Members of Cornell’s Black Students United organized a symbolic march Friday from Wari Cooperative to Willard Straight Hall to commemorate the 47th anniversary of the Straight takeover by Cornell’s Afro-American Society in 1969.
The students’ efforts in the 60s led to the establishment of the Office of Minority Educational Affairs, the founding of Ujamaa Residential College and the Africana Studies and Research Center.
BSU co-chair Samari Gilbert ’17 said such commemorative marches have been held annually for at least the last four years to expose students to the “very unique history” of Cornell’s campus.
Activism has always been a valuable part of the black experience at Cornell, but the University’s attitude towards this expression wavers between condemnation and appreciation, according to Gilbert.
“It’s conflicting because Cornell can embrace its history … but [the Willard Straight Hall takeover] wasn’t embraced at the time,” Gilbert said. “It is difficult to navigate the fact that this was a student movement that was pushed aside as rule breaking when it happened, but its impacts on student life and the University as a whole are unquestionable.”
Approximately 20 students gathered at Wari Cooperative Friday as BSU members read a historical play, “Remembering the Willard Straight Hall Takeover,” by Delmar Fears ’19, which recounted the events of the 1969 occupation of Willard Straight Hall.
Gilbert highlighted the Wari Cooperative as a location of great significance to the takeover.
In response to a burning cross discovered outside Wari House, AAS members occupied Willard Straight Hall the next morning to protest Cornell’s perceived racism, according to the University.
Antoine Saint-Victor ’16, co-president emeritus of BSU, called the burning of the cross “the tipping point [that] made the takeover necessary for the student voice to be heard.”
“Prior to that I know there were a lot of incidents going on on campus with professors not respecting the race, ethnicity and creeds of students,” he said. “There was disrespect in the classroom and from other peer students as well. And eventually people got bold enough to put a burning cross on somebody’s lawn.”
Neno Belsoi ’19 emphasized the need for activism, saying these racist attacks are “still happening today around the world.”
“I think that remembering this [takeover] that happened so many years ago means it’s still very relevant to society,” Belsoi said. “It’s important to remember where we come from so we can take those same solutions that worked then and keep progressing towards a more ideal campus community and a more ideal world community.”
The original ASRC was burned to the ground in 1970 and the current ASRC opened in 2005, according to the University.
Amber Aspinall ’17, BSU political action chair, explained that one of BSU’s demands to the administration this year requested that the original center’s cement stairs — the only part of the building still standing — be physically commemorated.
“We will hopefully have some type of plaque or tree to make it known that this is where [the old ASRC] was,” Aspinall said.
“Remembering the Willard Straight Hall Takeover” was performed again later that day as part of the Era of Change Dinner hosted by BSU, ALANA Intercultural Board and the Willard Straight Hall Student Union Board of Directors.