Fifty years ago, Northwestern was forever changed. In an effort to diversify Northwestern’s historically white campus, admissions had begun to recruit more Black students. While fewer than 50 Black students were enrolled in 1966, by 1968, Black student enrollment was up to 160. But even after arriving on campus, Black students found themselves continuing to face an uphill battle. They experienced racial violence and discrimination, and they knew they weren’t receiving adequate resources and support from the University.
After months of one-on-one meetings with administrators failed to bring about real change to the conditions on campus, Black students knew more dramatic action was needed.
“Students were realizing the racial biases that their peers were having, that some of their teachers were having. They started to have to really deal with those issues, so they started to band together,” explained Charla Wilson, the University archivist for the Black experience. “They really built a sense of Black consciousness, of what it meant to be Black in a largely white environment, and how they had to handle those situations. They relied on each other to work through those issues together.”
And together, they enacted change. On May 3, 1968, 100 members of For Members Only (FMO), a Black student group on campus, took over the Bursar’s Office in protest. The takeover lasted 38 hours, and the students used the opportunity to present their concerns directly to administrators.
“Northwestern was wrong to assume that in bringing us here, we would be able to disassociate ourselves from the injustices, sufferings, and mounting frustration of our people,” reads their official statement of demands. “Like them, we, too, are tired of being talked about, and we are weary of talking to people who cannot or refuse to do anything else but talk… These are our demands of the University. We are willing to confer with the administration, but we have no intention of debating or conceding our stand.”
The students demanded that Northwestern enroll more Black students, increase financial aid, create designated Black student housing, build an African American studies curriculum, and desegregate the University’s real estate in Evanston. After eight hours of discussion between the students and administrators, many of these demands were met.
“One thing that's really incredible about the legacy of the takeover is that we can still feel the effects today,” Wilson said. “We still have the department of African American Student Affairs, which has a strong presence on campus. We have the Black House; students continue to fight for issues with the Black House.”
The takeover also gave birth to the University’s Department of African American Studies and initiatives to recruit more inner city Black students and desegregate University property.
To commemorate the takeover’s historic 50th anniversary, FMO and the Northwestern University Black Alumni Association (NUBAA) have planned a series of events throughout the school year, including an upcoming exhibit in Deering Library, guest lectures, and workshops.
FMO President Kasey Brown said the events focus on teaching students about the takeover and its historical context and celebrating Black joy. One of the most popular events so far was a Thanksgiving dinner that featured alumni who participated in the takeover.
“Their stories were so raw and real,” Brown said. “Relating that to my experience now as a Black student, I just had to be grateful for their fight. They were fighting for us, really. We sit in a lot of privilege now as Black students because of them. You just think about how selfless they were to do that. They put everything on the line and they weren’t even fighting for themselves. They were fighting for the students who would come after them.”
Being reminded of the fight of the Black students 50 years ago also calls attention to the ongoing importance of student activism on campus. “Celebrating this anniversary really gives us a greater awareness of our past. It's really amazing how far we've come,” Wilson said. “But it also allows us to reflect on what other changes should be addressed and to really think about any lingering issues.”
For Brown, a senior, this year was the first time she learned about the takeover, thanks to the celebration of its anniversary. “It’s so important to know this history,” she said. “It makes your time here as a student feel so much bigger than you. Knowing where my ancestors came from and the fight they went through keeps me going.”
All photos by James Stouder Sweet, courtesy of the University Archives.