This April marks the 50th anniversary of the Willard Straight Hall occupation and the resulting founding of the Africana Studies and Research Center. A two-day symposium will commemorate the historic events on April 12 and 13.
The Willard Straight takeover on April 19, 1969, was largely a response to the University’s ill-preparedness to address the needs of an increased population of matriculated black students.
That morning, approximately 100 black students entered Willard Straight Hall and evacuated the people inside. After holding the building for 35 hours, the students emerged to meet with administrators, who eventually signed a seven-point agreement.
The “takeover” brought about many changes, including the establishment of the ASRC, creation of Ujamaa Residential College and the resignation of the President and many faculty.
The free symposium will bring together various voices to honor the legacy of Prof. Emeritus James Turner, African and African American Politics and Social Policy, and his role in the black student movement and the development of Africana studies at Cornell. Turner was also the founding director of ASRC.
The event will be centered on dialogue about Turner’s impact on students and activists, according to Prof. Riché Richardson, African-American literature, chair of the ASRC Programming Committee. It will also launch a year-long series of events to further commemorate 50 years of the ASRC.
The first day will focus on Turner’s scholarly impact, including faculty member tributes, a library presentation of videos and a panel of his former students.
The second day will center on his impact on activists. Events will include a panel of former faculty who will reflect on his institution-building model, a panel of Turner family members and a keynote address by Prof. John Bracey, Afro-American studies at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
In comparison to past commemorations of the Willard Straight occupation, this event will be a “more specific, focused dialogue,” according to Richardson.
“We thought that it would be interesting and special to be able to honor Prof. Turner, because he’s given so much to help shape and energize the field of Africana studies,” Richardson said.
Richardson also addressed the significance of the takeover itself.
“Cornell was founded on a very inclusive model of ‘any person, any study’,” she said. “Over time, in some ways, it’s fallen short in its ideals. Willard Straight put pressure on the institution to live up to those ideals in a better way.”
Richardson also expressed inspiration in the “new and revitalized” black student movement of this decade, including protests by football players at the University of Missouri and the challenges against Confederate statues on campuses.
“It’s not just history that we’re looking at when we think about Willard Straight, but I think that there has to be an understanding that there are some issues that persist and that there’s a long way to go,” she added.
According to Richardson, symposium events will ask participants to engage in the history and think about the implications of the Willard Straight occupation, then and now.
“I hope that those who have been touched already by Professor Turner will be all the more energized and inspired to continue to do their best work,” Richardson said. “And I hope that those who are not familiar with his legacy will learn more about it, be challenged to dig deeper … and engage in Africana studies to take courses.”
The symposium will begin at 12:30 p.m. on April 12th, and events are free.