Members of an alumni panel commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Fisk Hall takeover by black students, staff and faculty reflected upon the history and legacy of the watershed event last Friday evening. Participants in the panel—hosted by black student union Ujamaa in Russell House— recounted the events of the takeover, shared old college photos and discussed the experiences of students of color at Wesleyan since the dramatic protest.
The takeover took place on Feb. 21, 1969, when a number of black students, staff and faculty shut down Fisk after University administration denied their request for classes to be cancelled in recognition of the fourth anniversary of Malcolm X’s assassination.
Panel member George Jett ’72, who participated in the takeover, recalled that the events of 1969 materialized through the independent actions of undergraduates.
“As students, we were really off on our own, strategizing,” Jett said. “We did a lot of talking on our own and did a lot of initiatives on our own.”
However, panel member Krishna Winston, dean of Arts and Humanities, also pointed out that a number of faculty members had been supportive of the student efforts. She cited Edgar Beckham, the University’s first black dean for whom Beckham Hall is named, for his role in the takeover.
“When some of the black students came in, he facilitated that: let them into the building, made it clear that there would be no destruction, and made himself responsible if anything went on,” Winston said. “I think that presence of an adult… was extremely constructive because it enabled the participants to not create damage but come up with a clear and coherent statement of what they thought was missing at Wesleyan and what they thought could be done about the situation. “
Jett noted, though, that those involved had not intended to use violence in their protests, looking instead to follow the peaceful methods advocated by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. during the Civil Rights Movement.
“I remember there were some who were concerned with whether or not the police would come, if the administration would decide to get us out of there, which became a bigger issue later,” Jett said. “But I think we felt safe in the community. The thing I remember most about it was just being really hungry.”
Besides Jett and Winston, the panel also included Evans Jacobs ’73, Kevin Strait ’97, Arthur L. Gaither ’75 and Lynne Y. MacFarlane ’75. Many of the panel members had been among the first black students to attend the University.
“Wesleyan started diversifying before other white prestigious liberal arts schools did, and I think they undertook that effort for all the right reasons,” Winston said.
Winston also noted that change and diversification within the University generally marked the period surrounding the Fisk takeover. MacFarlane, for example, was part of the University’s first co-ed class since 1912.
“It was certainly not without turmoil,” Winston said. “It was a huge culture shift for Wesleyan.”
Each member of the panel discussed their background before coming to Wesleyan, explaining how they had become involved in civil rights issues. In an effort to diversify their student body, the University reached out to several students from the inner cities to attend. Still, such efforts occurred within a larger national culture marked by unrest and violence. Jacobs, who had lived in New Haven before coming to Wesleyan, recalled the difficulty that came with being a person of color during this period.
“You could be shot in a riot, there were spontaneous riots all across the country, leaders were being assassinated,” he said. “Looking back on it, these were really dangerous times.”
During the question and answer session following the panel discussion, audience members sought panel members’ advice on how the most of their University experience as students of color. Jett recalled the tight-knit solidarity he felt with his fellow students of color as a powerful, if somewhat limiting, experience.
“Our group kind of bonded together and isolated ourselves, but that’s something I eventually regretted,” Jett said. “I didn’t really get to know the other students at Wesleyan, which was a huge mistake…You should take advantage of all the kinds of minds here at Wesleyan that you can.”
While it became the catalyst for several institutional changes—such as the creation of both Malcolm X House and what would become the Center for African American Studies—the takeover’s impact resonated beyond its own time and place. As one of five black students in his high school, Straight admitted that the protest had played a significant role in his decision to enroll at Wesleyan.
“I was desperately seeking an environment that would at least counter my experience at high school,” he said. “I was transfixed by the premise of Wesleyan as a place that promotes diversity. I think of myself of someone of that mold—someone who has been shaped by the past but also works to create their own context.”