Invisible on campus: The history and impact of black activism on campus

| Associate Editor

Invisible on Campus is an investigative series that takes a multifaceted look at the past, present and future of black oppression on campus. In its first installment, we looked at the context and current climate of diversity and inclusion on campus. Today, we look at the history of black student activism, from the 1960s up to the present, through the lens of the numerous Black Manifesto documents produced by student activists.

A note: Candace O’Connor’s history, “Beginning a great work: Washington University in St. Louis, 1853-2003,” and Ralph E. Morrow’s “Washington University in St. Louis: A History” furnished much of the pre-World War II information for this section, Gail Grant’s “At the Elbows of my Elders” the information regarding David Grant and the NAACP lawsuit.


Washington University’s early history with racial integration was a rocky one. In the late 1800s, with the onset of Jim Crow segregation throughout the nation, institutions like Wash. U. that had previously accepted black students, however infrequently, completely barred their doors to them.

The first black student to attend the University was probably Hale G. Parker, a law student in the 1870s, around two decades after the University was founded. He finished one percentage point shy of his exam requirements, denying him a degree—still, Parker passed his bar exam and later became an attorney.

Several more black graduate students passed through Wash. U.’s halls in the late 1800s, but they were the last to do so for more than 50 years. By the early 20th century, the University was actively hiding its previous admittance of black students. In a 1906 letter to a black applicant asking for admittance to the University, white then-chancellor Winfield Scott Chaplin wrote, “I am obliged to state to you that negroes have never been admitted to Washington University, and it would therefore be useless for you to try to make any arrangement to continue your studies here.”

Further, the University wrote in a 1912 census form for the United States Bureau of Education that it was “exclusively for white students,” even though it was more flexible in its admission of Hispanic, Asian and Native American students.

The issue lay mostly dormant, though, until the end of World War II, when the movement to admit black students rose in force through student pressure and a formal lawsuit against the University. Attorneys David Grant, Robert Witherspoon and George L. Vaughn represented the city of St. Louis and the NAACP in a 1945 case that took aim at the University’s distinction between private and public status. The case argued that the school unfairly avoided paying real estate taxes through its tax-exempt, non-profit status, yet remained a private institution in all other respects, allowing it to avoid integration.

The case was unsuccessful, but it did push the University a step closer to desegregating. Then-Chancellor Arthur Holly Compton, a white man, and several deans had been considering the possibility of integration when, in June 1947, a black student was admitted to a postgraduate course, unbeknownst to administrators. More graduate students were admitted in the following years, but it wasn’t until Compton quietly capitulated to public pressure in May 1952, two years before the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision, that the entire university was integrated. That next fall, the incoming freshman class included 24 black students.

Arrest and protest

The first Black Manifesto came in 1968, as part of a series of actions by the newly formed Association of Black Collegians (ABC). The organization, led in part by a black graduate student named Robert Johnson, had tried for the previous year to bring to light issues of black student harassment, segregation among service employees and general ignorance of the black experience. Raw numbers were an issue, too, with the campus’ 119 black students making up just 1.8 percent of the total campus population that fall.

A primary concern—and the one that most directly led to the manifesto—was the harassment of black students. Johnson recounted recently how they were routinely stopped by campus police on their way between the dorms and classes, at which point they were asked to prove their status as students. Police would say that “they had reports of suspicious characters on campus,” Johnson remembered.

Johnson also recalled instances of racial pay discrimination between employees, as well as a strict racial line between employees. Those cleaning on the South 40, Johnson said, were black, while those on the main campus were white. The same division was present among groundskeepers, Johnson said, with crews being segregated by race.

Students also felt that class curriculums often presented a whitewashed view of history. Gail Grant—a black Wash. U. undergraduate and daughter of the same David Grant who fought for integration in the 1940s—remembered students walking out of an undergraduate class titled “From Slavery to Segregation,” due to what she called its “prejudiced viewpoint” against black people. Johnson recalled that similar prejudices appeared in a graduate class on economic forecasting, which ignored the contributions of black slaves to the United States economy.

