1969: Beloit College Blacks "Win" Twelve Demands
Published in The Round Table, Sept. 28, 1984
By Frederick Burwell
"I've been learning about you (white people) for twenty years. It's about time you start learning about me. It's the only way to be fully educated," said black student Walter Allen to 600 students, faculty, and administrators at a meeting called by the Beloit College Afro-American Union on February 26, 1969.
Thirty-five black students presented a set of demands they believed would make the college more relevant to their race, while creating a truly liberal arts institution.
Among their demands were a desire for full-credit course offerings in African and Afro-American History, Art, Music, Philosophy, and Literature; mandatory courses on the concept of Blackness; sections of dorms reserved for black students; a black financial aid consultant; and a stepped up admissions and faculty-hiring program aimed at increasing the percentage of black students and black faculty to 10%. At that time, the black population at Beloit College hovered around the 3% range.
Student Jackie Prophet mentioned the Afro-American Union's desire for the establishment of a black cultural center and meeting place. "We need a place of our own to meet and talk -- everywhere we go, everything is white."
Without waiting for answers to their demands, the black students filed out of the Union, leaving the floor to Dean John P. Gwin, who later said, "I'm wiling to work things out and I know some blacks are. I don't understand some blacks, but I am willing to be educated."
Early Proposal Given Lip-Service
Half a year earlier, black students submitted a proposal of suggestions for making Beloit College more compatible for blacks. Although the administration stated that they had made progress, the blacks were not satisfied, and, therefore, prepared the twelve demands.
President Miller Upton immediately called upon the faculty to meet and told the students that he would reply to the demands, but that he needed time. He made it clear, however, "that no segment of the college community ... can presume to deal in a constructive way toward constructive change by making demands."
Over the next week, a group of white students formed a group called "The Positive Action Committee" aimed at constructive action regarding racial problems at Beloit College. Black response to this was moderate. "A few white students can see that if the school isn't doing anything for me it isn't doing anything for them either, but they aren't able to move a great number of students," said Phil Jones, '69. PAC proposed a boycott of classes, passed out questionnaires, and sponsored several "town meetings" as forums for discussion.
Arson Plagues College
Meanwhile, several incidents of vandalism occurred that heightened the tension over the demands, despite no substantiated connection. At 1:15 A.M. on March 5, three fire bombs were thrown into the kitchen area of the Beloit College infirmary, which was then located in a frame building behind the Field House. Firemen responded with three engines and a hook and ladder truck and doused the fire. Damage was estimated between $1,500 and $3,000. Half an hour later, a false alarm came in from the library.
Early on March 7, a total of eleven incendiaries were left by an arsonist in rooms on the ground level floor of Whitney and Porter dorms. Made of paper cups filled with a flammable liquid and a crude time fuse, the fire bombs destroyed two rooms in Porter completely and damaged several others. There was an estimated loss of $7,000.
"The heat in the stairwells was intense," said fire fighters. Coupled with billowing smoke, the 100 residents found escape from the buildings difficult. There were, however, no injuries. In one room, the blaze was so strong that a telephone across the hall completely melted.
President Upton insisted that the arson had nothing to do with the controversy over the demands. "The campus tensions produced by this controversy," he said, "are simply being exploited by a sick mentality." Campus security immediately tightened and all dorms were locked 24 hours a day.
That same day, President Upton issued his reply to the demands, with compromises on all counts, excepting segregated black housing, which he stated was illegal.
At a news conference the next day, black students by one account tore up Upton's answers, by another, burned them while beating African drums outside a window of the dining room in which the trustees were holding their regular quarterly meeting.
Asked what the Afro-American Union would do, Walter Allen, a spokesperson for the group, stated: "Our demands are falling on deaf ears. We are attempting to gain redress for our grievances by so-called legal means ... We feel we are offering Beloit College a chance to help cure a deplorable situation."
They reiterated their desire for an increased black curriculum. "At present, Beloit College courses are white -- extremely white, and the black students are tired of being told that black people have done nothing of significance." They also demanded an immediate end to all harassment of blacks by security guards, who according to the speakers, asked black students for identification, while ignoring white groups.
In an emphatic closing statement, Allen asserted that "we will not stop short of our goals. Black people have been stopping short of goals too long -- we are determined."
The Afro-American Union staged its final protest on March 10. About fifteen students entered Middle College and quietly began to tape up signs, posters, and pictures in the admissions office and its reception area on the first floor. Tacked on the front door was a sign stating: NOW! OPEN! -- Afro-American Cultural Center. A "Freedom Lite" burned in front of Middle College. For four hours, the students held the office. They beat drums, blasted soul music, and set up displays of black art and literature, as well as a collage on the theme "black is beautiful."
Upton complained that the student action constituted disruption and was a form of harassment. He told them that if it became necessary to call the police, they would jeopardize their status as students. Their reply: "We negotiated last winter and last summer and last fall. Our negotiating period is over."
Tommy Wilson, a spokesperson for the group, summed up their attitude. "Our objective is not to destroy Beloit College. Our objective is not to get thrown out of Beloit College. Our objective is to improve Beloit College."
In a tentative agreement two days later, the Afro-American Union responded to the Faculty reactions and recommendations concerning their demands. Walter Allen listed nine points of agreement between the Union and the college, including curricular committees formed to consider course offerings; revisions of the college catalog, all-campus symposiums on the concept of Blackness, a search for black professors, a permanent college-financed black culture center; and a committee formed to draw up goals and practical procedures for implementing a stepped up admissions program.
At a final press conference on March 13, Walter Allen asserted that "Our attitude now is one of cooperation. We will wait and watch, but we want concrete action. The things we demanded were rightfully ours, and we expect them and will not be happy until we get them."
1. Full credit course offerings in African & Afro-American History, Art, Music, Philosophy, Economics, Government, Literature and Languages taught by Black professors.
2. Mandatory courses on the concept of Blackness for student body, faculty, and administration.
3. Admissions program aimed at increasing the percentage of Black students to 10% of the student body.
4. Hiring programs aimed at increasing percentage of faculty members to 10% Black.
5. Sections of dorms reserved for Black students.
6. Inclusion of relevant contributions by Black experts in each filed of our current curriculum.
7. A Black financial aid consultant.
8. Establishment of a Black cultural center and meeting place.
9. Institution of the High Potential Education Program as approved by the Beloit College Faculty.
10. Revision of Area Exams to allow Black students to relate the required courses and readings to their cultural and social environment and that these be read and judged by Black professors.
11. Revision of Upper and Under Class Common Courses to include sections focused on Blackness.
12. End of harassment of Black students by maintenance men, receptionists, security guards and other college personnel.
CAN YOU DIG IT?