GARY STEWART: Hello again, and welcome to East Hill Notes. My name is Gary Stewart, and I work in Cornell University's office of Government and Community Relations. 40 years ago, Cornell University and the greater Ithaca community were rocked by a series of racially charged events that led to the Willard Straight takeover on April 19, 1969. As is the case on any major anniversary of the takeover, this high profile story is generally told from an East Hill perspective as are the actions that followed, including a new campus judicial system, or Cornell president who resigned, an expanded Africana Studies.
What hasn't been touched on in the past to any great degree is what life was like down the Hill in April 1969. What was playing out in the flats when all hell was breaking loose on the Hill? And what were local race relations like in the 1960s, and how have they progress since that time? This edition of East Hill Notes we'll explore some of those questions, following an interview with East Hill Notes producer Claudia Wheatley and CU's dean of students Kent Hubbell, who was a Cornell student during the takeover and today works in Willard Straight Hall, which remains an important and functional landmark on the Cornell University campus.
CLAUDIA WHEATLEY: For much of the world Willard Straight Hall is grim-faced young black men carrying guns, emerging from the building's Gothic revival arches. That was the climax of a weekend of high tension that began early Saturday morning when members of the Afro-American Society barricaded themselves inside the Straight. The takeover ended late Sunday afternoon with an agreement that included establishment of the Africana Studies Center.
Kent Hubbell, Cornell's dean of students, is a graduate of Cornell's School of Architecture and has worked hard to preserve and enhance the 80-year-old building. Kent let's begin with a brief history of Willard Straight Hall. It was one of the first student unions in the country. Is that right?
KENT HUBBELL: Yes, it was created and dedicated in 1925. At the time, there were a few other student unions in existence. They started to populate campus life throughout the country after World War I when many young people came back to campus and people began to realize that there needed to be buildings that really dedicated to student social and recreational activities.
CLAUDIA WHEATLEY: Is it significant that the students chose to make their stand at Willard Straight Hall?
KENT HUBBELL: Well, now we think of the Straight as this wonderful collegiate Gothic building which students pass through from time to time and eat meals in. But in the 60s and prior, the student union was a much more a focal point of student social life. And so I think it was symbolic for the African-American students to take over this place, which was so pivotal to social life on campus.
CLAUDIA WHEATLEY: What was the Cornell campus like at that time? Was it particularly radical?
KENT HUBBELL: Well, I arrived in the early 60s at Cornell. And at the time, many of us had crew cuts and sort of looked like well-groomed high school students of the 50s. And life was very orderly in my freshman year. Male students lived on West Campus.
Female students lived on North Campus. Female students had proper suppers on white tablecloths with waitresses. Men lived on West Campus and had what was lovingly called the barf bar. So there was quite a different set of standards applied for males and females on campus at the time. And of course, historically, that had been the case.
In the beginning of my freshman year, John F. Kennedy was assassinated. And that started a succession of very serious kinds of political and violent kinds of activities, the background of which was the Vietnam War, of course. And so during the 60s, you saw the progressive radicalization of student communities not only at Cornell, but across the country. And it sort of became obvious by virtue of long hair, and use of recreational drugs, and a variety of other issues that were happening all at the same time.
So you went from Robert Kennedy, subsequently to Martin Luther King, to riots in various cities across the country, the Civil Rights Movement, which was gathering momentum at the time. And as a consequence toward the end of the 60s, was all reaching sort of a crescendo. So the whole decade was really a prelude to the takeover in so many ways.
CLAUDIA WHEATLEY: How do you remember the events that led to the takeover?
KENT HUBBELL: Well, I was doing my thesis that year. And I would have to tell you that my thesis took precedence over just about everything. So I viewed a lot of this out of the corner of my eye until when the takeover came, and I was driving my '54 Ford up the street here in front of the Straight when it used to be a street.
I had an African-American female friend who jumped out of the car-- she was driving with me-- ran toward the Straight, and I didn't see her for the rest of the time that that happened. So it was a period of general confusion on campus and general disarray, I guess you could say, both in terms of the student population but the faculty population as well. Classroom activities really became much more contingent than they were in the normal period.
CLAUDIA WHEATLEY: What was your emotional reaction to the takeover?
KENT HUBBELL: I was supportive really of the situation. I felt that the university did have work to do around matters related to civil rights. At the same time, I felt that President Perkins was working very hard on behalf of all students, not least African-American students on campus. So I didn't really harbor any kind of ill will toward the administration.
CLAUDIA WHEATLEY: So how did you view the administration's handling of the crisis at the time?
