Douglass Scholars - The Black Student Protest Movement at Douglass College - Bernice Rosenzweig, Douglass College '02
The Black Student Protest Movement at Douglass College
While today Douglass College is often applauded for its diverse and representative student body, the situation was very different only forty years ago. Student activism and protests during the late 1960's and early 1970's played an important role in the gradual improvements made throughout the university. While the policies enacted at Douglass as a result of student protests were, in many ways, the most effective, Rutgers historian Richard McCormick was correct when he wrote "the Black student protest and its consequences were less traumatic at Douglass that at the other undergraduate colleges," for various reasons.
The major differences between the protest movement at Douglass and those at Newark and Camden were the result of the colleges' interaction with the neighborhoods in which they were located. As Jerry Harris, a Rutgers student leader remembered, "At Newark, the student movement was an outgrowth of what was happening in the community." Although Newark and Camden were cities with predominantly Black and Latino populations, both Newark's College of Arts and Sciences and Camden's College of South Jersey (CJS) were almost entirely comprised of white students. This was in spite of the fact that both were commuter colleges and would be expected to matriculate students from the cities in which they were located.
Newark and Camden were declining industrial cities governed by incompetent administrators. The largely white government of Newark was particularly oppressive and corrupt, resulting in five days of riots in 1967. Many black students at Newark, along with people in the surrounding communities shared Joe Brown's sentiment that "very little can be expected of white folk in Newark... other than a move towards greater harassment and repression."
In 1967, the Black Organization of Students (BOS) was formed to take action against the racial problems of Rutgers-Newark. BOS showed no preference on campus over community issues (which were actually virtually indistinguishable). The percentage of black students at Newark's College of Arts and Sciences (about 2.5 percent) was far below the percentage of African-Americans in the state (around 11 percent, according to SAS1). Making the problem seem more pervasive, the surrounding neighborhoods, where one would expect the families of a large fraction of students to live, had majorities of Blacks and Latinos, which meant that only a very small minority of the students even came from Newark.
BOS worked to improve Rutgers's relationship with the community, especially regarding admissions. Despite their efforts, the remedies enacted by Rutgers administrators were poorly funded and completely ineffective. When BOS confirmed that of the first 1000 applicants admitted to the University for the 1969-70 school year only 27 were Black, the frustrations of the activists climaxed, resulting in over a month of turmoil on the Newark campus.
On February 24th, 25 members of BOS began a carefully planned occupation of Conklin Hall, a classroom building.
Conklin Hall Takeover, Newark (February 24, 1969).
During this time, classes were cancelled and the entire campus was in uproar. After three days of negotiation, the students emerged victorious, assured that many of their demands would be met. Several weeks later, when it appeared as if the University was not adhering to the conditions they had negotiated, BOS, along with other liberal organizations staged a large rally in front of Dana Library, where a large bonfire was ignited. At the close of the rally, several BOS students entered Vice-President Malcolm Talbot's office demanding that classes be cancelled. University President Mason Gross agreed and suspended classes again the next day. All of these events received extensive media attention and were met by a great deal of opposition by white students, who were angered by the disruptions, although some sympathized with the demands of BOS.
A similar, but less alarming situation took place at the College of South Jersey (Camden). The active Black undergraduate organization at CSJ, the Black Student Unity Movement (BSUM) was a direct offshoot of the Black People's Unity Movement (BPUM), an analogous community organization. Like the BOS of Newark, BSUM worked to increase black admissions and felt that the university should be doing more to serve the community. On February 26, ten BSUM members occupied part of the College Center for less than a day. Their demands were very vague and almost none of the agreements made with administrators during the occupation brought about real change. Within a week, CSJ returned to normal and very few real improvements were made, as was seen a few years later in February, 1971 when a series of "rallies, demonstrations, bomb scares, and vandalism"2 occurred in response to the ineffectiveness of many of the policies enacted.
In contrast to the situations at Newark and CSJ, protests at Douglass and Rutgers Colleges during this time period were much less dramatic. Both were residential colleges, and since students came from all over New Jersey and beyond, few felt any connection to the surrounding communities. As a result, black students on the New Brunswick campuses lacked this additional motivation that was a major driving force of the students in Newark and Camden. There were no building occupations or major rallies involving outsiders. The demonstrations received little media attention and things returned to normal comparatively quickly.
Just as on the other campuses, the percentage of black students in the New Brunswick college was far below the proportion of African-Americans in the state, about 4 percent at Douglass and 1.5 percent at Rutgers. In 1967, Marshall Brown, the president of the Plainfield branch of the NAACP, had denounced both Douglass and Rutgers for having "no Black provost, deans, department chairmen, athletic coaches, full professors or high-salaried policy makers."3 Black students reported incidents of police harassment, racial epithets and vandalism and discrimination on campus.
In order to combat these problems, a chapter of SAS, the Student Afro-American Society, was organized at Rutgers college in 1967. Both Rutgers and Douglass students participated until 1968, when the organization decided to exclude itself to Rutgers men. Women at Douglass Black Students Committee (DBSC), which remained in communication with SAS, but functioned as an autonomous group. The goals of these tow organizations and the way they operated were very different. SAS continued to fight discriminatory practices and attitudes at Rutgers College as well as the university as a whole. DBSC focused almost entirely on problems that concerned the Douglass campus. As a result, the DBSC demands were much less radical and easier to manage.
