Students from Professor of History Allison Dorsey’s class “Black Liberation 1969” have begun to hold various events around campus as part of what Dorsey called a “takeover of Black History Month.”
The series of events includes interactive workshops, student-led discussions, art installations, and performances around campus that will take place through the end of February. Dorsey wrote in an e-mail that the takeover, led by students in her fall 2014 class “Black Liberation 1969,” is intended to educate the wider campus community about the Black student protest movement that occurred at the college over 40 years ago.
During that decade, the then newly-formed Swarthmore Afro-American Student Society came into conflict with the Admissions Office and the college administration over declining Black enrollment, the lack of an official Black Studies program, and the paucity of Black administrators and professors at the college. The friction between the two groups culminated in a SASS-led sit-in in the Admissions Office, which lasted from January 9-16, 1969. The events of the takeover are meant to remind the college of these events, and educate those in the college community that may not be aware of this history.
The thirteen students who took “Black Liberation 1969” with Dorsey all contributed to the events of this takeover. The course, offered exclusively in the fall 2014 semester, asked students to write the first accurate history of the protest movement, as well as to individually develop a creative project meant to educate the community about this history.
Students also conducted interviews with alumni involved with SASS during this period of Swarthmore’s history and compiled these interviews with other data, such as photos and newspaper articles in the Swarthmorean and the Phoenix, into an online database, now open to the public.
“The class, I think, has a strong sense overall that the college has been telling the wrong story, and … we are not correcting it to a new and better narrative, but we are creating access to more nuanced narratives that draw out a better understanding of the how and the why of direct action,” Nora Kerrich ’16 said during part of her creative project, a workshop series.
Kerrich’s project was the first event in the takeover and took the form of an interactive workshop on SASS at Swarthmore from 1968-1972 on Monday.
“This is geared towards getting a broad understanding of the Black power student movement, and it’s also about helping folks to know what’s available to them on the archive, and to build narratives around the SASS takeover,” said Kerrich.
She also said this particular workshop was intended to contextualize what was happening at Swarthmore during this time by providing details about Black student movements across the country.
The workshop centered on the discussion of a text set provided by Kerrich, which included media, such as a photo of Black Swarthmore students standing in front of the Admissions Office in protest, and several articles on the development of the Black student protest movement in the 1960s at Swarthmore and across the country. Kerrich allowed the discussion to center on areas of knowledge that the participants in the workshop wanted to know more about. The workshop discussed reasons why 1969 was the time that these events occurred, as well as the balance between idealism and practicality in these Black student movements.
Participants felt that the workshop had deepened their understanding of the events that occurred at Swarthmore.
Gabe Benjamin ’15 said that previous narratives of the Black student protests at Swarthmore lacked important historical context, and that this workshop was successful in adding some. He also said that thinking about more than just the events that happened at Swarthmore was essential in understanding this part of the college’s history.
As part of the takeover, five students presented their research projects on Tuesday afternoon. Laura Laderman ’15 presented a project focused on the definition of diversity at Swarthmore and how it came to be one of Swarthmore’s professed core values. She discussed the beginnings of diversity at Swarthmore, explaining how the rise of the national civil rights movement spurred the college to apply for a Rockefeller Foundation Grant in 1963, which was designed to increase access to higher education and alleviate poverty in Black communities. She concluded her presentation by connecting the issues of diversity in the past with those the college is currently facing.
“I think that for Swarthmore to really delve into issues of diversity that are always around under the surface, even in the moments that they’re not boiling over, we really need to critically examine how we think about diversity, what our purpose in having a diverse student body is, and how we are going to support that purpose,” said Laderman.
The other students on the panel also took time to connect their presentations to current events. Alis Anasal ’15 discussed “Black Philosophies of Liberation,” a student-led class created in 1969 that explored Black history and thought. Anasal believed that the timing of the creation of the course was essential to the significant impact it had on Black campus culture, and called it “a form of protest itself”.
Xavier Lee ’17 spoke about the establishment of an official Black Studies program at the college, detailing the story of how President Courtney Smith worked with Frank C. Pearson, the chairman of the economics department in 1968, and a committee of students to create the new interdisciplinary program. After Lee’s presentation, Maria Mejia ’15 analyzed class at Swarthmore and the way that it shaped Black students’ experiences and activism at the college. Allison Shultes ’15 closed out the panel by detailing how certain faculty at Swarthmore engaged in a “willing act of erasure” regarding the history and memory of the Black student movement at Swarthmore.
As the month of February continues, there are more events scheduled to occur, as well as several exhibitions in spaces such as McCabe and Parrish, all dedicated to educating the college community about the events that transpired during the Black Liberation in the 1960s. Among the events next week, Anisa Knox ’15 will present “Black Bodies Unmasked: Defining the Black Aesthetic at Swarthmore” in LPAC on February 16th at 4 p.m., and Haydn Welch ’15 will hold a discussion entitled “Origins of the Black Cultural Center: SASS’s Efforts to Make a Space for Black Students at Swarthmore” on Sunday, February 15 at 7 p.m. in the BCC. Martha Biondi, author of “Black Revolution on Campus,” chair of African American studies, and professor of African American studies and history at Northwestern University, will wrap up the month with her lecture “Black Students and the Transformation of Higher Education” on February 26 at 4:30 p.m. in LPAC Cinema.
The Black Liberation 1969 archive can be found at blacklib1969.swarthmore.edu.