KENT HUBBELL: Well, I think I'll forever be grateful for the administration's forbearance, and patience, and extreme reluctance to engage in things that might escalate and lead to further violence. So from my point of view, it's a credit to the university and to the administration at the time that we managed to experience such an event without any harm to anyone to my knowledge. We're in a period of activism currently.
I think that campus communities across the country are seeing increased activism. As you know, NYU saw a space taken over recently. I would like to think that perhaps given the risks that building takeovers might not happen, but instead, we had come to a point where the university administration and students could sit and discuss these things in a way that is both productive but avoids the risks that are associated with taking over buildings.
CLAUDIA WHEATLEY: What are those risks as long as I've got you here?
KENT HUBBELL: Well, as you recall, the Straight could have become a situation where students who were armed could have been met by police and other law enforcement officials who were also armed. So it could have been a tragedy. Thank goodness it wasn't. But you know at Kent State we saw tragic outcomes from these kinds of activities. So I think taking over buildings would be great if we could give way to other means for realizing progress when it comes to these important issues.
CLAUDIA WHEATLEY: How has life at Cornell changed for black and other minority students?
KENT HUBBELL: I'd start by saying we still have work to do. Cornell is ever more diverse. And this really needs to be a place that's home to all students.
And as we all know, that feeling of being at home is a fragile feeling. And for students who are in an environment that they're not entirely accustomed to, it can be even more fragile. So I think we need to be constantly at work to afford all students that sense of being at home at Cornell.
GARY STEWART: While the stresses, strains, and opportunities tied to the Willard Straight takeover have played out over decades, race relations have always been a component of life in the city of Ithaca before and after the spring of '69. Today, some stories that haven't been heard but are part of this era and the larger issue of local race relations as well.
LUCY BROWN: My name is Lucy Brown. I was born and raised in Ithaca, and my mother worked for Howard Merritt, the dean of the graduate school, as a maid. I've been in the neighborhood all my life. I have my first experience with racism.
I must have been five years old, and Margaret and I were friends in kindergarten. And Margaret talked about her birthday party. And we talked about me coming to it. And Margaret lived across the street from Central School, which is now [INAUDIBLE].
And what I couldn't understand was why my mom was not getting me all gussied up to go a couple of blocks up the street to Margaret's house. Therefore, I just went up there myself. And it's burned in my memory. Her mother came to the door, and said to me, what are you doing here? Go home, and slammed the door in my face.
Now at the time, I didn't realize what was going on. But I remember I was in shock. I couldn't understand what it was. But going through different kinds of experiences, it dawned on me now that I am now 75 that all this stuff was going on because of the color of my skin.
JACKIE SCOTT: My name is Jacqueline Melton Scott, born in Ithaca in 1937. My father was also born here, as was his father. And my uncle owned property here. A group of my colleagues from high school asked me that same question. And the question was, Jackie it wasn't like it is now when we grew up, was it?
And we were sitting in the country club having brunch. And I says, OK. I said, I think I know what you mean by that, but consider this. This is the very first time I have been inside the country club.
We knew each other. We played together in school. I invited you to come to my house. You never invited me to come to your house. However, I know that my mother and my father had association with a number of your families as either my father driving your family, my mother either catering or cooking for different parties or whatever, or actually working in your home as did my grandmother.
I said, so when you're asking me that question, you're asking if racism existed. I said, and it wasn't blatant racism, but there was separatism. And there were kind of shocked with that response, I said because I as a personality was gregarious, I was accepted.
You couldn't do anything else. I wouldn't allow you to do anything else but accept me. We went to the same schools. We played on teams together, et cetera. I said, but socially, there was a separation.
GEORGE TABER: My name is George Tabor. I'm a native of Ithaca and a veteran of the Cornell University Police. I joined what was then known as the safety division in April of 1969. When I was a kid, I played a lot of basketball, the curse of being tall, and played for the CYO, Catholic Youth Organization.
I played for several teams. And we would get around to the west side, the north side, and south side houses. It was a south side house at that time.
And we would play teams of all races and colors of kids. And it was good because you get to see and interact with kids from various areas in the city. But there were racial incidents and fights that were white against black, rural against city kids. It happened once in a while, not too often, but once in a while.
JANE MARCHAM: My name is Jane Marcham. I first moved here as a freshman at Cornell University in 1947. I met my husband on the Cornell Sun. We married, and I went to work for the Ithaca Journal and was there for nearly 30 years. In 1968, John and I took our kids to Washington, DC during spring vacation.