This everyday tension came to a head in early December 1968, when black graduate student Elbert Walton was arrested for refusing to show a campus police officer his student ID. Walton claimed that because he was on Forsyth Boulevard—not technically University property—the officer, also a black man, had no right to stop him. In a Student Life article published the next day, Walton reported that he had been beaten by the officer, as well as by three other officers who arrived on the scene. The responding officer claimed that Walton struck first. After the altercation, Walton—who later became a lawyer and Missouri state representative—was taken to the campus police station.

When word reached the student body, ABC took direct action. By that afternoon, 30 members of the organization had occupied the campus police station to demand an end to black student harassment and the suspension of the involved officers. The next day, the occupation moved to the accounting offices in Brookings Hall, with the situation garnering attention from local, and later national, news media.

Demands Graph

The Brookings Occupation

Over the course of eight days, ABC continued its sit-in, spoke with administrators, held press conferences and developed its demands—first outlined in a position paper and later incorporated into the more formal Black Manifesto. Jonathan Weaver, a freshman at the time and later the first president of ABC, remembered the sit-in as a collaborative and creative time for the already tight-knit black community at Wash. U.

“We felt that the University needed to make a significant shift and, quite frankly, create a new paradigm for the University,” Weaver said. “And so there was not a lot of disagreement.”

But ABC wasn’t the only group protesting within the halls of Brookings. Members of Students for a Democratic Society were simultaneously speaking out against the ROTC program and the Vietnam War, following the attempted bombing of the campus ROTC building by a student.

Alumni interviewed for this story remembered tension between the two groups. Students for a Democratic Society “organized a protest kind of piggy-backing on our sit-in, and I think we asked them to, you know, respect the fact that we were trying to present our cause,” Johnson said.

The campus at large had mixed reactions. For many white students, it seemed, the struggle for black civil rights engendered sympathy, but they stopped short of direct action. Vietnam was the more pressing issue.

“A lot of people were sympathetic to black students, but if the war was over, it meant that they weren’t going to get drafted or have to do something about it,” Norman Pressman, then a white undergraduate and the editor of Student Life, said. “If a couple of black students were harassed on campus, it was bad, but it didn’t affect them. It had less personal impact.”

Some on campus even attempted to remove the protesters. “We had some fraternity groups…[that] threatened to come in and kick us out by force,” Johnson said.

There were also reports of outsiders trying to gain more information about ABC’s occupation tactics. Student Life reported that St. Louis County police officers impersonated news reporters, and Johnson recounted the discovery that one of the protestors was a U.S. Marshal. The man had dropped his wallet in the bathroom, and Ronald Himes—a high-schooler who played in a youth basketball league coached by Johnson—and his friends found it.

The U.S. Marshal “had been hanging out with us, playing basketball, playing cards. As a matter of fact, he came into Brookings where we were…[and] said he worked at a copy center and he said he could make copies for us,” Johnson said. “So we typed out the [Black Manifesto], gave him the original draft. He took off that evening and came back in the middle of the night, but apparently he had passed it on to whoever he was reporting to.”

Despite these incidents, the occupation continued, and on Dec. 11, ABC issued the first Black Manifesto, a 26-page document outlining the group’s demands and methods by which to implement them. The document began with a simple message: “We must struggle to learn…and learn to struggle.” It stated clearly that black students at Wash. U. had learned that “WE ARE NOT WHITE. WE DON’T WANT TO BE WHITE. WHAT IS GOOD FOR WHITES IS OFTENTIMES WORSE THAN BAD FOR BLACKS.” The document demanded an increase in black student enrollment to 25 percent by 1969, increased (and more effective) financial aid for those students, a black studies area and an end to discriminatory personnel practices.

Administrative response came the next day in the form of a letter from then-Chancellor Thomas H. Eliot. Eliot, who was white, acknowledged the need for improvement and promised action on many of the Manifesto’s demands—a response considered adequate enough by the ABC, which ended the occupation. Johnson later remembered Eliot’s response as “reluctant acceptance.”

“It was getting bad publicity at the time,” Johnson said. “They wanted to end it, but they also knew that we were on the right side of history.”

As a result of the occupation and manifesto, the University agreed to a number of the demands, committing to increase the black student population to 8 percent by the following year, promising further financial aid for black students and creating a black studies program, which later became the African and African-American studies program.

