“I’ll be damned if my children have to march for me,” sang the choir at the beginning of the homecoming weekend dedication.
This year marked the 50th anniversary of the Willard Straight Hall Takeover that ended on April 19, 1969. Now, the hall will be marked with a permanent plaque.
The tribute will occupy the space opposite a commemoration of Willard Straight 1901 in the breezeway entering the building. Currently, there is a facsimile in place as the permanent plaque, which is cast in bronze, is not ready yet. The plaque reads:
“Cornell was one of the centers of student protest and activism in the 1960s against the Vietnam War and the denial of civil rights in the United States. In April 1969, over a hundred Black students occupied this building for thirty-three hours, bringing to Cornell the national Civil Rights Movement’s struggle for racial and social justice. After a peaceful, negotiated ending to the building occupation, Cornell set out to become a leader in its commitment to the ideals of a diverse and inclusive university.”
The text was written by Prof. Emeritus Isaac Kramnick, government, with modifications and input from members of the commemoration committee.
The dedication began with a commemorative walk from the current Africana Studies and Research Center to Willard Straight Hall, following the path students took on the day the takeover began.
Throughout the walk, Frank Dawson ’72, Jackie Davis-Manigaulte ’72 and Zachary Carter ’72, alumni who participated in the takeover, spoke at various points. The walk started at Africana Studies and Research Center and stopped at Wari Cooperative House, a historical space for black women on campus, and 320 Wait Avenue, where the first Africana center was burned down in 1970.
The walk ended at Willard Straight Hall, led by a group of people including current residential advisors of Ujamaa Residential College carrying a flag.
Once in the Straight, the unveiling and dedication ceremony took place.
The Dorothy Cotton Jubilee Singers opened the event under the direction of Ithaca College Prof. Baruch Whitehead, music. Maria Ellis-Jordan was the lead singer for two out of three of the selections.
Visitors were welcomed by Prof. N’Dri Thérèse Assié-Lumumba, Africana Studies, and Dean of Students Vijay Pendakur, who chaired the committee which planned the events.
After the welcome addresses, reflections about the takeover were shared by four alumni: Irving McPhail ’70, Fenton Sands ’70, Carter and Dawson.
Dawson spoke first, sharing his experience as a freshman coming to Cornell from the projects of the Lower East Side of New York City, where his class doubled the number of black students at Cornell.
He recognized the cultural differences he and other black students had compared to the existing black students at Cornell, citing increased marketing for the University within inner cities as the source of the change.
One thing he mentioned was the varying viewpoints people had about the direction of the Takeover, emphasizing that not everyone agreed.
“But just understand that … if your goal is one, you know, that is worth it, that others will join you in times of danger,” Dawson said.
Sands, who works in international development, could not attend the event as he is currently working in Malawi. During the takeover he documented the events from an inside perspective.
[Take a look at the photos Fenton Sands took during the Takeover here.]
He prepared a reflection that was read by McPhail.
The final alum reflection came from Carter, who recognized the importance of young people to take action when necessary.
“Our children will always have to protest and their children will have to protest.,” Carter said.
“It is really because of a part, a permanent part of the human condition. We are flawed. And our leaders are flawed,” Carter continued. “And our leaders are destined to periodically fail for reasons that are as old as time, mostly a quest for power and self interest.”