The cherry blossoms were in bloom, and everything was lovely. And we came back. And only a few weeks after we had been there Martin Luther King was killed. And some of the neighborhoods that we had been in in Washington went sky high. And there was a lot of violence, and fires were set and everything.
And, actually, around that time, there were some violence in Ithaca and some Molotov cocktails were thrown at properties, including an apartment house that was being built just a block away from our house. So we found the 60s to be a pretty uneasy time. There was a period though of rising expectations. After the killing of Martin Luther King, there was a feeling of anger and that more should be done to ease friction between the races, and more should be done to help black students go to college, for example.
LUCY BROWN: President Perkins had decided to try to get some black undergraduate students up at Cornell. What he did-- he went to-- I've forgotten the name of what they call that school they had down there. But what they were doing they were, what I call, sweeping up these children off the sidewalk even though they had a really different background than you would find from what Cornell thought should be their students' background. In fact, one the brothers, who has his doctorate in nutritional science, was a prostitute from the age 11 to 15.
I had come in contact with these children that Perkins got up here. These kids came up thinking that they were going to come to a place where they wouldn't find the same discriminatory behavior they had experienced in New York. And that wasn't true.
They ran slam bam into it in the classroom. And they decided that they had to do something about that. They needed a place of their on that talked about them, that appreciated them and their history. And that's the way I understand it, how it all got started.
JANE MARCHAM: I think it was much more separate than it is today. I think there was not so much news coverage of what was happening on campus. But as a matter of fact, there was a story in the Ithaca Journal about the opening of the Africana Center just before the Straight was occupied. But, of course, what happened then was just totally unexpected. This takeover of Willard Straight Hall was a terrific surprise.
GEORGE TABER: I was a raw rookie. I had no idea what was going on. Didn't have a uniform. The first couple of nights were, as I say, just a whirlwind, false alarms that were pulled all over campus and, of course, the cross burning on the front lawn of the Wari House at 208 Dearborn.
We went from one place, to another, to another. I didn't even know where I was, let alone what I was supposed to do. But I was with a more senior officer and starting to learn the geography of the campus. But a lot of things were going on that I had no idea what was happening at the time.
JACKIE SCOTT: During the takeover, my mother and father had called me about what was going on. And my mother was kind of fearful for the African-American kids who had taken over the Straight. But what was really interesting about it is that she was asking me, well, what should we do because they both were employed at Cornell at that time?
I said, well, everyone in town should be there for those students. If they get arrested, you need to be sure that they have lawyers, and that they're defended, that they know they have support. If they get kicked out, you need to open your homes.
You need to be basically the underground support because they were afraid of their jobs if they actually spoke out and went forward. And I said, I understand that. I said, do you want me to come there? Of course, my mother said, no. But I said, they have every right to do what they're doing.
GEORGE TABER: And the scariest moment that I can remember in the hall There were a few, quite a few. I was quite afraid, untrained. We were unarmed at the time.
There were a lot of firearms inside the Straight as you know. There was a more veteran officer who was there. We were sitting in his car down in back of the Straight to try to keep warm because it was freezing rain and all of that. And we were taking turns walking around the building.
And so he actually had a gun in the car. And he said, if any of them try to come after me, he used the term-- he said, I'm going to grease them. Well, he used the expletive term. So that was one very scary moment because I thought, oh my god, I'm sitting here, and this guy's got a gun. And what could ever possibly happen?
The other scary moment was the whole deal with-- mutual aid was called I guess by the governor. And there were deputies that came from Rochester, and Syracuse, and all over New York and came to Ithaca and were here. And as I understand, the old Woolworth parking lot was full of police cars that came from out of town. And had they gotten the command to do so they would have gone and taken the Straight back and arrested people or who knows what would have happened, could have made Kent State and Jackson State look like the teddy bear's picnic. It would have been just absolutely terrible.
LUCY BROWN: It became very tense because of the whole atmosphere in the country. And I knew this because when I went to work and the faculty-- I'll never forget-- was talking about in the hallways how they weren't going to let these young men intimidate them. And boy, that really made me angry because first of all, y'all had the state police, the FBI, sheriffs. They had all that stuff. And how could these kids intimidate anybody?
JANE MARCHAM: I think people in the city were quite worried, and there were several attacks on properties about that time and just general fears. Did you dare go out at night, or what was going to happen next?
