MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — It’s one of the most pivotal moments in the University of Minnesota’s history, and you may not even know about it.
It was 1969. Racial unrest and violence were popping up on university campuses all over the country. And a group of African-American students at the University of Minnesota decided they would change the course of history for all students of color at their school.
In honor of Black History Month, Susan-Elizabeth Littlefield reunited some of those students, who have quite a story to tell.
When you think of the Civil Rights Movement, you likely think of the south. But the University of Minnesota had a movement of its own.
Before streaming music, before cell phones, Morrill Hall stood as it does today and 70 students stood.
A half a century later, WCCO invited them back together to tell you their story. The old friends gathered again inside Morrill Hall.
Hattie Webb’s family was the only black family in Hinckley when she was growing up. She says the U wasn’t much more diverse.
“I was the only, I never saw another black student in class,” Webb said.
There were only a few hundred African-American students on campus in the late 60s. Webb wasn’t able to claim her journalism scholarship.
“The registrar told me, ‘Well we don’t have any colored kids in school of journalism, it must be a mistake. You’re supposed to be in general college,” Webb said.
Racial tensions were at a pitch, especially after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King in 1968. Days after, Afro-American Action Committee members united and came up with a list of demands.
They enlisted the help of St. Paul community leader Mahmoud El-Kati. El-Kati reunited with the students.
“Told them whatever the students did, the black community was behind them. That’s what we want the university to know.”
The students presented a list of seven things, like a MLK scholarship for black students, a history department that reflected their heritage and for black students to be represented on student committees.
Former student Dr. John Wright says, “Those seven demands were just as much principals as they were bargaining chips or negotiating principals.”
Marie Braddock Williams says, “We presented the demands and there was no action and then we decide ‘We’re gonna march.’ That was the beginning.”
After nine months of waiting, they decided to takeover Morrill Hall. Barricading the doors, insisting the University President Malcolm Moos meet their requests.
“Part of taking over Morrill Hall was about black students saying we are not going to continue to live on a campus that is exclusionary and racist,” Mary Merrill said.
The National Guard surrounded the building and they stood through the night, including the school’s only black baseball player, Stephen Winfield.
“I remember thinking if I go to practice, what if something happens. I stayed and that was probably the end of my baseball career at the University of Minnesota,” Winfield said.
A sacrifice that was not in vain, nor were the sacrifices of these three. They were all arrested for unlawful assembly.
President Moos agreed to meet their demands, a moment the university historian Ann Pflaum says was pivotal.
“I think the best indication is that after it happened, the vice president for academic affairs said ‘It gave us a needed kick in the pants.’ And I like that quotation,” Pflaum said.
Senior Jennifer Afamefune is part of today’s Black Student Union.
“I’ve had remarks like, ‘You’re here because of affirmative action.’ Sometimes it make you feel like you really have to prove yourself. I got here because of my hard work ethic,” Afamefun said.
While she is still very much the minority, there are now 10 times as many black students as there were in the late 60s, and 20 percent of the student body are people of color. There’s also a thriving African American Studies program Dr.John Wright is part of, and an office for Equity and Diversity has been established.
“People did come before us and they really fought for us to have a voice on campus and to be able to have space to be us and to be free,” Afamefun said.
Proving you don’t need an army, just a few dedicated soldiers, to show your might Muhammad Ali heard about the Morrill Hall takeover and shortly after, came to campus to meet the marchers personally.
During Susan-Elizabeth’s reunion interview, administrators from the U of M came in to shake the hands of the Morrill Hall marchers. Their bold move set in motion other diversity programs like women’s studies, chicano studies and gender studies.