Willard Straight Hall Occupation: An Introduction
Compiled by Eric Kofi Acree, Africana Librarian, Cornell University
On April 19, 1969, students (mainly Black) occupied Willard Straight Hall during Parents' Weekend as a continuing form of protest about racial issues on Cornell University's campus. Citing the university's "racist attitudes" and "irrelevant curriculum," the students occupied the building for thirty-six hours. The takeover received national attention as thousands of Black and White students became involved, which engaged the community in broad discussion about race relations and educational matters. For many the image of students leaving the Straight with guns is the only lasting memory they have of the takeover. However, it was more than that. The guns were introduced in the seizure of a building only after groups of White students had attacked the Black students occupying the Straight. After the peaceful end of the takeover, Cornell introduced a curriculum in Africana Studies and established the Africana Studies & Research Center.
The purpose of this study guide is to provide an entry point in locating materials about events leading up to the Willard Straight Hall occupation and its aftermath.
- Myth One: The students took over Willard Straight Hall with guns.
Guns were not introduced into the Hall until some 15 hours after the takeover and only after a group of White students broke into Willard Straight following the occupation to expel the Black students and a fight ensued between the two groups. Black students were also fearful of rumors about armed attacks being launched against them.
- Myth Two: The Africana Studies and Research Center was created as a result of this occupation.
Serious discussion on the formation of an African American Studies Program had been going on among a committee which was composed of nine faculty members and administrators, and eight Black students during the summer and fall of 1968. In addition, $240,000 had been approved by the Cornell Board of Trustees to create an African American Studies Center less than a week before the takeover. The main issue around an African American Studies Program for the Black students was: what would be the character of the program and would it be autonomous from the administration and be allowed to chart its own destiny?