The Pain of Progress
Fifty years after a protest that resulted in professors being locked in Goethean Hall, F&M alumni reflect on their attempts to make the College a more equitable institution
By Kristen Evans ’07
Finals week at Franklin & Marshall, late May 1969. The hazy, frenetic period when exams end and summer at last slips into view.
For the 12 African American students enrolled in “Interdepartmental-4: The Black Experience in America,” however, the final exam represented far more than one last hurdle between them and a summer job, or time spent with their families back in New York City, Baltimore, and Harrisburg.
It felt like an indignity.
When the spring semester started, their hopes for the course had been high. Interdepartmental-4 was one of the College’s first attempts to address the newly formed Afro-American Society’s repeated calls for black studies courses at F&M. With eight professors from multiple departments, Interdepartmental-4 was an experimental lecture course designed to explore the black American experience through the lens of multiple academic disciplines.
Over the course of the semester, the Afro-American Society’s idealistic vision for Interdepartmental-4 clashed with its ever-more depressing reality. Not only were its professors teaching a course designed to help enrolled white students understand the plight of African-Americans in contemporary society, but some white instructors also leaned on their students of color as “expert sources” on the black American experience.
According to local historian Todd Mealy’s account of the course and the resulting protest, “This Is the Rat Speaking: Black Power and the Promise of Racial Consciousness at Franklin & Marshall College in the Age of the Takeover, 1967-1969,” black students were asked to make impromptu presentations on course materials and readings — while their white peers were not. When black students used personal examples from their lives in major essays for the course, they received low marks. For the most part, their white peers — who stuck to analyzing course texts — fared far better.
For black students galvanized by the Civil Rights Movement and the rhetoric of the black campus movement, the course felt both frustrating and demeaning.
“We were the brothers who gave the white students and the white professors vast insights into the black psyche, the black experience, and black thought,” students wrote in a manifesto hand-delivered to their professors the night before the protest.
“You misrepresent the course, use us as rats for your study of rat behavior, then throw us back with the field-mice.”
Late into the night before their final, students from Interdepartmental-4 and other members of the Afro-American Society devised a plan of action. Instead of filling out reams of blue books, the group decided, they would assemble early the next morning to block the entrance of Old Main before their professors could administer the exam. They were joined, early on May 22, by a handful of white members of the Students for a Democratic Society, and the protesters’ ranks swelled to 60.
In one of the only surviving photographs of the event, taken by Benjamin Bowser ’69, a loose gaggle of young men crowds the entryway of Goethean Hall, spilling out the doors and down the stone steps.
Compared to other photographs of campus sit-ins and takeovers from 1968 and 1969 — like those that occurred at Howard University, Cornell, and even nearby Swarthmore — the atmosphere appears relatively relaxed. There are no weapons in sight. No signs with catchy slogans. One young man leans against the building, hands in his pockets. Another sits on the steps, waiting.
Bowser was the former president of the Afro-American Society and a graduating senior. Unlike many of his peers, Bowser had steered clear of Interdepartmental-4. He mistrusted the intentions of several of its professors and instead wanted to focus on graduating and getting away from campus.
“I was not going to support the takeover,” said Bowser, who had lost the election for the Afro-American Society president earlier that year, partly over Interdepartmental-4. “You know, I was ready to move on.”
Despite thinking the protest was a bad idea, Bowser showed up that morning in solidarity, camera at the ready. He often had his 35mm in hand and enjoyed taking photographs of his classmates. That morning, he recalls, “they were very matter of fact and resolved.”
“In looking at the photo, I realize that there was very strong solidarity because most of the people in the picture were not in the class that triggered the protest,” Bowser says.
The protesters hoped this show of solidarity would finally help their professors understand how upset they were and prompt an apology. Ultimately, these students wanted recognition for their extra emotional and intellectual contributions to the class, and wanted to push professors to acknowledge their experience of racism in the classroom.
The three professors who arrived to administer the exam wanted to ensure that all their students, black and white, crossed the finish line of the course. They bypassed the protest altogether, arranged for the exam to be administered as a take-home final, and retreated to their offices.
In response, the protestors followed their professors into Goethean Hall, ripping up blue books and blocking the entrances and exits with chairs and empty desks. They demanded “A” grades from their professors and an assurance that they wouldn’t be punished for the demonstration.
After several hours of tense discussion and negotiation, the professors acquiesced to their students’ demands so they could be released from Goethean. Students would be allowed to grade their own performance in the course. No one would be punished for what happened on May 22.
Campus sit-ins, protests, and other student-led confrontations made headlines throughout 1968 and 1969. The Black Power and Civil Rights Movements galvanized black students throughout the country, many of whom were entering elite, white spaces in record numbers, only to find that the institutions that had recruited them hadn’t anticipated their social or academic needs.
These campus protests occurred during a time of tense desegregation. Even colleges in the North, like F&M, could be unwelcoming places for young black men in the mid-1960s, no matter what their credentials happened to be.