GEORGE TABER: I can remember a conversation I had with a guy from Slaterville, who said words to the effect that wouldn't it be something? What would you guys do if about 1,000 of us all got our shotguns and came down to Cornell and straighten things out? And now, obviously, it was sort of an outrageous statement for the guy to make. But it made me think, what if?
And there were a lot of people in surrounding areas that don't understand the intricacies of the situation I guess and would react very strongly against it, such as mollycoddling students and all of that. And they're getting away with murder. And how can they possibly do this? And if it happened to our kids, it'd be a different story.
JANE MARCHAM: But Ithaca always had been I think a very racially mature kind of city. I mean, the black leadership in the community was of very high quality and always tried to make contact with white leaders. And they were felt to be a part of the community. But these students who took over the Straight they were from somewhere else. And this was a little worrisome. This was hard to take.
LUCY BROWN: All that stuff was going on. So these kids had taken over Willard Straight. As I found out later on, the bullets didn't even fit in the guns. I mean, they were making all the stupid mistakes people make. And I knew them personally. And I understood their frustration.
GEORGE TABER: We were very much relieved. There, of course, was the infamous parade across campus that some of our guys were leading this parade and then students with shotguns and rifles and walking behind them. And there were all sorts of threats made. I mean, the whole business with DU you fraternity guys that try to retake the Straight and all of that.
And that caused an awful lot of hard feelings. And some of the rhetoric that was bantered about was pretty tough. I can remember we had to do drive-bys and watches of several different professors' homes because of threats that had been made.
JANE MARCHAM: I wrote a story afterwards that told about the number of meetings that were going on up there afterwards. So it was kind of a mop-up story that told what was happening a couple of days later. There were huge meetings in Barton Hall. There were small faculty meetings. There were student meetings, everything going on at once.
LUCY BROWN: I think so that it made a big difference. The undercurrent that nobody said out loud had been pushed to the top by these young people. There was conversation about things out in the open that had been very subtle. The term I used to hear about black folks-- we were in up-south north. If you lived up here in northern part of the United States, you were in up-south. Discriminatory behavior was much more subtle.
JACKIE SCOTT: The separation now is very discouraging. And I guess it's a measure of time that there is now a more increased number of middle class African-Americans who are attending Cornell. And they feel privileged and have forgot part of their history, but not as long as I'm around. I will let them know what part of their history is that they're there through great sacrifice.
But my own observation is that a lot of the divide among the Cornell students who do not associate with the African-Americans downtown has two reasons. One is because of Affirmative Action. And they feel that they were entitled, and that they earned it, not realizing that there was a fight to get that. And the other is Ithaca is no longer the kind of quote, "industrial community" that it was prior to the takeover, prior to those students coming in where people actually communicated.
If you were of African descent, you made eye contact, you spoke. That's not happening now. I've got to write my book because a lot of that is-- I've been observing it. And I let folks know. And once they come off on their high horse and kind of think about what's going on, say, don't ever forget your past because what happened then can happen anytime unless we all cross culture, cross race understand our histories and keep propelling to create the unity.
LUCY BROWN: I had a white woman to come to me and say to me-- I was shocked-- that she had 3% African blood in her. I was what? She was proud of that. And I never thought that I would run into somebody like that, and Obama just blew me away.
I just thought the brother-- said, these people ain't going to never let him be in the White House. And sure enough, there he is. So things have changed. The younger people are much different than my age group is.
JACKIE SCOTT: So to live through that, and see that, and witness what's happening, it was extremely emotional. And the message is so true. I mean, we are all Americans.
And what does that mean? What does that mean for an African American? It has a different relevance than what it means for a European or Caucasian American.
GEORGE TABER: From what I could see, things are better. People talk to each other more. There's more openness. And of course, with this fall's election, I mean, it's a new day. It really is.
But having said that, there is still-- last year in Ithaca High School, there were some pretty nasty racial incidents. And we always have this country kid versus the city kid. And it's hard to see that because Ithaca's not that big. We're not Los Angeles, or Buffalo, or whatever. But it's here. Those same feelings are here.
JANE MARCHAM: I think we're more willing to talk about them and get together. And there are still meetings about race issues and problems. And there's always more to understand and always more to be done.
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In a series of compelling testimonials, Ithaca city residents recall local life before April 19, 1969--when African American students took over Cornell's student union, Willard Straight Hall--the events that led up to the takeover, and the aftermath.
Guests: Kent Hubbell, Lucy Brown, Jackie Melton Scott, George Taber and Jane Marcham.
Hosted by Gary Stewart, East Hill Notes is a monthly talk show on topics of interest to the Cornell and Ithaca communities.