On the night of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in the spring of 1968, black students from Douglass and Rutgers gathered on the Douglass campus, marched to College Avenue and lowered the flag and raised it again upside-down. In the following weeks, the Board of Governors, Student Council and the Douglass Government Association passed rushed resolution to combat the racism prevalent in the New Brunswick campuses.
One year later, the sentiments of Black students in New Brunswick were similar to those of their counterparts at Newark and Camden. Very little progress had been made in meeting their demands. The day after the BOS takeover of Conklin Hall, about fifty Rutgers students at Brower Commons and sixty Douglass students at Cooper and Neilson dining halls walked in together, ordered double portions, threw their trays to the floor and walked out. The next day there were a series of bomb threats, acts of vandalism and minor fires on the New Brunswick campuses. At Rutgers College, classes were canceled for three days to hold a series of convocations, meetings and workshops. The SAS demands were presented at a dramatic meeting with the faculty, unlike in Newark and Camden where the demands had been negotiated with administrators. Things quickly returned to normal until March, 1971, when over three-hundred Rutgers College students signed a petition that again demanded an independent Africana Studies Department. Two hundred and fifty protesters once again threw down their trays at Brower Commons, this time smashing china and overturning tables and chairs.
As Richard McCormick has written, part of the reason why the protest movement at Douglass caused the least turmoil was that the school had taken the greatest measures to combat its racial problems prior to the 1969 protests, and had the most progressive programs to increase black enrollment, offering scholarships, tutoring and counseling. Despite these advances, Douglass was still an unaccepting and alienating environment for African-American students. As eight black students complained in a special article in the Caellian on racism at Douglass:
"Campus patrolmen insinuate that Black students do not go to the school and ask for I.D.s. A gathering of black students arouses suspicious looks while the same gathering of whites goes unnoticed. Last year about twenty black commuters were asked not to congregate in the Commuter's Lounge at center. They were told to 'spread themselves around.'"4
There were also no cultural resources available for Black students, and rumors that a few semesters earlier, a student had been refused residence in one of the houses because she was black.
Many white Douglass students considered themselves friends of black students, but claimed to be unaware of the problems they were confronted with at Douglass. Others resented their very presence, but hid their feelings under a veil of hypocrisy: in another letter to the Caellian, a student wrote that since black students didn't want to assimilate into white society, they were "knowing at the wrong door of opportunity," and that, "it's not the United States [they] want. [They] want Africa!"5 The author of the letter concluded by withholding her name "not because [she] feared criticism, but because [she did] not wish to jeopardize friendships with the girls whose philosophy [she] disagreed with."
At Douglass College, the 1969 dining hall protests came after a dispute with Dean Foster involving the hiring of two black counselors. The Caellian had printed a letter written by DBSC which complained about the hiring procedures and "the attitude of Douglass College,"6 which got little response from students or administrators until after the dining hall protests. On the day after the demonstration at Cooper and Neilson, black students refused to speak to the white students and walked out of classes, sometimes yelling at the instructor or "asking all the racists to stand up"7 before leaving. As on College avenue, there were a series of incidents that may or may not have been related to the legitimate protests: bathroom doors were locked at Jameson, drains were clogged in Gibbons flooding the tunnels, and an unknown male phones three bomb threats into College Hall.
Following the cancellation of classes, six committees were set up to work out the demands of the DBSC, almost all of which were met. Ninety-six spaces in the incoming class would be reserved for black applicants, an Afro-American Studies Program was approved and Africana House would be established, among others. Unlike those at the other colleges, the demands at the DBSC were simple, explicit and dealt exclusively with issues of Douglass College.
Another reason the black student movement was less difficult at Douglass than at the other colleges, was the attitude of the student protesters themselves. Many had expressed discomfort with being required to take such measures of protest, even though the demonstrations at Douglass were far less extensive than at other Rutgers colleges and campuses throughout the country. As one black student complained "many of these changes could have been instituted without all this extra to-do."8 Another commented "I'd like to see this as the last time we have to do something like this to make progress." It was, therefore not very surprising that when the other campuses erupted in the second wave of protests in the early 1970's, Douglass alone did not participate even though many of the leaders of the 1969 actions had not yet graduated.
Some students warned that if Douglass students did not remain active they would lose everything they had gained. In a collection of Poems and writings sent to Mason Gross by "Black Students of Douglass, Livingston and Rutgers Colleges" an unidentified author wrote that "whites are going to take advantage of this attitude and not only decrease admissions and faculty but attempt to clean house with some of the black Sister who are already here."9 Although a great deal of the race-related problems at Rutgers took many years to be corrected, and too many still exits today, the number of black students and faculty member continued to increase during the 1970's.
Douglass College '02
1 McCormick, Richard The Black Student Protest Movement at Rutgers New Brunswick, NJ, 1990, p.122.
2 McCormick, p.96.
3 Caellian. Oct. 20, 1967. "University Makes 'Progress' in Hiring of Minority Groups" by Evelyn Froggatt
4 Caellian. "Girls Express frustration with White Image School" Dec. 15, 1967
5 Americanize or Leave (Letter to the Editor) Caellian. Feb. 28, 1968.
6 Black demans (a letter to the editor). Caellian. Feb. 21, 1969.
7 Caellian. Feb. 28, 1969. "Dean asks profs to cancel classes Mon., Tues."
8 McCormick, p. 59.
9 Letter to Mason Gross form "Black Students of Douglass, Livingston and Rutgers Colleges." 1970. Provost Records. Special Collections and University Archives. Rutgers University Libraries.