“In my class, there were nine of us, and we came into a college that was still really two different places,” Bowser said of his time at F&M. Like other black alumni from that period, he was an accomplished high school student, with stellar grades and good test scores, whose family saw liberal arts education as an important path to social mobility. F&M recruited him and offered substantial scholarship funds.
“We had the academic Franklin & Marshall, where you went to classes,” he explained. “And then there was F&M the social institution, and F&M outside of the classroom was the fraternities.”
The majority-white fraternities were a minefield for black students, who say they felt both unwelcome and unsafe at most houses. For students who had grown up in the deeply segregated South, such as Ed Holifield ’68, it was a struggle to encounter racism in the “open-minded” North.
“I was called [racist names] walking down the street in Tallahassee. That was not unusual,” recalled Holifield, a retired cardiologist who advocates for black patients in his hometown, during a phone interview. “But I was called [racist names] walking in Lancaster, as well. I guess that’s the greatest misconception I had, that the North was different. But it wasn’t.”
To combat the isolation and hostility of F&M’s fraternity scene, members of the Afro-American Society lived together on the third floor of Rauch and helped one another with coursework.
Yet the Afro-American Society’s strong social ties were sometimes forged out of necessity, rather than common interest. “We had to be together because it was literally dangerous to be in certain places alone and black on campus,” said Bowser.
Many of the members of the Afro-American Society identified as community organizers, which impacted their social life on campus. They’d come from politically active neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Harlem, where sit-ins, teach-ins, and protests were the norm.
“Growing up, my grandmother used to threaten to send me to my room because I wanted to be a Freedom Rider,” LeRoy Pernell ’71 remembered with a laugh.
Like their crusading historical counterparts, the students in F&M’s Afro-American Society agitated for a seat at the table once they arrived on campus. This meant pushing the College administration to foster safe social spaces, like a black fraternity, and to adopt black studies courses with curricula that engaged with black thinkers and culture.
“[Black] studies should include courses dealing with the cultural, economic, and social aspects of the black experience and the effects of western society upon black existence,” Pernell wrote in the pages of The College Reporter, just one month before the May 22 protest. He was a student member of the Curriculum Committee, and a tireless advocate for black studies at F&M.
As a concession, the College offered “Interdepartmental-4,” instead. Despite carrying the subtitle “The Black Experience in America,” the course didn’t meet Pernell’s criteria for black studies, and he worried about the students who had enrolled in it.
“The way in which America perceived its race challenge, particularly from those who said that they wanted to do something about it,” Pernell said, referring to the perspective he feared Interdepartmental-4 imparted to its students, “was to look at it as a disease that needed to be cured — and the disease was black people.”
While students such as Bowser and Pernell viewed Interdepartmental-4 as an unappetizing compromise to the high ideals of the black campus movement, younger black students at F&M relished the chance to take a course in which their experiences might be represented, unpacked, and understood.
As the semester progressed, Pernell sensed his fellow students’ growing unease about the course’s inequities and even tried to join, thinking he could mediate. But by the end of the semester, tensions were high. Students had had enough.
The College’s public statement regarding the May 22 protest, printed in the next day’s Lancaster Daily Intelligencer, shows an administration deeply troubled at the thought of students in revolt.
“Fortunately,” President Keith Spalding told the paper, “violence was avoided in this incident, and by its restraint the faculty prevented an escalation of the confrontation. But there is no doubt that the College was disrupted by the coercive action of the black students. Disruption of the academic process cannot be tolerated.”
The eight professors who team-taught the class—Lou Athey, Gerald Enscoe, Leon Galis, Thomas Glenn, Adebisi Otudeko, Murli Sinha, Donald Tyrrell and Sidney Wise—issued their own statement the day of the protest:
“We, the faculty members of the Black Experience course, deeply regret the circumstances under which we were forced to deliberate today. We regard many of the questions we discussed as meritorious and worthy of thoughtful consideration. We regret the fact that these questions were not formally raised earlier in the semester. However, we insist that the procedures utilized today and the decisions which resulted are in no way a precedent for future deliberations on this campus. We shall continue to persevere for rational discussion of academic matters and press for procedures that in the future will allow for such questions to be raised in a more appropriate manner which will preclude a recurrence of today’s events.”
Although F&M’s student protestors improvised taking their professors “hostage” that day, they likely understood the very real risks a move like this presented to their safety—and to their ability to stay in school once the protest was over. Other campus protests that made national news had escalated to tense police standoffs, such as the April 1969 student take-over at Cornell, in which armed black students occupied an administrative building. And a February 1968 incident at South Carolina State University resulted in the deaths of three African American students on campus by highway patrol officers.
Aside from the increased police presence at graduation later that spring, which Bowser recalls, F&M’s response to the protest was comparably light-handed. More than a year later, the College released committee findings of its investigation into the incident, summarized at length in The College Reporter. Although the committee’s report condemns the professors for a “lack of sensitivity...to the degree of confusion among the black students [about the objectives of the course],” it also emphasizes the “sincere good intentions of the individual professors on the staff of Int. 4.”
The notable exception to the committee’s ruling was written by Leon “Buddy” Glover, a Lancaster resident and student at Gettysburg College, who would go on to become the guidance counselor at McCaskey High School in Lancaster City.
