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Completing the Narrative

History class takes a new look at the College’s black activist past as ‘a bulwark against forgetting’

Few incidents in Swarthmore’s history are more storied than the sit-in by 20 determined black students in Parrish Hall early in 1969. During a tense several days, they occupied the admissions office to stress their demands for more black faculty, greater enrollment and support of black students, and the creation of a Black Cultural Center and black studies program. When President Courtney Smith succumbed to a fatal heart attack, the protest ended and the students’ demands were unmet, but the memories of those eight days in January have persisted—in many cases under a cloud of inaccuracies.

Few incidents in Swarthmore’s history are more storied than the sit-in by 20 determined black students in Parrish Hall early in 1969. During a tense several days, they occupied the admissions office to stress their demands for more black faculty, greater enrollment and support of black students, and the creation of a Black Cultural Center and black studies program. When President Courtney Smith succumbed to a fatal heart attack, the protest ended and the students’ demands were unmet, but the memories of those eight days in January have persisted—in many cases under a cloud of inaccuracies.

“The College has, for 45 years, told the story in a distorted way,” according to Professor of History Allison Dorsey. Black Liberation 1969 was “a course designed to tell the story of what really happened. It was past time for the College to do so.”

In 2013, knowing the College was preparing to celebrate its 150th anniversary, Dorsey decided to “strike while the iron was hot.” She asked Maurice Eldridge ’61, vice president of College and community relations, executive assistant to the president, and chair of the sesquicentennial committee, to consider funding a course that would comprehensively explore this distinctive moment in the College’s 20th-century history through the voices of living student activists of the time. His answer, on behalf of the committee, was a full-throated yes.

The one-and-a-half credit fall-semester course required students to conduct and transcribe interviews and produce creative and research projects. Preparation began the previous summer when the research team of John Gagnon ’17, Maria Mejia ’15, and Alison Roseberry-Polier ’14 began collecting documents for a database that would serve as the class resource.

Once fall semester began, the 13 students in Dorsey’s class began adding assets to the database, including 23 group and individual interviews with former faculty and alumni activists. Students transcribed the conversations and placed them alongside video recordings of the live interviews. 

“Each alumni interview is a gem that offers another perspective,” says Nabil Kashyap, the digital librarian who was project manager and lead developer of blacklib1969.swarthmore.edu.

“Clinton’s is interesting in his role as a leader of SASS,” says Kashyap of Clinton Etheridge ’69. Another oral history he finds revealing is that of Thompson Bradley, professor emeritus of Russian, “whose interview brought tears to the eyes of some faculty and staff who heard it,” says Kashyap. “The faculty were very divided [about the student protest], and Bradley describes how some of them would leave a room when Clinton walked in. Some listened, while others shut down the possibility of conversation. It’s important to have that perspective documented.”

Conducting the interviews was a course highlight for Xavier Lee ’17. “Marilyn Allman Maye ’69 was a ball of energy—it was like interviewing a library of knowledge,” he says. His interview with Maye benefited from his prior experience of co-interviewing, with Martin Froga-Silva ’16, Davis Logan ’17, and Noah Morrison ’15, a group of men: Etheridge, Michael Fields ’69, Harold Buchanan ’69, and James White ’73. The older three had been founders of SASS and instrumental in the admissions-office takeover, while White was a later SASS member who was involved in a 1970 takeover of President Robert Cross’ office and a procession to the president’s house. Another pivotal person in the sit-in, Don Mizell ‘71, was unable to attend the group session.

Fields’ critique of Lee’s interviewing technique enabled him to prepare more effective questions for Maye. “He told me to focus on the quality not the quantity of the questions,” Lee says. “The skills I learned will be invaluable for me in the future, especially if I do something with oral history.”

The opportunity to participate in oral history was meaningful for Mejia, who also interviewed Maye. “Meeting people who were there was illuminating and made this course the most memorable I’ve taken,” she says. “I hope the history department keeps incorporating these kinds of courses in the curriculum.” As a result of the experience, Mejia is interested in attending a public-history graduate program.

Maye, who was interviewed individually by Lee and Mejia, participated in a group interview with five of the other women known as the Seven Sisters: Marilyn Holifield ’69, Aundrea White Kelley ’70, Myra Rose ’70, Joyce Frisby Baynes ’68, and Janette Domingo ’70. Bridget Van Gronigen Warren ’70, who lives in Panama, was interviewed separately. The Seven Sisters, so-dubbed by SASS president Sam Shepard ’68, were friends and fellow activists who helped found SASS and participated in the Parrish sit-in.

