Students Present Research on Black Liberation at Swarthmore

On Tuesday, February 10, five students presented their work on the Black Liberation Project at Swarthmore to more than 100 students, staff, faculty, and community members packed in the Scheuer Room. As those still standing looked for extra chairs, Professor Cheryl Jones-Walker introduced the students.

Presenters Alis Anasal ‘15, Laura Laderman ‘15, Xavier Lee ‘17, Maria Mejia ‘15, and Allison Shultes ‘15 were all students in Professor Allison Dorsey’s Black Liberation 1969: Black Studies in History Theory and Praxis course. All wrote papers capturing a particular narrative of the black campus movement at Swarthmore in the 1960s and 1970s. Jones-Walker noted that it was this movement that led to the creation of the Black Cultural Center, the Black Studies program, and other resources for underrepresented students at Swarthmore.

Anasal, a special history and educational studies major, was the first to present her project, an account of the Black Philosophies of Liberation course taught at Swarthmore in 1969. Anasal characterized the course itself as a “testament […] to student’s commitment to their own growth” and a form of protest. Created and led by students who stepped up after a lack of administrative response to their calls for a more diverse curriculum, the course focused on the works of black thinkers such as W.E.B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington.

Anasal stressed that the black campus movement, and this course, were part of larger conversations about access to education in the United States. Segregation was still a reality for most students at the time, she said, and higher educational institutions were often responsible for perpetuating that inequality. One of the main questions being asked by the students in this course and beyond, she said, was, “Can American institutions work for black Americans?” This story continues, Anasal said: “Who, exactly, is a liberal education for?”

Next to present was Laderman, who wrote about diversity as a broader value at Swarthmore. Why is it, she asked, that we usually talk about diversity after “incidents of overt racism”?

Laderman began by laying out the context for black students attending Swarthmore in the 1960s. Prior to 1940, she said, Swarthmore has no black students. In 1943 (“fairly late in the game” compared to our peer institutions, Laderman said), the school agreed to admit black applicants, but there were very few. In 1968, Dean of Admissions Fred Hargadon wrote a report on black admissions that was placed on general reserve in McCabe, a move many students criticized for violating their privacy.

Laderman then described the various (and flawed) measures the admissions office took to address their low black acceptance rate, stressing the two ways diversity was viewed by the college. It was and is, she said, viewed as both an education tool and a social responsibility. She then detailed the ways SASS sought to expand black representation at the school. When it comes to evaluating applications, she asked, “How are we assessing ‘qualified’?” She closed by saying that Swarthmore needs to critically examine diversity and what its purpose on campus is.

Lee researched the Black Studies program at Swarthmore from 1968-1970.  A committee of faculty and students was formed in 1968 to explore building the curriculum. Lee focused his research on the meeting minutes from the Black Curriculum Committee, using them to explore common points of conflict between students and faculty. He found that students wanted a “revolutionary program […] the likes of which would fashion Swarthmore into a school of black liberation,” while the faculty was more interested in “the passing of the proposal by their peers.” Lee outlined four major hurdles to the formation of the program: the definition of black studies, SASS’s efforts to structure a program they liked, appeasing the faculty as a whole, and staffing concerns.

Lee walked through each of these hurdles in his presentation. Black studies, an interdisciplinary field of study designed to address the black experience in America, was still a relatively new field, emerging across the country in the late 1960s. Black studies, said Lee, “seeks to […] reveal a culture that has often been misinterpreted, misunderstood, maligned, or deemed unimportant.” “Black studies is revolutionary,” he said, in that it challenges the Eurocentric nature of higher education and ideas of black assimilation and subordination on majority-white campuses.

The most contentious point in the committee, said Lee, was the question of who would be hired to teach black studies courses. “What is the black perspective?” her asked. “And how do we use perspectives in the classroom?” In debates about whether professors should be hired based on qualifications or race, Lee noted that there was an inherent assumption that qualified black professors could not be found. As he finished his presentation, Lee noted that other programs, such as Asian American studies and Latin American studies, emerged from Black studies, which “continues to flourish at the college today.”

