“Black on the Banks: African-American Students at Rutgers in the 1960s,” one of a series of events to mark the university’s 250th anniversary celebration, brought moving testimony from the alumni who attended Douglass College and Rutgers College at Rutgers University–New Brunswick.
As one of the few African Americans to attend Douglass College at Rutgers University–New Brunswick in the 1960s, Carole Sampson-Landers DC’69, GSNB’74, RMS’74 remembers her adviser telling her that she’d never cut it as a physician.
Juanita Wade Wilson DC’66 recalls that the family of her white roommate was notified that their daughter would be living with a black woman, but the college didn’t afford Wade’s family the same consideration.
For his accomplishments at summer training camp, Lynn Whatley RC’70, attending Rutgers College on a military scholarship, should have been given the position of brigade commander. The honor, instead, went to a white student.
When Frank McClellan RC’67 and his father arrived from Pittsburgh in the summer of 1963, they were quickly under the impression that they were the only blacks on campus. “Do you know what you’re doing, Frank?” his father asked.
And Curt Morrison RC’71, NLAW’74 remembers the day in 1967 as a first-year student that he saw the letters, posted one to a window, across a length of one of the River Dorms, cryptically spelling out the word “SPONGE.” He learned that the word was an acronym for “Society for the Prevention of Niggers Getting Everything.” Morrison, one of only a handful of black students at Rutgers, nonetheless went to the dorm to confront the student responsible for the sign.
“He was unwilling or unable to provide an explanation,” Morrison said. “The sincere attempt to actually engage opposing points of view within the marketplace of ideas, as represented by the university, did not work. But it made me painfully aware that there were people at Rutgers—a ‘liberal’ and ‘enlightened’ institution—who did not see individuals like me as deserving of opportunities to succeed. That was an important lesson for me.”
During the 1960s, African-American students were a distinct minority at Rutgers–New Brunswick, barely registering statistically. Up until the later years of the decade, there were roughly 20 students each attending Rutgers College and Douglass College. The racism they encountered was often subtle but sometimes overtly hostile as these students struggled to overcome feelings of isolation and dislocation. And yet they prevailed, drawing strength from their community, their devotion to scholarship, and their determination to succeed. They saw to it that they got a good education at Rutgers and went on to distinguish themselves professionally—as physicians, lawyers, academicians.
Their stories of struggle and success emerged during a two-day forum in November that helped kick off the university’s yearlong celebration of its 250th anniversary. For “Black on the Banks: African-American Students at Rutgers in the 1960s,” these alumni of Rutgers and Douglass colleges at Rutgers–New Brunswick convened to reflect on their academic and campus life experiences—a poignant, often turbulent, time in Rutgers’ long history and one that imparts valuable lessons for the university today as it forges its future.
“Black on the Banks” was a time for reunion and remembrance, of events both painful and remarkable. Cecelia Hodges Drewry was one of a handful of African-American faculty members in the 1960s and the only African American on the Douglass faculty. She was also founder and director of the Afro-American Studies Program, the first such program at the university. Her introduction on the first day of the forum as “a hero if there ever was one” brought enthusiastic applause, and she may well have spoken for the majority of attendees when she said, “My heart is full with joy and ecstasy and memories.”
Ronald W. Brown RC’67 was among the hundreds who attended “Black on the Banks” as a member of the audience. “The conference,” he said, “was packed with what the musical genius Rahsaan Roland Kirk would call ‘bright moments.’ Illuminating. Inspiring. Insightful.”
Generating the moments were the alumni serving on five panels, each covering a critical aspect of the African-American experience at Rutgers–New Brunswick: black student life (one for the years 1961 to 1965, another for the period 1966 to 1971), intercollegiate athletics, academic life, and the era of protest in the late 1960s and early ’70s that changed the culture and academics at the university. Moderating the panels was an eminent group of Rutgers professors that included Cheryl A. Wall, Board of Governors Zora Neale Hurston Professor of English; Carolyn Brown, associate professor of history; Edward Ramsamy GSNB’02, associate professor of Africana studies; Deborah Gray White, Board of Governors Distinguished Professor of History; and Mia Bay, professor of history and director of the Center for Race and Ethnicity. The forum presented the compelling reflections of a virtually all-white university forced to confront racial inequity through the struggles—hard fought and hard won—of a growing number of African-American students and their supporters.
The conference was organized by Douglas Greenberg RC’69, a distinguished professor in the Department of History at the School of Arts and Sciences, who arrived at Rutgers College in the mid-1960s and was a member of the only integrated fraternity, Phi Sigma Kappa. “I think that the events of 1969 and 1970 at Rutgers–New Brunswick were the most important in the history of the university between World War II and today, and it was essential to recognize them as that,” he said.
Greenberg noted that the Educational Opportunity Fund (a state program created to address inequality in higher education by offering financial and academic assistance to low-income New Jersey residents), what is now the Department of Africana Studies at the School of Arts and Sciences, and the Paul Robeson Cultural Center “were among many changes imagined by African-American undergraduates throughout the 1960s and then made real by black student demands in 1969,” he said.