Maye says of the group interview, conducted by Mejia, Laura Laderman ’15, Hadyn Welch ’15, and Anisa Knox ’15, “It’s refreshing to find young people interested in talking to older people. They were deeply moved by our stories. There were tears in their eyes, and this was deeply affirming for us—that what we were saying was relevant for people who could be our grandchildren. In many ways, the realities of that [1969] situation are so salient today. We were groundbreakers in our families to go to Swarthmore. You wouldn’t think, 45 years later, this would still be a story. Because of inequality, maybe it is more so.”

Giving voice to the sit-in experience was particularly
important to Maye, because she feels the women’s perspective had been left out. “It was a one-dimensional narrative,” she says. “People had no idea of the complexity of who we were and
what our lives were like.” 

The group interview has inspired the Sisters to “dig more deeply into our story,” she says. All Seven Sisters plan to reunite in Panama this summer “to put the pieces together to get a more complete version,” Maye explains.

Though Etheridge had mined his experience in the only written account by a leader of the protest in his 2005 Bulletin article “The Crucible of Character,” he further explored what he calls “one of the most intense periods of my life” by spending two weeks in October as the course’s activist-in-residence, attending the class, meeting with students during office hours, and giving a public talk.

Meeting with the Men of ABLE (Achieving Black and Latino Leaders of Excellence), Etheridge became aware of what he felt was a generational gap.

“I was giving them the larger perspective,” he says. “‘You’re
at one of the greatest liberal arts colleges in America and are getting one of the finest educations possible.’ It’s very easy to get caught up in the emotions of the moment with real or imagined grievances. I probably was that way, too. I’m speaking with hindsight, maturity, a different perspective.”

  The College’s progress in becoming more diverse has been dramatic, Etheridge says.

 “My senior year, there were only 47 black students; now there are more than 100,” he says. “There was only one black faculty member; now there are several. There were no black administrators; now there are a handful, including two vice presidents.  Most remarkably, the incoming Swarthmore president [Valerie Smith] is a black lady, which is almost incomprehensible.”

The course also offered Haydn Welch ’15 the chance to reflect on institutional progress or lack thereof. “As a member of SASS, I talk to a lot of underclassmen about my experience these last four years,” she says. “Diversity continues to be an issue for a lot of us and for faculty. Black studies [a SASS demand in 1969] is still not a department.”

“Still it is heartening to see how much has changed,” Welch says. “It is a totally different world. The risk of being active on campus has decreased dramatically. Swarthmore has changed dramatically, and this course has helped me to see that. There are still some of the same challenges, but it’s a lot easier for black students on this campus than it used to be.”

Welch urges alumni from the sit-in era as well as “anyone who came here after” to explore the extensive course database, blacklib1969.swarthmore.edu. “It’s important to see how this institution has changed for the better and become more diverse,” she says.

Besides the interviews, there are nearly a thousand other items on the database, including a “jukebox” of 25 songs played during the protest era, photos taken during the protest by Buchanan, the admissions report that ignited SASS’ action, FBI records of black students, an interactive map of the sit-in, and an interactive graphic of black enrollment over time.

“If you want to know the how and why of the events that constituted the civil rights movement at Swarthmore College, just look at this rich, deep archive of information,” says Etheridge. “It is the kind of treasure trove someone could write a master’s thesis or Ph.D. dissertation on.”

The database is already a resource for a few courses at other colleges, according to Kashyap, who is speaking about the course this summer at the Keystone Digital Humanities Conference.

“It’s innovative in the way it blends teaching and doing research,” he says. The database, he adds, “was a mindboggling collaborative effort, like trying to build a structure around a rolling snowball.” Dorsey admits that such an undertaking is usually performed over a year—not seven months—by a team of scholars. “It was me, Nabil [Kashyap], Ali [Roseberry-Polier], and the work of our students.” After seeing Swarthmore’s effort, Bryn Mawr and Haverford colleges connected their own databases to form a Tri-Co archive, says Dorsey. 

 “Part of the design and goal, manifest in the database, was to leave this collection of essential documents as a permanent record,” she says. “A more accurate and complete version of the story serves as a bulwark against forgetting, a shield against distortion, and a clarion call to recognize and honor the role these bright, determined, intellectually and politically engaged black students played in transforming Swarthmore College.”   

 

+ WATCH STUDENTS DISCUSS their projects here.  

+To comment on the database, please contact Nabil Kashyap at bl1969@swarthmore.edu.