Through deeper investigation into the firebombing of the President’s office by Nick Haddad ’92 on April 6, 1990, it becomes clear that this act of violence was more than just a reaction to the administration’s inattentiveness to a broad, sweeping movement against the Apartheid regime. The divestment movement had a localized resonance for University activists because they saw racial inequities in their own institution.
In addition to antagonism between protesters and the administration over divestment, which served as the direct catalyst for the firebombing, an accumulation of various racial tensions on campus hovered below the surface of the event.
“A lot of students would come to me during that period to talk, saying that they felt they were being targeted,” said Associate Professor of Religion Emeritus Jerome Long, who was the first Black professor to receive tenure from the University. “They always thought I knew more than I did because I was a tenured Black professor.”
Underlying the divestment movement was a feeling among factions of the African American community that the University exploited their presence on campus for diversity and a progressive branding, but didn’t take their concerns about racial injustices seriously when taken up with the administration.
“Like, being Black students…when we were going to the gym we would get carded twice, and white students could just walk in,” said Sean Sharp ’92 in an interview with Caroline Fox for her 2012 thesis.
Sharp also discussed a story about being pulled over with his friends by a Public Safety officer while they were driving around campus to find their new dorm assignments in the summer before the 1989-90 school year, and being subjected to extensive questioning by the officer. The incident led to an internal investigation of racial harassment within the Office of Public Safety.
“Mr. Sharp felt it just didn’t make sense that the University – often referred to by students and members of the press alike as ‘Diversity University’ – wouldn’t divest completely,” Fox wrote in her thesis.
Kofi Taha, also interviewed for the thesis, echoed this attitude toward the rationale behind the divestment movement.
“I thought that [full divestment] was a responsible thing for Wesleyan to do if it was going to continue to purport the values that it purports and to invite students from diverse backgrounds to be a part of that community,” he said.
And directly before the firebombing, the denial of tenure for African American Studies Professor Jerry Watts sparked controversy around campus. The incident, for activists seeking racial justice on campus, embodied larger problems regarding the lack of African-American professors on campus and underfunded African American Studies program.
For Long, who experienced the intricacies and difficulties of the tenure process firsthand, it wasn’t a surprise at the time that Professor Watts didn’t receive tenure.
“For 40 years, I’ve been discussing the lack of African American faculty for 40 years,” said Long, who in retirement still works on an ad hoc committee to help bring African-American professors to small liberal arts schools such as Wesleyan. “We’ve gotten three or four from my committee, but it took an act of God to get them.”
Long’s work to bring more African-American professors to Wesleyan, which he has been engaged in throughout his time as a professor, shows the mild, incremental improvements that have been made. The lack of African-American professors is just as prevalent of a topic in campus discourse now as it was at the time of the firebombing. Similarly, the inequities raised by student activists such as Taha during the 1989-90 year almost directly parallel the issues raised by the Center for African American Studies Advisory Board in a Letter to the Editor responding to President Michael Roth ’78’s article, which had advocated for a conservative affirmative action program. Along with a host of other articles that raise questions about insufficient funding for African American Studies, it becomes clear that the same issues that were present in the early ’90s still permeate the University’s campus today.
Following the firebombing, gunshots were heard on opposite sides of campus on two separate occasions. Within weeks, the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives appeared on campus, which resulted in more racial tension.
“This federal agency suspected that Black students were involved on campus and went around snooping and blaming Black students for the firebombing,” recalled Professor of History Emeritus Richard Elphick. “The presence of this agency pushed Black students into true paranoia which was understandable.”
A few weeks after the firebombing, another event shook campus. Spray-painted in the basement of Malcolm X house were the phrases “N***** house N***** bombs N***** love N*****s” along with “Fuck Black Bitches,” “The African Damnation,” and “Go Back to Africa.” While some factions on campus thought that Haddad and Taha had put up the graffiti themselves to incite more tensions, most considered the graffiti an act of terrorism against the Black community, possibly by a local KKK group.
“That really put the Black community into utter paranoia,” Elphick said. “I got a phone call one night from a Black student who said, ‘I hear you’re a Christian, I hope you’ll pray for us, we’re absolutely terrified. We won’t leave Malcolm X house.’ They imagined themselves surrounded by the [feds].”
The graffiti, along with issues incited by federal interference, would lead to a hunger strike that marked the final political moment of the year.
The 1989-90 year undoubtedly shares numerous similarities with the current political moment on college campuses. The modern prevalence of speaker protests on college campuses echoes student protests at the beginning of the 1989 academic year against South African parliament member Helen Suzman, who was invited by the University to give a lecture.
“The obvious parallel is to Berkeley protests, speakers who I would abhor, but also the Charles Murray incident at Middlebury,” said Elphick, who helped bring Suzman to campus. “The fact that he was silenced is comparable in my mind to silencing Helen Suzman, who was a distinguished anti-apartheid figure.”
Today, the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, fashioned in the image of Apartheid divestment, rages across college campuses. Consequently, the political climate on campus in relation to the Israel-Palestine conflict seems starkly analogous to the Apartheid movement of the 1989-90 school year as well.
This series set out to profile the extraordinary events of 1989-90, which altered the Wesleyan political tradition, in the hopes of revealing the ahistoricism in mainstream narratives about college campuses, which purport that there is something distinctly extreme about contemporary campus politics. In reality, as the year of the firebombing demonstrates, radicalism has been baked into campus politics for quite some time, and to even greater extremes in past eras. However, this discovery should leave us with a sobering understanding about the stagnancy of political change, perhaps a feeling more disturbing than the narrative that this series set out to unravel initially. Students today are fighting for the same issues that they did 28 years ago, giving the impression that hardly anything has changed.
And yet there is something therapeutic about hearing the stories of the two campus activists behind the firebombing. Despite how outlandish the behavior and radicalism of Kofi Taha and Nick Haddad seems on the surface, a closer inspection into their backstory paints a deeply familiar portrait of the challenges common to most college students. The youthful struggle to grapple with inner identity often manifests in fluctuating, and sometimes radical politics.
Luke Goldstein can be reached at email@example.com.