Administration changes hands

Two years after the Brookings demonstrations, the chancellorship shifted from Eliot to one of his vice chancellors, William H. Danforth. Danforth, who is white, had been sympathetic to the movement in ’68 and recalled last semester that there were two schools of thought as to how the University would develop. One was “a sort of black separatism movement, where you try to organize the black students in a separate group. And then the integrationists…wanted black students treated like everybody else,” he said. Danforth counted himself among the second group.

Key black administrators were seeking greater integration as well. Gloria White served as assistant vice chancellor for personnel and affirmative action. Educator John Ervin—namesake of the later Ervin Scholars Program—had been hired as the dean of the School of Continuing Education in 1968, making him the University’s first black dean. Danforth also made James McLeod—then serving as assistant dean of the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences and later as the head of the Ervin program—his assistant in 1974.

Through the work of these administrators and others, the University made further strides toward diversity. The school made some progress in undergraduate enrollment: the national Office of Civil Rights reported in 1976 that Wash. U.’s undergraduate population was 8.2 percent black, placing the University second among a group of 16 top-tier schools, including a number of Ivy League institutions. But the percentage of admitted students to enrolled students had been declining in the previous five years, and, in 1977, that number dropped to 5.9 percent.

Such was the state of University leadership in the 1970s, as the first generation of student activists graduated and a new generation took its place.

1978: The Second Black Manifesto

“We find it necessary in 1978 to reiterate our concerns either because they were not met in the past or because new ones have developed due to lack of attention and action…The same issues still motivate our thoughts and actions,” read the opening of the second Black Manifesto, issued in May of that year. The administrative agreements from 10 years earlier had largely dissolved amid an entrenched status quo, and, according to the new manifesto, progress had been made only due to “mass student action, national political climate and widespread public criticism.”

The spark for this second manifesto was not a campus arrest, but the suggestion that Student Union would cut the Association of Black Students’ (ABS)— the renamed ABC— office space to make room for other student groups. The space had been granted as part of the 1968 manifesto’s demands, which had asked for a permanent space to be used for formal and informal gatherings.

But many of the issues presented in the new manifesto were either the same as those addressed during the winter of 1968 or extensions of them.

A major focus was the black studies program, which students and faculty felt needed departmental status were it to thrive in the coming years. In 1973, the program’s affiliated faculty had sent a letter to the chancellor, asking for such a change so that it could grant faculty tenure. But Danforth and other administrators felt that black studies was too interdisciplinary to warrant the shift to departmental status.

With the second manifesto, ABS also rescinded its initial goal of an undergraduate population that was 25 percent black, instead demanding that enrollment approach the national population’s ratio of 13 percent.

On the administrative side, Danforth read the second manifesto and, in the following September, issued his response, a 226-page document detailing the state of the University’s diversity efforts.

“I don’t think it whitewashed anything,” Danforth said of the document last semester. “But…it didn’t just go around saying, ‘mea culpa,’ because these things were going on all around the United States.”

In the final pages of the report, Danforth called for a council of deans that would “be concerned with minority undergraduate students in and out of the classroom.” This specific council never came to fruition, but Danforth saw the entire process primarily as an educational one which would open channels of communication. Student response to the document, Danforth recalled, was limited. “By the time it was done, there wasn’t a tremendous amount of interest,” he said.

1983: The third Black Manifesto

After the protests in 1968, Robert Johnson continued his studies at Washington University, receiving two Master’s degrees and a Ph.D., and later becoming a faculty member in the black studies program. The third Black Manifesto wrote that he was an “internationally renowned authority on the black family.” In 1983, he was a candidate for a tenure position at the University.

“I got approved at the department level by a review committee,” he recalled. But, when it came time for the higher-ups to have their say, they voted no. Several other faculty members, including another black instructor, Robert Watson, were also denied tenure.

“It’s almost like they were trying to rid the University of those who were activists, critical scholars,” Johnson said of the administration. “Whatever the reasons were, I didn’t consider them valid at that time.”