But the effort to gain civil rights certainly wasn’t limited to the activities of students in New Brunswick. In 1969, African-American students at Rutgers University–Newark took over Conklin Hall and made demands that led to significant changes at Rutgers. During the takeover, the students, who were members of the Black Organization of Students, had broad support among many students at Rutgers–New Brunswick and Rutgers University–Camden. The persistence, sacrifice, and political engagement of African-American students, Greenberg pointed out, underlie the still-incomplete transformation of Rutgers from a “whites mostly” institution in 1960 to a more inclusive public university today. Greenberg also told the audience that addressing the African-American student experience at places like Rutgers–Newark, Rutgers–Camden, and Livingston College at Rutgers–New Brunswick was, unfortunately, too much history to enfold into two days. But, he said, there is a treasure trove of material that should be opened at future panel discussions.
Charles Bowers Jr. RC’69, RMS’74, who participated on the “Inter-collegiate Athletics and Black Students at Rutgers College in the 1960s” panel, remembers arriving at Rutgers College in 1965, going on to play football and lacrosse, and being taken aback by how few African-American men there were. “We’re not talking about the state university of Alabama or Mississippi, but of New Jersey,” he once told Rutgers Magazine. Those who confronted the status quo had to endure a dispiriting sense of being marooned in unfamiliar territory. Brown remembered his days at the university as “lonely and challenging,” a sentiment echoed by many of the forum’s panelists. Wall, who moderated the first panel, was struck by the pervasive feelings of isolation that so many alumni described, especially those who attended the university in the first half of the 1960s. But she was also deeply impressed, she said, “with the seriousness with which they took their roles as students. The idea that young people come to college to, in part, have a good time—that was absolutely the opposite of what these students felt and how they conducted themselves.” Their intensity of purpose, she noted, helped them launch long, successful careers but it also cost them the happy college experience most students envision for themselves.
They allayed that cost with a sense of community; just knowing that the few other African-American students were going through the same experience was a source of sustenance. Panelist Wilma Harris DC’66 said that she might not see other African-American students “for weeks on end, but knowing that they were there and having similar experiences made the situation fulfilling.” Harris, who grew up in a small southern New Jersey town and was the only black female in her high school’s college-prep curriculum, said “it was exhilarating at Rutgers to be around other black women and men who were excited about learning and moving beyond the world they came from.”
Like Harris, panelist Thomas Ashley RC’64, NLAW’67 was beset by a sense of loneliness at Rutgers, mitigated by the presence, and guidance, of two African-American upperclassmen, both from his hometown of Camden. “They played a big part in giving me some direction for how I would survive,” he says. Although he may not have known it at the time, Ashley’s experience would offer direction and support to those who followed him. Indeed, many panelists who graduated in the late ’60s and early ’70s understood that they were “standing on the shoulders,” a phrase used more than once during the forum, of their pioneering predecessors.
As later panelists made clear, progress for African Americans was incremental in the 1960s, but the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a galvanizing moment for them, inspiring many to push for expanded black enrollment and faculty and for incorporating black history and culture into the curriculum. King’s death in 1968, said panelist Leon Green RC’71, GSNB’74,’76, “made us become political.” In the weeks that followed the assassination, Green and other newly minted activists presented the university with a group of demands, which led to the establishment of the Africana studies department and the appointment of the first African-American dean of student affairs, Rev. Dr. Fred Clark.
“I came to Rutgers to be an economics major,” said Michael Jackson RC’71, speaking on a panel about academic life. “Rutgers politicized and radicalized me, and my major [African studies] was a direct result of that.”
The era of black student protest at Rutgers was largely nonviolent, but there were times when violence seemed only a few angry missteps away. Randy Green RC’72 recalled the incident when a group of white students massed outside Clothier Hall, home to many of the African-American students, chanting “Send down the niggers.” Having just returned from the Douglass Campus, he saw that some members of the mob were carrying baseball bats and golf clubs. After police let him enter the building, Green came upon 15 of his black dorm mates who had made the decision to wedge lounge furniture up against the door to the stairway, then armed themselves with whatever they had—mostly bats and switchblades, which, out of self defense, they refused to surrender.
“We were distinguished scholars,” said Green during the forum, “but we were not to be pushed around. We did not come here to survive Rutgers—we came here to triumph. You were not going to steal the day from us. This was our birthright as well as yours.” After a few hours, the mob dispersed.
For Stephanie Obiorah, today a senior majoring in Africana studies who attended “Black on the Banks,” the forum was revelatory. “Wilma Harris was a Douglass woman like I am, and she wanted to quit so many times,” said Obiorah. “But she thought about all the future black girls who would want to come to college and she didn’t want to be a failure to them. I had no idea that ‘Black on the Banks’ would change my perception about how different Rutgers was just 50 years ago.”
But in some ways, Rutgers–New Brunswick is not, as Greenberg pointed out in his impassioned closing remarks. There are encouraging statistics for sure, he said. At Douglass Residential College today, 21.4 percent of the students are African American; at the new Honors College, it’s 14 percent. More than half the students identify as being nonwhite and more than half of them are the children or grandchildren of immigrants. However, African Americans make up only 7.5 percent of the overall student body, the same percentage as it was in 1979. Rutgers–New Brunswick may clearly have the most diverse student body in the Big Ten, but it ranks a disappointing eighth in the conference for the percentage of faculty members who are African American.
“This is a different place from what I enrolled in 50 years ago,” said Greenberg. “But too much of the work of racial justice at this university remains undone. Now, as in the 1960s, change isn’t just going to happen.” •
To see a video of "Black on the Banks,” visit 250.rutgers.edu/events/bobtalk.