Claudia Lynn Thomas ’71: Takeover of Main Building, 1969
From October 30 to November 1, 1969,Vassar’s Main Building was taken over and occupied by thirty-four Black female students. Claudia Thomas (’71), then President of the Students’ Afro-American Society, recalls the personalities and circumstances of that critical event in a chapter of her book of memoirs, God Spare Life, published by WME Books (late summer 2006). We are grateful to Dr. Thomas and her publisher for allowing us to include this reflection on an important event in the history of the college in The Vassar Encyclopedia.
TAKEOVER by Dr. Claudia Lynn Thomas, ‘71
In the fall of 1967, I began my freshman year at Vassar College. Vassar’s reputation for academic excellence had attracted me when I applied for admission. When I visited the campus for my interview earlier that year, the beauty of its sprawling, wooded grounds and the splendor of its Gothic architecture had overwhelmed me. Now, I was returning, on a crisp September morning under a cloudless cerulean sky. That morning, the sun cast sharp shadows causing copper leaves to glow. I watched gold and russet sheddings of oaks, elms, and maples scurry out of the path of Daddy’s Buick.
Daddy turned east into Vassar’s main gate, a stone archway connecting two buildings constructed of large granite blocks. The art gallery stood to the right of the archway. The library, a richly embellished rectangular tower with a spired crown, stood to the left. These grand buildings reminded me of The High School of Music and Art, where I had spent the past three years.
An immense brick edifice modeled after a French palace sat several hundred feet inside Vassar’s main gate, at the end of a tree-lined road. It was called Main Building and was as old as the college itself. Most of the seniors lived in Main. No single building was designated for freshmen, however. We were scattered among various dormitories throughout the campus. I had been assigned to Jewett Hall. Each dorm had a “white angel,” a receptionist dressed like a nurse, who sat at its vestibule. The “white angel” received incoming guests and rang telephone calls through to the hallway phones. As soon as I entered my dorm, Jewett’s “white angel” welcomed me with a smile and handed me a key. A sophomore guided my parents and me to my room. Wooden doors topped with transoms dotted the wide corridors. A common bathroom stood at the end of each hall. We located my door. Inside, there were two rooms, one relatively spacious outer room and a much smaller interior room. My guide explained that in past times it was common for a student to be accompanied by her personal servant: the inner room had served as the maid’s quarters. To reach the tiny room, it was necessary to walk through the larger one. My roommate had not yet arrived, and I chose the smaller room because it afforded me more privacy.
The Vassar campus was only seventy-five miles north of New York City, an hour and a half by car. But when my parents waved good-bye and drove off in the Buick, home might as well have been seventy-five thousand miles away. There I was, alone in a dormitory cubicle, facing the first night of my life that I would not sleep under the same roof as my mother and father. This giant step into adulthood terrified me. It was far worse than being abandoned on my first day of kindergarten. I cried myself to sleep.
The novelty of freedom eventually cured my homesick blues. I could do whatever I wanted within the moral boundaries that my parents had implanted, and I could be whomever I chose to be. Long, straight hair was the major component of my makeover. I took the “switch” of my childhood days at Bernice Johnson’s Dance Studio to a new level. I bought a fall, and my hair now cascaded past my shoulders.
Over the summer, I had sold boxes of Christmas cards for a company that paid me with a hair dryer, a sewing machine, and a ten-speed bike. Now, ensconced in my dormitory room – that doubled as a beauty salon – I was able to pick and choose my wardrobe from clothes that were of my own, exotic design. Taking full advantage of my freedom, I rode my bicycle all over Poughkeepsie.
