Brooklyn College students fight for open admissions, Africana Studies

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Timing
Time Period:  
April
1969
to
May
1969
Location and Goals
Country: 
United States
Location City/State/Province: 
Brooklyn, New York
Location Description: 
Brooklyn College
Goals: 
The goal of the campaign was stated in 18 demands. These demands included most importantly the institution of open admissions and an Africana/Black Studies department.
 

The 1960’s saw a surge in activism on college campuses in the United States. One of the fights occurring on college campuses was demands for ethnic studies programs and the admission of more students of color. Brooklyn College students joined this fight in 1969.

In 1968, Brooklyn College’s student body was still 96% white, despite various early affirmative action programs. The faculty was also largely white. The curriculum reflected the homogeneity of the student and faculty body. However, the community surrounding the college in the Midwood neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York was mostly Black and Puerto Rican.

Two Black students, Askia Davis and Orlando Pile felt the college needed to change the racial and ethnic makeup of its student body. They organized the Black League of Afro-American Collegians (BLAC), a group dedicated to supporting and increasing the number of black students at Brooklyn College.

BLAC drafted a list of 18 demands based on the state of the college’s racial affairs. The demands included open admissions, meaning all Black and Puerto Rican high school graduates in the city would be automatically admitted, the hiring of Black and Puerto Rican professors in all divisions of the college, and programs that would be controlled by Black and Puerto Rican faculty and students (essentially an Africana or Black studies program). The demands also included a for-credit course with field work in the surrounding community and a requirement for all students majoring in education to take a class on Black and Puerto Rican studies. The demands reflected a sense of urgency felt by students of color and a dedication to their community. BLAC began to organize with other student groups on campus, most notably the Puerto Rican Alliance and Students for a Democratic Society (SDS).

In April 1969, students interrupted a faculty meeting and took over the microphone. They told the president not to leave and said they wanted their 18 demands formally presented to the administration. Askia Davis, a Brooklyn college student and leader of BLAC, notably declared during the disruption, “Brooklyn College belongs to us, not you!” Despite this, the administration remained steadfast in their decision to not consider the demands.

Student activism and organizing continued throughout April. On 1 May, 150 students from BLAC and the Puerto Rican Alliance, as well as 40 white allies, occupied President Peck’s office. At the time, student representatives and administrators were meeting to discuss some of the issues raised by BLAC and the Puerto Rican Alliance. Students from BLAC presented the demands and remained in the office for a couple of hours, until they were notified that police had been called, when the students left. Some students even spray painted words, such as “power” or “revolution,” in and around the building, and around campus, other students occupied different buildings and set small fires. Before the occupation, students held a rally earlier in the day, declaring “we’re not taking anymore from the president!”

Tensions on campus remained high for the coming weeks. Administrators refused to engage with the students and instead responded by increasing the police presence on campus. The school issued a ban on “congregating in or near buildings, creating loud or excessive noise, or employing, inciting, or encouraging force or violence.” In May, rallies and demonstrations continued all throughout campus, along with acts of minor vandalism. SDS led a mass demonstration of 100 students inside the dean’s office, where several members broke down a dean’s door and wrote their demands on the walls of the office. On 3 May, President Peck warned dissenting students that they could be suspended. On 6 May, students and police came to a standoff when firefighters were trying to enter the building to put out a small fire students started in Boylan Hall. There was slight damage to the building but no injuries. This was the fifth and final in a series of fires set in three campus buildings.

This led to the largest incident of repression from police during this campaign. On 12 May, police forcefully arrested 17 Black and Puerto Rican Brooklyn College students, including Davis and Pile. They raided their homes and acted violently toward the students. Davis stated that one police officer “put a gun to his head.” Later, the court indicted two more students. The court charged all 19 students with inciting arson and riot. The students had to spend four days at Rikers Island, held at a bail of $15,000 each until the courts ordered their bail to be reduced, and US Representative for New York’s 12th District, Shirley Chisholm, raised enough money to pay their bail.

Later, students discovered that the prosecutor's’ information had come to the police through an undercover officer, who posed as a member of BLAC. Ultimately, the court dismissed the charges on the basis that there was not enough evidence for proof, though students did have to serve a brief probationary period.

The Brooklyn College student community came together in support of those arrested. Notably, BLAC and the Puerto Rican Alliance enjoyed strong support from white students on campus. The day after the arrests of students, around 200 fellow students led a rally on campus to support the defendants and to help collect bail. The Kingsman, the college newspaper, published several editorials condemning the administration’s decisions and the police repression on campus. On 14 May, students and faculty even went on strike, demanding that the college remove the police presence on campus, drop the charges against the arrested students, and implement the 18 demands. They picketed that day at three of the main gates to campus. The Ad Hoc Committee of Concerned Faculty called the strike and submitted several demands: for President Peck to use his office to help raise bail and to denounce the arrests, to seek to have charges against the students dropped, and to fulfill the 18 demands submitted by BLAC.

Faced with an enormous amount of pressure from both students and faculty, the administration responded to the demands of the majority on campus. President Peck and the Faculty Council of BC issued a statement urging the Board of Higher Education in New York City to implement open admissions in the fall if possible. By the next academic year, the college established the Afro-American Institute, which later developed into the Africana Studies department. The college also added 15 courses, and the president recommended to the Board of Higher Education in NYC a policy of open admissions for the public colleges and universities, which X eventually instated in 1969.

Research Notes
Sources: 
Biondi, M. (2014). Brooklyn College Belongs to Us: The Transformation of Higher Education in New York City. In Black Revolution on Campus. University of California Press.

Africana Studies Thrives at Brooklyn College. 2014 February 11. Retrieved from https://web.archive.org/web/20170321220909/http://www.brooklyn.cuny.edu/web/news/bcnews/bcnews_140211.php

Clines, F.X. (1969). “Bail is Cut for 17 at BC.” 6 May 1969. The New York Times.

Clines, F.X. (1969). “Open Enrollment is Urged for City U.” 17 May 1969. The New York Times.

Millones, P. (1969). “Some at BC Continue Campus Strife.” 3 May 1969. The New York Times.

Perlmutter, E. (1969). “Students and 50 on the Faculty Walk Out at BC.” 15 May 1969. The New York Times.

Perlmutter, E. (1969). “20 Indicted in BC Arson.” 14 May 1969. The New York Times.

Perlmutter, E. (1969). “100 Students Bar Firemen at BC Blaze.” 7 May 1969. The New York Times.

Schumach, M. (1969). “CCNY Shut Down...Podium at BC Seized.” 23 April 1969. The New York Times.

Schumach, M. (1969). “Vandals Disturb Brooklyn Campus.” 1 May 1969. The New York Times.

Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy: 
Ploy Promrat, 21/03/17