Johnson appealed for tenure but lost, and in 1984 he left Wash. U. for Grambling State University. (He now teaches at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota.) His story was not the end of the conversation, however: the fight for tenure became the central issue in the third Black Manifesto, which ABS issued in May 1983. Much of the document was comprised of the same demands, research and arguments as the 1978 manifesto. “The point is,” the manifesto stated, “that we have seen a steady erosion of the University’s commitments in all of these areas.”

Undergraduate enrollment had held steady and small. The manifesto reported that 6 percent of Wash. U. undergrads at the time were black.

With regard to the black studies program, little had been done to appease the complaints of the past. Fewer than 10 full-time black faculty members across the University had tenure. Funding was another issue. The manifesto cited a comment by the white dean of Arts & Sciences, Ralph Morrow, who had reportedly written that the University had “the best black studies program [it] could afford.” Black students and faculty called out the comment as evidence of the University’s lack of commitment.

The manifesto stated, “Such a statement can be interpreted as ‘we have enough money to spend millions of dollars on a sports complex, but not enough to grant departmental status to the black studies program.’ There seems to be an attitude underlying the reasons for not granting the program departmental status that implies that the administration feels that the study of African peoples is unimportant in this university.”

Morrow responded in a Student Life article that departmental status should come as a matter of routine, not “as an extraordinary event,” but that he did not personally oppose the proposition. Little came from the manifesto’s demands, and major activism around the issues stayed relatively inert for more than a decade.

Students march on Brookings Hall in 1998 to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the 1968 sit-in. Reverend Jonathan Weaver, the first president of the Association of Black Collegians, as well as Chancellor Mark Wrighton and former chancellor William H. Danforth, spoke to those assembled about the past and future progression of diversity and inclusion on Washington University’s campus.Student Life Archives

Students march on Brookings Hall in 1998 to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the 1968 sit-in. Reverend Jonathan Weaver, the first president of the Association of Black Collegians, as well as Chancellor Mark Wrighton and former chancellor William H. Danforth, spoke to those assembled about the past and future progression of diversity and inclusion on Washington University’s campus.

1998: The fourth Black Manifesto

Anniversaries often provide a chance for reflection, a chance to look back on all the things that have been accomplished or have yet to be. Such was the case in spring 1998, during the celebration of the 30th anniversary of the founding of ABC and the Brookings sit-in.

Reverend Jonathan Weaver, the same young freshman who sat in on planning meetings in the winter of 1968, came to speak at Wash. U. in honor of the occasion, marking his first time visiting campus since he graduated in 1972. During his speech, Weaver noted that, though 30 years had passed, not all that much had changed in the country at large when it came to police brutality, affirmative action and economic disparity.

“Measured against the promise of America,” Weaver said, “we have fallen short in many ways that continue to haunt us, plague us and divide us.”

Chancellor Mark Wrighton, as well as his predecessor, Danforth, were in attendance that day, too. During his speech to the crowd, Wrighton, who is white, emphasized and promised further progress on the issues presented by Weaver and ABS, announcing, “I can tell you the trustees have said to me, ‘more progress, faster,’ and that’s the challenge I accept.”

But even with a mandate from the trustees, Robin Terry, ABS president at the time, found the promise for more progress out of line with the chancellor’s previous actions. A Student Life article at the time quoted Terry worrying, “I’m not sure how Wrighton feels about black issues or concerns.”

On campus, many of ABS’s concerns were still present. Students and faculty still called for departmental status of the African and African-American studies program. The number of black faculty had only increased by marginal amounts. Black enrollment numbers had continued to fluctuate, with occasional spikes and valleys: the incoming class of 1995 was only 3.8 percent black, while the number jumped to 6 percent a year later.

Weaver recalled recently that the students on campus were much the same as when he attended Wash. U. They “were still maintaining a level of activism and concern about the health, the overall health of the University, vis-a-vis diversity in particular,” he said.

Among the undergraduates in the audience for Weaver’s speech were Michelle Purdy, a freshman at the time, and Dawn-Elissa Fischer, a junior. Both were black and actively involved in ABS, Fischer as vice president and Purdy as a general body member.