Mejia’s paper analyzed the role socioeconomic class within the black student movement. Her presentation focused on what she referred to as the “competing narratives” of class within the movement: she found that black students recognized the importance of class, but their perspectives would conflict. She cited Clinton Etheridge ‘69’s description of SASS as “middle class reformers” and Marilyn Allman Maye ‘69’s description of the female founding members of SASS as “a group of black women who bonded because we were all on scholarship.” To make sense of these diverging accounts, Mejia explored the nature of admissions and its connection to class and “objective measures of educational achievement” at the time. Mejia also discussed the recruitment process for black students in the late 1960s and SASS criticisms of it.

Mejia then dove into these competing narratives, drawing on interviews with Maye and other alums. Maye discussed the lack of black faces on campus, and how she felt the closest connection with the woman who cleaned her dorm. This narrative was called “romanticized” by other alums, who remembered more tension between black staff members of the College and students. Still other alums placed their own experiences somewhere between these poles, describing students’ struggles with both administration and staff members.

Mejia concluded by discussing the black campus movement’s implications for Swarthmore today. She noted that “when you walk around Swarthmore, most of the black people you see, most of the Latino people you see, will be mowing the grass or cleaning the dorms. There is no shame in this work, but I think it says a lot about our school that this is where the majority of black people are concentrated.” Mejia also mentioned the ongoing problems with recruitment of disadvantaged students, saying that the conversation around diversity and admissions on campus needs to change.

Finally, Shultes explored the “crisis of control” within the faculty after the 1969 eight-day sit-in in the Swarthmore admissions office. Jumping off where Mejia had left off, Shultes offered a theory as to why it took 45 years for the Black Liberation archive project to take place. She shared that when she began her research, she did not expect to find an answer: “forgetting is kind of a passive act,” she said. However, after Shultes studied faculty meeting minutes and Phoenix supplements, she said that “from the time SASS occupied the admissions office, certain members of the faculty were involved in a willing act of erasure.” “The college never forgot the story of SASS’s occupation,” she said. “It just never really told it.”

Shultes spent the majority of her presentation constructing a narrative of the faculty’s actions following the sit-in, drawing primarily on faculty minutes (which are not publicly available). Shultes described faculty actions as willfully obstinate, often ignoring the demands of SASS wholesale.  She also described press coverage of the events of 1969, both in national papers and the Phoenix.

The student panel closed with a short question and answer session. Community members, students, and faculty asked questions about the students’ research and the current state of Swarthmore. Questions ranged from recruitment and matriculation of black students to the research process itself. The Daily Gazette asked the final question of the session, asking the five students if this project changed their perspective on student power on campus.

“I think we gained an appreciation for the need for transparency,” said Anasal. “There are three distinct voices controlling the college policy [students, faculty, and administration] and they’re pretty much separate. Lee agreed that there are three distinct structures within the college, and said their research as a class showed “what was probably the closest these bodies have come [….] in contention to one another.” When it comes to student’s ability to affect change on campus, said Lee, it seems as though no student group has returned to the power SASS held in 1969.

Mejia said this project made her realize that there is an “overemphasis on student power” on campus. “It took Swarthmore college 100 years […] to admit 28 black students. Between 1964 and 1968, there was an increase, but it still took the college a very very long time. […] There was a sense that the black students had to change that, that it was their responsibility to transform their college. […] I don’t think it’s the students’ responsibility to change, in four years, a college that has not moved forward in one hundred.”

The Black Liberation 1969 Archive is publicly available online.

Featured image courtesy of The Black Liberation 1969 Archive.


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Allison Hrabar

Allison is double major in Political Science (Honors) and Film and Media Studies. When not working for The Daily Gazette, she cajoles people into watching the The Americans (Wednesdays at 10:00p.m. on FX).

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