Swarthmore Afro-American Student Society fights for greater representation and support services, 1968-1969

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Timing
Time Period:  
October
1968
to
January
1969
Location and Goals
Country: 
United States
Location City/State/Province: 
Swarthmore, Pennsylvania
Location Description: 
Swarthmore College
Goals: 
-Acceptance and enrollment of 10 to 20 “risk” black students and the provision of services for them

-Enrollment of 100 black students within three years and 150 within six years

-Hiring of a black assistant Dean of Admissions and hiring of a black counselor (subject to SASS review)

-Replacement of Dean Hargadon by September 1, 1969

-Faculty and administration form Black Interest Committee to work with SASS

 

The first attempt by an African American to enroll in Swarthmore College was 1905 when the admissions committee mistakenly admitted a light-skinned black student thinking he was white. Upon discovering his race the college withdrew its acceptance. The next attempt was not made until 1932 when a black student from Philadelphia High School applied to Swarthmore College. The admission’s committee decision was that, as a co-educational institution, Swarthmore College was not yet prepared to admit African American students. It was not until the 1960s that black students were admitted to Swarthmore College. Black students enrolled in the 1960s felt largely isolated and invisible to the administration. Policies such as questionnaires asking prospective white students if they were comfortable rooming with a Negro persisted through this era. In addition black students felt powerless to express their views to the administration given the existence of no black administrators and only one black faculty member. The frustration and marginalization of black students prompted the formation of Swarthmore Afro-American Student Society (SASS) in 1965 by black student leader Sam Shepherd. This solely student-run organization began to discuss ways of increasing diversity on Swarthmore’s campus.

1968 marked the beginning of SASS’s organized campaign for greater representation. The incoming freshmen class of fall 1968 contained only eight black students, a significant drop from the nineteen black students admitted in the fall of 1965. This drop in black student admittance had two major results. First, black student leaders began to question Swarthmore’s commitment to black admissions. Second, Dean Fred Hargadon prepared a report on black admissions for the Admissions Policy Committee (APC). This report sparked a chain of events that mobilized SASS members.

On October 1, 1968 Swarthmore College’s student-run newspaper the Phoenix published a letter written by the chairman and vice chairman of SASS, Clinton Etheridge Jr. and Don Mizell, to Dean Hargadon questioning the depth of the administration’s commitment to diversifying Swarthmore College. This letter went unanswered by Hargadon, who instead released his report on black admissions October 10, placing it on general reserve in the College’s library. The black students of Swarthmore soon discovered that the report included personal data on individual black students such as SAT scores, grades, financial aid information, family income, and parents’ occupation. Although no names were given, only forty-seven black students attended Swarthmore College at the time, and thus the worry was that individuals could be identified and potentially embarrassed by the report. The same day as the report’s release Etheridge, as the representative of SASS, called Hargadon and requested that the report be removed form the college’s library and reissued without the personal information. This request was refused, an action that was felt be SASS to be an act of racial insensitivity.

On October 14, Hargadon held a meeting to discuss the report with the college’s black students. Before the meeting commenced Etheridge read a statement on behalf of SASS protesting the report’s invasion of privacy and refusing to cooperate with the APC until the report was withdrawn. Following his statement thirty-five of the forty-five black students present staged a walkout. Following this act of resistance the report was removed from the library for reworking.

On October 16, SASS sent a list of demands on admissions to the APC, which was published in the college’s student-run newspaper, the Phoenix, the same day. These demands called for the increased black representation in both the student body and faculty members. Believing that the administration would largely ignore these demands, a delegation of SASS members presented their demands to the college’s student council who, with a vote of 10 to 1 and 2 abstentions, committed to the endorsement of the demands. This prompted Courtney Smith, the president of the college, to become personally involved in the issue. Smith called for clarification of the demands, but rather than going to SASS, he went instead to the student council president. This treatment of SASS as an illegitimate organization stemmed in part from the prevalent stereotype that they were a militant separatist organization and in part from the lack of black faculty members to act as a liaison to the administration.

On December 18, the administration released a second report on black admissions, once again without consultation of SASS. This prompted SASS to release a new set of demands on December 23. These demands included a call for the acceptance and enrollment of 10 to 20 “risk” black students and the provision of support services for them, the enrollment of 100 black students within three years and 150 within six years, the hiring of a black assistant dean of admissions and a black counselor, both subject to SASS review, and finally the replacement of Dean Hargadon by September 1, 1969. These demands were accompanied by a warning that if they were not accepted by noon on Tuesday January 7, 1969, SASS would be forced to do whatever necessary to ensure the demands were implemented.

