurated as Cornell’s seventh president in the fall of 1963. His tenure would be marked by one of the most racially difficult times on the Hill and culminated in the Willard Straight Takeover of 1969.

Two years into his presidency, Philadelphia-born Perkins sought to bring more black students to the University — in 1963, fewer than 20 black students were enrolled. Perkins established a committee, which would later be known as the Committee on Special Educational Projects, in order to “recommend and initiate programs through which Cornell could make a larger contribution to the education of qualified students who [had] been disadvantaged by their cultural, economic and educational backgrounds.”

Perkins’ initiative saw success, bringing the total number of black students on campus to 250 by fall 1968; however, the University was ill-prepared to address the needs of black students on campus during the 60s, a trustee committee concluded after the Straight Takeover.

In the fall of 1966, some black Cornellians created a student organization known as the Afro-American Society with the objectives of spreading factual information about the history of black people and the elimination of “social, economic and psychological conditions which blight the lives of black people.”

Following an incident where the Phi Delta Theta fraternity charged some black students to attend a dance without charging white students a fee, a member of the AAS urged black freshmen to not rush fraternities.

In addition, due to what they described as the “intolerably hostile atmosphere of the dorms,” members of the AAS demanded in February 1968 that the University create a black woman’s co-op. Cornell acceded and purchased what would become the Wari House co-op, located at 208 Dearborn Pl.

In the coming months, the AAS began to divide. Moderates were led by President Earl Armstrong ’69, while radicals launched a variety of protests in December 1968, which culminated in some of the members demanding the creation of a “College of Afro-American Studies.” President Perkins announced on Dec. 12, 1968 that the college would not be created.

On April 18, 1969 at 2:53 a.m., the head of the Wari House, Charisse A. Cannady ’69, pulled a fire alarm. Minutes later, she called the University’s Safety Division, the policing body on campus at the time, to report that there was “an object on the front porch and the girls were afraid to go investigate.”

Once Ithaca Police Department Detective Edward Traynor arrived on the scene, he discovered a flaming cross on the building’s front porch. Traynor kicked the cross of the porch and extinguished the fire. None of the 12 residents of the Wari House were injured.

Blacks students blamed whites for the fire and denied allegations that they had set the cross on fire themselves. One Cornell administrator described the cross burning as a “Reichstag fire,” referencing the 1933 fire at the German parliament that Adolf Hitler used to justify taking power.

The next day, approximately 100 black students entered Willard Straight through an unlocked kitchen door around 5:30 a.m. The students divided themselves into three groups to evict the occupants of the Straight: one to remove maintenance workers, a second for dining workers and a third for guests.

Parents staying in the Straight for Parents’ Weekend were awoken by black students running through the halls shouting “Fire!” and banging on doors. Guests were given 10 minutes to gather their belongings and leave the Straight.

By 6:15 a.m., the black students had complete control of the Straight. Nearly an hour later, approximately 50 members of Students for a Democratic Society gathered outside the Straight in support of the occupants.

Administrators were notified and met throughout the day across campus to discuss the takeover. At 9:15 a.m., administrators announced through a bullhorn that the black students would be found guilty of trespassing if they did not leave the building. Later, the University opted to not take action on this issue.

Within the next hour, between 20 to 25 white fraternity members — mostly from the Delta Upsilon fraternity — attempted to enter the Straight from a broken window in the WVBR studios. A brother of Delta Upsilon later said that the purpose of entering the building was ultimately to talk to the black students to “find out what made them go to such extreme measures.”

The white students were ousted from the Straight and were driven out of the same window that they originally entered.

At 12:30 p.m., the AAS issued three demands to the University: that convictions against black students for previous protests be nullified, that Cornell reconsider a low-income housing project and that a full investigation of the cross burning incident at the Wari House be conducted.

Blacks inside the Straight had heard rumors that fraternity brothers were planning on attacking the Straight after the Delta Upsilon brothers were run out of the building. Between 9:45 and 10 p.m. the occupants received 17 rifles and shotguns from blacks outside the Straight, according to a Safety officer.

Vice President for Public Affairs Steven Muller Ph.D. ’58 said the administration chose not to act on the arming of the students in the Straight because the University “would have found [itself] in a position where [it] would have been open to the possibility of scuffling or incidents around the periphery.”

By the following morning, administrators concluded that if the students did not leave the Straight, someone would eventually be hurt. Negotiations began between Edward Whitfield ’71 and administrators early Sunday morning over the phone. Administrators ultimately met with an unarmed Whitfield and other AAS members to negotiate.

Later that afternoon, administrators returned to the Straight to discuss issues regarding the guns. Whitfield requested that the administrators walk beside them to the AAS headquarters located at 320 Wait Ave., where they would sign the agreement drafted between the two parties.

At 4:13 p.m. on Sunday, April 20, the front doors of Willard Straight Hall opened and the students emerged. After occupying the building for 35 hours, 110 black students exited the Straight, some wrapped in ammunition and carrying rifles and shotguns.

Members of SDS cheered on the occupiers as they marched through the Arts Quad. The black students marched to North Campus and met with administrators inside the AAS headquarters and eventually exited signing a seven-point agreement between the two parties.

The agreement included a recommendation to the faculty to nullify penalties taken against some black students earlier in the year. The University also agreed to help students find legal aid and pledged not to take legal action against any of the occupants. The black students agreed to assist in the creation a new judicial system on campus.

The weeks following the Straight Takeover left the faculty and administration divided. A handful of faculty and administrators resigned from their posts, distraught over the events that had taken place. The events culminated on May 31, 1969 when Perkins an­nounced that he would ask the Board of Trustees to begin searching for the University’s next president.

Alumni reactions to the Takeover were negative. One alumni representative told The Sun that he had spoken to alumni who said “they will not give another nickel to Cornell” after the Takeover.

Later, a committee released a report on Cornell’s 1969 crisis. In it, the group evaluated the administration’s decisions:

“No one will ever know if this was the right way to settle this disruption. This was a matter of judgement. These men made the decision to place the protection of life above the reputation of the University. They knew the price to themselves and to Cornell was great — but was it greater than the price of human life?”