Vassar was rich with formalities. Dresses were required attire for dinner in the individual dormitory dining halls. I dined with solid silver utensils embossed with the VC monogram. Tiny silver spoons were used when students gathered for demitasse, an after dinner tradition designed to promote social interactions among students. There was so much to learn! But my interactions remained limited. I felt silly sipping from that miniature cup. I had little in common with my assigned roommate, who had attended a boarding school in New Jersey, and there were only three other Black students in my dormitory; two sophomores from Arkansas, and a fellow freshman, Sigrid, from the Bronx. Sigrid was a physics major. She and I represented one-third of the Black students in the class of 1971. Of course, we became friends. I also befriended Anne, a New Yorker with long red hair and freckles. Although Black students from other dorms sought me out, I did not initiate alliances with them. My negative junior high school encounters with Black students had haunted me throughout high school and still taunted me now. I knew I was supposed to make Black friends, but in reality, I felt more comfortable around my White friends. No White person had ever made fun of my clothes or threatened to “kick my ass.” The lingering fear that some bully would call me an Uncle Tom kept me timid and detached from most of the Black students on campus. Deep inside, I feared that they could be right. It kept me relatively isolated.
I did venture out into Poughkeepsie’s Black Community by bicycle. Through a Vassar program, I tutored an eleven-year-old boy named Kevin, in reading and math. I had tutored children since I was in elementary school. I can remember one Saturday afternoon during the first semester of my freshman year at Vassar, when I played Frisbee with my pupil on the lawn of the quadrangle in front of Jewett. The game stimulated our appetites, so Kevin and I walked to the college pub where I bought him a hamburger. When we finished our snacks, Kevin and I headed toward the main gate to the library. We sat at a large oak table near a stained glass window. I reached in my tote bag and removed flash cards cut from construction paper, similar to the ones my mother had made when she taught me and my sister back home. Kevin and I began to study math.
After about fifteen minutes, we were approached by a fashionably dressed woman with a sophisticated air. She introduced herself as Frances Loeb, “A friend of your mother’s.” Mrs. Loeb was the trustee responsible for my decision to apply to Vassar College. “I’m thrilled to see you getting on so well,” she said. She told me that she had been observing me for the past few hours. She had also checked my grades at the registrar’s office and commended me on my academic performance. Mrs. Loeb took my pupil and me to the college bookstore and bought us study materials that were more sophisticated than the ones I had fabricated. I was grateful for the new learning tools, as they made my tutoring sessions much more effective.
Many months later, on April 4, 1968, I was sitting in the TV room watching the news with Sigrid and Anne. An abrupt announcement interrupted the TV show. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated! Images of his last moments of life flashed across the screen. No one moved. A stillness fell over the room.
My parents had ensured that I was familiar with the civil rights struggle and the activities of Dr. King. The summer of 1963, our family considered a trip to attend the March on Washington, but my parents’ fear of the violence that might erupt had kept us home. I watched that event on television and was brought to tears when I heard Dr. King speak so eloquently of his dream for racial harmony.
A year later, in July 1964, my mother, sister and I did get to tour Washington, D.C. We traveled by bus with a community organization of girls from the neighborhood. The tour included a visit to the Senate, and it happened to be on a day that their agenda included a pertinent piece of legislation. We sat in the upper level of the Senate chambers – and witnessed the passage of the Civil Rights Act. An ovation erupted throughout the room, and the applause was infectious. As I clapped my hands, I recalled the white porcelain pot that was as much a staple of the family road trips of my youth as was the home-made fried chicken. We had carried both our food and our toilet in the car, because Black people could be refused admission to restaurants and rest rooms at the discretion of an establishment’s proprietor. Dr. King’s dream of racial harmony was materializing. Segregation was outlawed. I knew this meant that Black people would have access to educational, commercial and recreational facilities that had been denied in the past, and I was elated.
“These girls will never forget this day,” my mother said to another parent as we boarded the bus to return to New York. On the way home, we relived the historic moment through news broadcasts until the batteries in my mother’s transistor radio died.
I also knew of Malcolm X. His doctrine of Black Nationalism was the antithesis of Dr. King’s views. Most Blacks I knew had considered Malcolm X’s ideals too radical, until his assassination in 1965. I was startled by his murder, but not surprised. I knew that outspoken Black men had been slaughtered in the Americas since the early days of slavery, and Malcolm X’s name joined a long list of martyrs. But following Malcolm’s death, I was among the many people who slowly began to embrace his words.
Now, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was also gone. I sat between Sigrid and Anne and stared at the television with some degree of disbelief, hoping to hear an announcement that it was all a big mistake and Dr. King lived. But instead, a Black and White epitaph played on a small screen, hardly an adequate tribute to a King. Cool tears etched trails through the fever in my face. I looked at Sigrid. She stared through weeping eyes at the images in front of her. I glanced at Anne. Her eyes were dry and her complexion remained fair, communicating no emotion.