On December 31, Smith distributed the demands and his response to every member of Swarthmore College. Etheridge, having returned early from Christmas break, went to Smith’s office to ask if he might have some extra copies of the statement. Etheridge claimed this was because photocopies at the time were very expensive for a student budget. Smith’s meeting with Etheridge was informal and civil and the two agreed to another meeting with a SASS delegation on January 6, 1969. This second meeting consisted of fifteen SASS members, Smith, and several other administrators. Smith, although expressing sympathy for the underlying causes of their demands, claimed he could not accept the demands as they were in conflict with some of Swarthmore’s basic policies.

So on January 9, two days after the deadline had passed, Clinton Etheridge led a group of twenty black students to the front door of the admissions office. They motioned for the admissions assistant Mary Dye to unlock the front door; when this failed Etheridge went around to the back door. There he was met by Dean Hargadon who requested that the remaining admissions workers be allowed to leave. After this took place, Etheridge proceeded to the front door and let the remaining SASS members in. The group padlocked the doors and covered the windows with black paper and chains. During the course of the takeover the SASS members were joined by twenty more black students. While locked in the admissions office, the students were slipped soap, food, and toilet paper by the black custodial staff.

This takeover sparked a series of meetings of students and faculties. Asmaron Legesse, the sole black faculty member, was appointed as the faculty liaison to the group. The rest of the faculty members adopted several resolutions in support of SASS’s demands, prompting Smith to agree to begin talks with the Board to seriously evaluate the student’s demands. The day following the takeover 500 students boycotted classes in solidarity. Then, the next day, 900 students gathered and voted in support of SASS’s list of demands. Negotiations seemed to be moving toward a resolution when on the eighth day of the takeover, January 16, President Smith suffered a massive heart attack and died.

The students immediately vacated the admissions office in deference to the tragedy, ending the protest. Despite this gesture, a violent backlash ensued against the participants in the takeover. Hate mail and threats of physical violence arrived from outlying areas as well as from some Swarthmore students. Indeed one SASS member recalls fearing the imminent arrival of some members of the on-campus fraternities armed with baseball bats. For their protection, the members of SASS were taken to neighboring black churches, where they continued the talks and reflections that had so far marked their protest. Smith’s death brought the admissions takeover national media coverage.

After the environment had somewhat calmed down, the black students returned to campus and classes recommenced. A liaison committee of administrators and SASS members was formed to address tensions between black students and faculty members. Although none of SASS’s major demands was immediately met several changes took place in the next few years including the creation of a concentration in Black Studies, a Black Cultural Center, gospel choir, two all black a cappella groups, and the increase of diversity in both faculty and the student body.

Research Notes
Influences: 

Similar protests at Brandeis University and San Francisco State influenced this campaign, as did Martin Luther King Jr.’s civil rights campaign in the South (1).

Sources: 
Hou, Linda. "BCC: 40 years supporting diversity on campus." the Phoenix (Swarthmore). (2010): Print.

Troiano, Ashia. "1969: SASS occupies Admissions Office in protest." the Pheonix (Swarthmore). (2009): Print.

Cnaan, Ram. Handbook of community movements and local organizations.. Berlin : Springer, 2008. Print.

United Press International, . "Negro College Student Maintain Two Sit ins." Beaver Country Times 11 Jan 1969, Print.

Associated Press, . "Sit-ins Continue at Swarthmore." Daily Collegia, University Park, Pennsylvania January 15th, 1969, Print.

The Phoenix 1969

“Why We Can’t Wait”- statement issued by SASS during occupation, Swarthmore Archives

The BCC newsletter, Swarthmore, Pa. : Black Cultural Center, Swarthmore College, 1998-

Mizell, Don. "Black at Swarthmore." Swarthmore College. (1969): Print.

Good, Paul. "Requiem for Courtney Smith." Life May 9, 1969, vol. 66, no. 18: Print.

Stapleton, Darwin, and Donna Stapleton. Dignity, discourse, and destiny: the life of Courtney C. Smith. Cranbury, NJ: Associated University Presses, 2004. Print.

Panel Discussion by six participants in campaign at March 2009 Black Alumni Celebration, Swarthmore College, Swarthmore, PA

Additional Notes: 
Many articles written during this time about the SASS’s takeover of the admissions office classify the students as militant separatists, a characterization Etheridge discounts and calls a stereotype. Also, information about the role President Smith’s heart condition played in his heart attack was not released until many years after the incident. Thus, many articles from 1969 blame the members of SASS for being the cause of the president’s heart failure, and untimely death.
Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy: 
Olivia Ensign, 03/11/2010