April 20, 2014

Cornell Commemorates Anniversary of Willard Straight Takeover

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Cornellians gathered in Willard Straight Hall Friday to commemorate the forty-fifth anniversary of the Willard Straight Takeover.

The Takeover’s commemoration featured cultural performances and speeches by student leaders, as well as keynote speakers Eric Acree, director of the Africana Library and Andrew Martinez ’12, advisor of ALANA Intercultural Programming Board.

Acree put the Straight Takeover into historical context by discussing the “narrative” of African Americans both before and throughout the course of the Takeover.

Beginning with William B. Bowler, the first student of African descent who enrolled in the University, Acree discussed the key and courageous roles activists played in advocating for black students.

“I look at the students that took over the Straight as courageous students,” Acree said. “Some activists were unable to complete their education at Cornell because of the backlash they received. They were, in my opinion, sacrificial lambs for us today.”

Despite the progress that had been made since the Takeover, Acree said there were “still some things” that needed to be done in order to ensure student support.

Martinez also discussed the importance of continuing progress in his speech.

“Every student has a chance to have a legacy and have an impact at Cornell,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be a takeover … [Thursday] was a great example of students coming together to express a concern on the governance of this campus.”

Martinez was referring to Thursday’s Student Assembly meeting, held in the same room. The S.A. meeting — where the Ad Hoc Committee of Student Democracy took control and withheld President David Skorton’s and Vice President of Student and Academic Services Susan Murphy’s ’73 Ph.D. ’94 speaking time — was still fresh on many of the audience members’ minds, as leaders of both the S.A. and the Ad Hoc Committee attended the commemoration.

“Yesterday, we saw a very good demonstration of shared governance and we also saw an instance where people said, ‘Maybe what we currently have established isn’t quite what we want,’” said Ulysses Smith ’14, S.A. president. “Hopefully going forward, we will be able to work collectively to change, but leaving here today let’s not forget where we came from and who we are supposed to be serving.”

Anna-Lisa Castle ’14, an organizer and speaker of the Ad Hoc Committee, also said there was a need to continue the progress of advocating for students.

“The history of the Straight Takeover needs to be a living history. If student government is failing the students who are underrepresented or marginalized, it is our responsibility to continue the fight that our predecessors started,” she said. “That’s what happened yesterday, and that’s what we’re celebrating today.”

The event was prefaced by the Black Student United’s discourse with Prof. James Turner, Africana studies, and a historic tour of the Wari House Cooperative, where a cross was burnt the day before the Takeover.

Selam Gebre ’14 said Turner’s discussion on the legacy of the Straight Takeover was “insightful.”

“According to Professor Turner, the legacy [the black students] left included the institutionalization of a commitment to embrace and advocate for black students on campus,” said Gebre, who is a co-emcee of the commemoration event. “Most importantly, he mentioned their legacy of social responsibility and advocacy for solidarity and cooperation here at Cornell.”