In the early morning of May 3, 1968, approximately 100 African American students entered Northwestern’s business office, chained the doors and posted a sign on the revolving door: “Closed for business ’til racism at NU is ended.”
Prepared to occupy the building at 619 Clark St. until the University met their demands, the students wanted an African American studies course, a black student union and other measures meant “to counteract the physical, emotional and spiritual strains we have been subjugated to,” as they had written in a petition to University administrators nearly two weeks earlier.
Against the backdrop of the civil rights movement, student activism was spreading on college campuses across the country. The takeover occurred less than a month after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. A similar demonstration that same week at Columbia University in New York had turned violent and elevated tensions at Northwestern. Soon after the takeover began, the entrance to the Bursar’s Office filled with hundreds of protesters, onlookers and the media. But the students remained peaceful in their protest as negotiations continued over changes to black student admissions, financial aid, housing, curriculum and other areas.
Thirty-eight hours after the students entered the Bursar’s Office, they reached an agreement with the administration and ended the takeover, ushering in a new era for Northwestern. Considered a turning point in the school’s history, the sit-in helped lead to the creation of the University’s Department of African American Studies, the opening of the Black House and an increase in black student enrollment.
Charla Wilson, the Archivist of the Black Experience for Northwestern Libraries tells the story of the sit-in.
“The takeover of the Bursar’s Office laid the groundwork for all of the changes that have gone forth for African American students here on campus,” says Sonia Waiters ’89, vice president of the Northwestern University Black Alumni Association. “It brought changes that reverberated throughout the Northwestern community.”
Northwestern, in partnership with NUBAA, will commemorate the 50th anniversary of the sit-in with numerous public events on the Evanston campus May 3–4. The commemoration is part of a yearlong celebration at Northwestern that began during Homecoming and Reunion Weekend in 2017 and will conclude in October 2018.
“The commemoration will honor and acknowledge the amazing strength, courage and accomplishments of those students 50 years ago,” says Jeffrey Sterling ’85, NUBAA’s president. “Additionally, there is an opportunity to revisit why it occurred and to analyze the success and ongoing applicability of what they advocated for.”
Sterling will participate in a panel discussion with President Morton Schapiro and sit-in organizers James Turner ’68 MA and Kathryn Ogletree ’71, ’76 PhD. Other events include a processional march past significant campus landmarks, including the former Bursar’s Office (now called the Office of Financial Operations); the Rebecca Crown Center, where participants will pause for a candlelight vigil; and the former and current Black House, which is located at 1914 Sheridan Road.
At the Black House, NUBAA will announce a memorial to be installed after the building undergoes planned renovations. Considered a key outcome of the takeover, the Black House will also feature exhibits from the black archives — a new initiative by Northwestern University Libraries in cooperation with NUBAA to document and celebrate the black experience at Northwestern.
Other highlights will include the premiere of a film documentary and musical and theatrical performances. In addition, NUBAA will honor 50 people who have made a positive impact on the African American community at Northwestern.
“The commemoration is going to be historical and emotional, and not just for the participants or the African American students but for the entire Northwestern community,” says Waiters, who expects many of the sit-in participants to return for the anniversary. “It is meant to be a coming together in celebration of all this University is, can and will be.”