After coming to Wash. U., Purdy remembered, ABS became a family for her, with Fischer as one of its key leaders. “We felt really included, and we felt really respected and loved,” Purdy said.

The familial aspect was no coincidence. Fischer had enjoyed a similar experience with the organization her freshman year. She chose Wash. U. after visiting and seeing the close community and friendship that ABS provided. She also felt that the University’s programs “seemed very committed to nurturing all students and, of course, recognizing educational disparity and disproportionality and nurturing black students.”

Upon arrival, however, Fischer found the number of black students on campus sobering. Along with ABS, Fischer wanted to insure that the next class of freshman found a more accepting and equal campus community when they arrived.

That commitment carried forward into Purdy’s freshman year, when the 30-year anniversary provided a guide for the ABS’s year-long actions and events. This themed process culminated in the “1998 Action Proposal, Manifesting the Black Manifesto: Using Yesterday’s Vision to Achieve Today’s Goals,” written by ABS leaders including Fischer, Terry, Political Affairs Chair Chandra Williams and others in the group, such as Purdy.

The goal, Purdy recalled, was to “point out everything that had not been done. The idea was to point out, here’s progress or here are changes; here’s what we surmise could aid in continuing that change, continuing that progress.”

The proposal’s highlighted concerns shared a number of similarities with those of the previous manifestos, from undergraduate enrollment and fair practices for employees to an increase in black faculty. It called specifically for an officer in the financial aid office who would address the needs of minority students specifically, a semesterly roundtable on the recruitment of black students and support for other underrepresented groups such as Latinos and Native Americans.

Those actions taken in 1998 would form the basis for future demonstrators, such as the Wash. U. branch of STL Students in Solidarity, an activist group comprising students from schools throughout the city, in 2014.

The new generation

After the 1998 action proposal, another decade and a half passed without new formalized activist writings. But just before the start of the 2014 school year, the death of black teen Michael Brown, shot in Ferguson, Mo. by police officer Darren Wilson, sparked a series of protests on the Danforth Campus.

Brown’s death became part of a rallying cry against police brutality for a new generation of protesters at the University. Following a grand jury non-indictment of Wilson, organized protests on campus began to increase in frequency.

On campus, the percentage of black students in that year’s freshman class had dropped to 4.8 percent, the lowest since 1998, when Wrighton had stood on the steps of Brookings and declared “more progress, faster.”

STL Students in Solidarity became the main organizing body for the bulk of campus protests, teaching students how to protest effectively outside of campus as well as within it. Protesters shut down the intersection of Forsyth and Skinker Boulevards, marched through the Olin Library and led students to the chancellor’s doorstep. These actions culminated with a march on Brookings, where activists handed a list of demands to administrators that looked not unlike those from the past: it asked for improved numbers of people of color on campus, greater awareness of the St. Louis community and a more culturally aware campus.

Reuben Riggs, an organizing member of STL Students in Solidarity and a senior last year, remembered the process of negotiation with the administration as frustrating.

“Wash. U.’s administration was far from hostile,” Riggs, who is black, said. “[We spent] a lot of time preparing for these meetings and doing the research to meet them where they were at…I think that was just a flawed process. So instead of trying to meet them where they were at, we should have been trying to get them to meet us where we were at.”

Wrighton and the white Provost Holden Thorp, who met with the activists about their list of demands, instead recalled that the negotiations were productive. They pointed to a set of initiatives launched this school year, such as an elective course on diversity and inclusion and increased black student enrollment in this year’s freshman class, as tangible by-products of the process.

Looking back at his own campus activist efforts, as well as those of previous groups of students, Riggs noted that the challenges have changed with the years. “The context is completely different,” he said. “The students that wrote the Black Manifesto…there were explicit barriers to black people coming into college. Now a lot of the stuff that we’re fighting against, it’s not as explicit. For people that want to ignore it, it’s easier to rationalize away the issues that are present. We looked to examples from the past, but we were also trying to start a new path.”

Next up in the series, we move on to the present day and examine that increased black student enrollment in the freshman class, as well as recent, ongoing and upcoming efforts to boost that progress.

Additional reporting by Zach Kram.

Read the rest of the “Invisible on Campus” series here.

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