“The educational system as it operates today continues to reinforce and perpetuate the racism which runs rampant in this society,” Glover wrote in the committee’s report. “Not only white students are not taught to respect black people, but black students are turned against black people.”
Glover’s report, according to Mealy, is highly empathetic with the protestors’ struggle. But his words also became a prescient warning about what would happen to the Afro-American Society only a few short years later.
Pernell now serves as dean of Florida A&M University College of Law, but he’s been deeply connected to social justice movements since his youth. In his memory, campus culture shifted as a result of the May 22 sit-in. “I think that there was a level of respect that black students earned that wasn’t there before,” Pernell said.
“Respect, not out of fear, but respect that we were thoughtful, committed, and that there was a connection between our presence and the Civil Rights Movement,” he added. “We weren’t this isolated group, we were very much a part of what was happening around the country.”
The Afro-American Society’s connection to the Civil Rights Movement and radical black activism is likely what made the College feel threatened and frustrated by the group’s actions, which disrupted the status quo. In fact, in response to the May 22 protest, the Spalding administration released student grievance policies and guidelines, making it clear that disruptive behavior of any kind would not be tolerated.
While students who attended the May 22 protest had largely escaped punishment, black alumni recall increasing pressures from the administration—and some faculty—in response to their activism in the early 1970s. The Afro-American Society continued to stage protests and sit-ins, demanding black representation in curriculum, recruiting, and campus housing committees, as well as increased financial and faculty support.
In 1971, a five-hour sit-in in President Spalding’s office led to a bitter standoff between the administration and members of the Afro-American Society. Adrian Lamos ’72 remembers it this way: in response to the sit-in, the administration offered to punish one “stand-in” student, rather than the 30 members of the Afro-American Society who participated in taking their president “hostage.”
“The administration agreed that we had legitimate concerns, but the school was now ready to bring up charges of academic subordination,” Lamos said. “The College wanted the [society] to choose who was responsible.”
This tactic divided members of the society, says Lamos. Because he was the organization’s secretary and authored most of its communications, Lamos came under the greatest amount of scrutiny. Rather than become a sacrificial lamb, he decided to graduate early and wash his hands of the place entirely.
Today he works in both real estate and higher education, where he empowers community college students to examine their relationship to both property and economics. “I didn’t know that institutions were that powerful,” said Lamos of his experiences at F&M. “At that time, I thought that institutions were resistant to change, but I didn’t know how good they were at resisting change.”
Fifty years later, talking about the May 22 protest remains a difficult task for Bowser, Holifield, Pernell and Lamos. After they graduated, they moved on quickly, to prestigious jobs or family responsibilities, and more or less cut ties with F&M.
But the anniversary of the protest has given them a chance to reconnect with one another and to reflect on their attempts to make their alma mater a more equitable institution. Pernell, in particular, still remembers positive outcomes from the years of student protest on campus, such as the establishment of the Black Cultural Center in 1970.
“I think it was a door opener, at least for the black students involved, if not everyone else,” he says of the protest. “We’re not isolated from the social and political issues of the world around us. The issue of this course and of black students on Franklin & Marshall’s campus is just a microcosm of issues in cities like Washington, D.C., Baltimore and New York City.”
“In the end, any college is only as good as students it brings in and puts out,” Pernell said. As a college administrator himself, he often reflects on the responsibility of elite institutions to provide African-American students access to the same education that he had. “If you do not have systems in place that that provide access to these students, then you don't really have a college committed to racial diversity.”
Mostly, though, these alumni are hopeful for what the next generation might accomplish.
“[Today’s students] need to know their history. Social justice issues are still at the top of the list,” Holifield says. “If they don’t contribute to the resolution of these problems, then not only are they in trouble, their children are in trouble as well.”
F&M Black History Timeline
1950 Sumner Bohee ’50 is the first African American graduate
1963 Martin Luther King Jr. visits F&M
1966 Professor Adebisi Otudeko (Nigeria) is the first African faculty member (Anthropology)
1967 Formation of the Afro-American Society
1969 Professor Samuel Allen is the first African American faculty member awarded tenure (Russian History)
1969 Student protest during final examination of “Interdepartmental-4: The Black Experience in America”
1971 Beverly Nelson Muldrew ’71 is the first African American woman graduate
1978 Henry Wiggins Jr., M.D., ’55, P’91 becomes the first African American trustee
1986 William H. Gray III ’63 is the first African American to serve as Commencement speaker
1989 The African American Alumni Council is founded
1992 Student protest to establish an Africana Studies program on campus
1994 Launching of Africana studies program (minor offered)
1995 Donnell Butler ’95 is the first African American to win the Williamson Award
1996 Africana studies major approved
2004 Founding of Intelligent Men-of-Color Purposefully Accomplishing College Together (IMPACT)
2005 Founding of Sophisticated Intelligent Sisters Teaching Excellence Responsibility and Success (S.I.S.T.E.R.S)
2012 Establishment of Sydney Bridgett ’51 Awards