The year 1970 was a tumultuous one for the University, and the morning of April 30 was no different. Shortly before 4 a.m., two janitors drinking coffee outside Downey House were startled by the sound of shattering glass. It was the first of three fire bombings that would ignite campus that day.
Less than an hour after the attack at Downey House, which then contained a University bookstore and restaurant, the Music Annex Building at 275 William Street was gutted by fire. While the instruments housed within the Music Annex were safely removed, the building itself was unsalvageable, according to The Wesleyan Argus’ May 1, 1970 issue.
At 5:30 a.m., another fire broke out at the Information Systems Building at 36 Wyllys Avenue. Firefighters were able to remove its contents, but the rear of the building was destroyed. Half an hour later, a “petroleum product in a bottle” was found at an office building at 50 High Street, where it had yet to ignite.
The trio of bombings—and failed fourth attempt—remain unsolved, the perpetrators and reason unknown nearly five decades after the fact. At the time, suspicions lay with the student body; many believed that “the Wesleyan fire-bombings were an inside job,” as one Middletown resident wrote to The Hartford Courant.
Three hundred and eighty students, however, volunteered for fire-watching shifts in the weekend after the bombings, their concern for the campus defying the University’s reputation for militant activism. “Any attack on the college is perceived as a direct attack on us,” Thomas F. Dwyer ’72 and Lewis Rumford III ’72 wrote to The Courant a year later, after a second round of firebombs gutted the Alumni and Development Center and broke a window at Downey House.
Students and faculty also condemned the April 30 attacks the following day at a May Day strike in solidarity with the Black Panthers that included speeches from some of its leaders. Earlier that week, the Freshman Senators had approved a $1,000 donation to the Black Panther Defense Fund, which supported the members of the Panthers then on trial for murder in New Haven.
Yet if the students’ endorsement of the Panthers suggests racial harmony amid political unrest, a New York Times article from Jan. 18, 1970 reveals otherwise. In a controversial piece entitled “Two Nations,” Richard Margolis observed that the relationship between blacks and whites at Wesleyan was so fraught that “Solomon would have been overwhelmed.”
“The blacks have their Ujamaa; the whites have their centuries-old brotherhood of inherited wealth and power,” Margolis wrote, pitting the ostensibly militant black brotherhood against the whites’ efforts to preserve the status quo.
A similar conflict was playing out in the Music Department at the time, where Assistant Professor Clifford Thornton expressed his frustration at the exclusion of jazz and gospel from the curriculum.
“Why don’t you have Black music, it’s the only true American art form [sic],” Thornton asked the administration, according to a 1998 interview with his frequent collaborator and fellow jazz musician Marzette Watts.
After the administration denied his request, citing a lack of funds, Thornton decided to retaliate, Watts recalled. “They blew one of the buildings up, it was never in the papers,” Watts said, adding that he and a number of musicians were then invited to teach as a “quick fix…to cool things down.”
Whether the incident Watts refers to is the Music Annex Building bombing of April 30, 1970 is unclear. However, Thornton was hired in 1969 and seems to have been joined by other jazz musicians as early as 1971, mirroring the series of events that Watts described.
Moreover, Thornton himself reported a visit from the FBI about an explosion at Wesleyan that occurred around the time of the Panthers’ trial in New Haven. “I knew nothing about [the explosion] except what I’d heard,” Thornton recalled. Instead, Thornton suggested to the FBI agents that “a group from the extreme right” could be responsible, protesting the University’s increasing liberalism and the admission of more students of color.
Thus, for at least one of the April 30, 1970 bombings, the cause and culprit are Watts’ word against Thornton’s. And as for the rest of the explosions that rattled campus that morning, we may never know.