My grief gave in to anger. The realization that “they” had murdered this peace-loving man infuriated me. Dr. King didn’t preach separatism, revolution, or violence. He pleaded for peace, unity, and tolerance. For this, he was killed. It had been four years since the Civil Rights Act had been legislated, and America still was not ready to embrace Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream!
Much of Black America ignited in response to Dr. King’s assassination. While riots broke out in 125 cities, including Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, D.C., Detroit, Chicago and Watts, Dr. King’s death catapulted me into a more progressive state of political consciousness. I evolved from a store-bought-hair-wearing freshman, trying to assimilate into a ninety-eight percent White student body, to an outspoken H. Rapp Brown-quoting sophomore with an Afro. I stopped using chemicals that denatured the protein of my tightly curled strands of hair, rendering them straight. Instead, I allowed my hair to blossom into a large full crown that, rather than hanging down, stood upright on my head. I wore that natural, that bush, that ‘fro with pride and relished the revelation that I was not, had never been, and would never be an Uncle Tom. The awe that I held for Vassar’s rich tradition, scholastic prowess, magnificent grounds and architectural beauty quickly faded. Vassar now symbolized—to me—the evils of a larger, bigoted American society.
Beginning with the class of 1944, Vassar knowingly tolerated Black students in small numbers. Prior to that, there had been a few Vassar students of African ancestry who were so fair they were able to pass for White. When I arrived in 1967, Vassar had only recently started to admit more than one or two Black students to each entering class. The number of Blacks on campus was still pitifully low. At a time when the Black student presence at other Ivy League colleges ranged from five percent to fifteen percent, only thirty-four of the sixteen hundred women at Vassar were Black.
My class of four hundred had the poorest representation: a meager six Black students! On the full-time Vassar faculty there was one lone African-American professor, and she usually walked past most of us with her head down, as if a personal greeting would result in severe consequences. There was no evidence, inside or outside the classrooms, of the contributions of African-Americans. Our history was, in large measure, omitted from the curriculum. When it did appear, it was distorted. A brief sentence or two might be written about slavery, described benignly, as if it had been some type of mutual employment agreement. The African civilizations that predated Europe, and the millions of Africans who perished during the Middle Passage, were not mentioned. At times, I felt invisible.
It was during my sophomore year that a particular incident reinforced my negative opinions of Vassar. Gloria, a Black freshman from Pittsburgh, had come upon her White roommate’s open diary and read was written there. In terms reminiscent of a report on a laboratory animal’s behavior, the roommate had recorded her observations of living with ‘a Black person.’ The diary described Gloria’s stature, girth and other physical characteristics – including her eating habits, sleep patterns and bathing practices. Appalled, Gloria took the issue to her “house fellows,” a professor of religion and his wife. (House fellows resided in each dormitory and were charged with maintaining student residential life in accordance with the educational policy of the college.)
Gloria showed the couple the diary and asked them to find the girl another room. The house fellows excused themselves and retreated to another area of their suite to discuss the matter, while Gloria waited in their parlor. A long, silent hour went by. When the couple returned, they insisted that Gloria was the source of the problem! Gloria was the one moved into a room that was sandwiched between storage areas, on an isolated floor where no other students resided. Her solitary confinement seemed to be punishment for not accepting her ‘experimental’ status.
When I first heard of the incident with Gloria, it made me question my roommate’s thoughts about me. I no longer wanted a White roommate, so I moved into a single room in a different dormitory. I subsequently learned that another professor had responded to Gloria’s incident by stating that Black students were at Vassar to be an “educational experience” for White students. It made me wonder what the faculty thought of me. Later, I found out that my language professor had declared, “Blacks are incapable of learning to speak German” – to a Black student in a German class! I knew then what at least one faculty member thought of me.
After Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, Black students gravitated more and more toward one another. We formed SAS, the Students’ Afro-American Society. Jo, a petite, wiry junior from Chicago with a closely cropped ‘fro was elected president. She was without question the most outspoken person I had ever met. She was well versed in the ideologies of leading Black Nationalists of the era: Malcolm X, Huey Newton and Stokely Carmichael. Black was beautiful, and “Black power” was the cry; “by any means necessary.”
In our SAS meetings, we devised ways to fill the void of Black culture at Vassar. We felt a need to nurture our identity through the establishment of a Black studies program and a Black dormitory. Similar programs and housing arrangements were sprouting up on other ivy league campuses, and we presented our concerns to college administrators. While the college maintained that an all-Black dormitory was out of the question, it conceded that establishing an African-American cultural center that served as a predominantly Black dormitory was feasible. Ironically, no one had objected to the all-White dorms of Vassar’s previous hundred years – the idea of those dorms being ‘segregated’ never crossed anyone’s mind. But with the idea of instituting a Black dorm, the college raised the issue of segregation. To solve the problem, it was agreed that one White student would live in the Black House.
Vassar also supported our request to institute a Black studies program. In the spring of 1969, the college leased a building located in Poughkeepsie’s African-American community, and this became the Urban Center for Black Studies. Students helped with the building’s renovations. I sketched portraits of prominent Blacks in history and hung them on the walls. Classes started in the fall and were held in the evenings so the Poughkeepsie community could audit the courses.
One year after the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Black students at Vassar interviewed candidates for Director of the new Black studies program. We chose Dr. Milfred C. Fierce, a teacher and administrator in the New York City public school system. Dr. Fierce held a PhD in United States History (I later learned that he was engaged to my cousin, Diane). The appointment of Milfred Fierce in July of 1969 doubled the number of African-American full-time faculty at Vassar.
During this time, I participated in the expedition to identify a suitable building on campus for the African-American Cultural Center. We selected Kendrick House, an ivy-covered, three-story, stately stone structure with chimneys rising from its gables. Built in 1929 to house faculty, Kendrick had more recently been converted to the French house, a dormitory for students who were studying French. Its windows were composed of small, leaded glass panes. Inside, like so many of Vassar’s buildings, there was walnut paneling throughout and remote stairwells that led to secluded chambers. Kendrick was located on Raymond Avenue across from Vassar’s main gate, just beyond the formal boundaries of the campus. The rear lawn sloped down to a lake. No longer the French house, it was now the Black house.
The first semester of my junior year, thirty-four Black students and one lone White girl moved into Kendrick House. Earlier that summer, Milfred Fierce had married my cousin, and he and Diane also moved into Kendrick, as house fellows. My roommate, Donna, was a freshman from Philadelphia, whom I had personally recruited. We shared a two-room, second-floor suite with its own private bath room. For the first time since I had enrolled at Vassar, I lived in a dormitory where there was no community bathroom down the hall. It was no longer necessary for me to put on a robe and slippers to brush my teeth, shower or use the toilet.
During the 1960s many Blacks were convinced that it would take an armed revolution to remove inequalities for people of color in the United States of America. As Black students at Vassar, our beliefs were no different. That revolution was coming soon, and we wanted to be prepared. Anival and Carmello, two Black men in their early twenties who were from New York, spent quite a bit of time in Poughkeepsie and became frequent visitors at the Black house. Both had served the U.S. military as paratroopers in Vietnam. They offered to provide combat training to those of us who felt we were true revolutionaries. Anival and Carmello enjoyed being guests at a dormitory filled with African-American females, and beyond our interest in military training, we welcomed an opportunity to mingle with men on an all-girls campus.
For several weeks during the early fall of 1969, a dozen or so of us got out of bed at four in the morning and donned dark sweat suits. We met Anival and Carmello at various pre-designated sites on the thickly wooded campus. They taught us stick fighting, how to jump safely from heights, field maneuvers, and general survival skills. We were training for guerrilla warfare.
One particular memory stands out in my mind. One moonless night, in the pitch darkness, Anival, Carmello, and ten black students crossed a large pasture on the Vassar farm adjacent to the campus. Cautious and tense, we crouched down as we traversed the open meadow. Suddenly, headlights from a distant passing automobile scanned the area. My heart leaped into my throat and I immediately hit the ground in a dead man’s sprawl. I looked around, and all nine of my companions had done the same. The sense of danger from “the enemy” was so real to us that no instructions had been necessary. That’s the last military field trip that I recall and it’s one I can’t forget.
The first Black studies classes were held during the fall of 1969 at the Urban Center for Black Studies. Milfred Fierce had recruited part-time instructors from New York City and the city of Poughkeepsie to teach African and African-American history, literature, art and music, as well as Kiswahili. Most of these faculty members commuted from New York City once a week.
I enrolled in every Black Studies course that was offered. That semester, I started my term as president of the Students’ Afro-American Society. I had been back on campus less than a week and I was chairing my first SAS meeting in Kendrick’s main parlor. Vassar had stepped up its effort to recruit Black students, and in addition to the thirty-two of us who lived in Kendrick, the meeting was attended by six of the nine Black students who lived in campus dorms, and by one who lived off campus.
Earnestine, a resident of Poughkeepsie who was the only person I had ever met who was skinnier than I was, had the floor. “Vassar has never been about Black folk,” she declared. “They’re still tryin’ to figure out what they got themselves into when they let y’all in.”
Earnestine was at least ten years older than the rest of us. It had been two years since she first met a Black student from Vassar named Maybelle, a chance encounter at the Poughkeepsie Five and Dime. Maybelle, originally from Baltimore, was known for her outgoing spirit. After Earnestine recovered from her initial shock of meeting a Black student who attended Vassar, she accepted Maybelle’s invitation to visit Vassar, and began socializing with the Black students on campus on a regular basis. Extremely animated, she talked incessantly and was easy for me to dismiss until I began to listen to the candid wisdom that flowed from her tongue. Extraordinarily spirited and determined to matriculate at Vassar herself, she had just begun her freshman year.
“The problem is,” Gloria responded, “the college is not committed to us or to Black studies. There’s no funding allocated for the program next year.”
“That’s right,” I chimed in. “Also, there’s no degree available in Black studies, so if you want to make it your major, that’s too bad.”
Maybelle, now a senior, stood with her hands on her hips and began to shake her head from side to side. “According to them, ‘Black Studies’ is an experimental program.”
“The whole idea of the Black house is an experiment,” I said. “We don’t even know if we’ll still be in Kendrick a year from now.”
“I’ve already been told that we’re merely guinea pigs,” Gloria followed. “We’re here as a means for the White students to learn about Blacks, totally at our educational and psychological expense. There’s certainly no focus on us getting an education.”
“That’s just why we need more full-time Black faculty here,” I said, pounding my fist on the top of a Louis XIV side table whose delicate legs vibrated under the impact.
“You say that like you think we have some here already,” my roommate, Donna, joked.
We had come to Vassar to receive a quality education, and we felt shortchanged. That spring, Vassar had endorsed the establishment of a Black studies program and a Black house, but the college had not committed to the permanency of either. We decided to schedule a meeting with Vassar administrators to discuss the issues we had raised that night. We composed a list of conditions that Vassar needed to accept in order to support Black students in a predominantly White environment. I drafted and typed the document that we would submit to the college.
Following established guidelines for grievances, six representatives of SAS met with the Dean, the Vice President for Student Affairs, the Vice President for Administration, and Alan Simpson, President of Vassar College, on the morning of Wednesday, October 22, 196 9, in the President’s Conference Room. I handed a letter to President Simpson that listed nine “demands,” challenging Vassar to implement changes that would ensure the Black studies program and improve the quality of Black student life on campus.
We sought accreditation of the Black studies program and a degree that would make it possible for students to declare Black studies as their major. We demanded the designation of annual funding for the program and an increased presence of full-time Black faculty to accommodate the expanded Black studies program. We asked for immediate renovations to the Urban Center, and a bus to transport students to and from the center. We also asked that the “experimental” status of the African-American Cultural Center at Kendrick House be dropped and that permanent Black housing be provided for large numbers of students. We cited statistics – that Blacks made up only forty-two students out of sixteen hundred, a pitiful two percent of the student body. We demanded that the college make an effort to recruit more of us. We petitioned for a Black counselor who would assist students with career placement.
The second page of the document read:
“Until Vassar College makes a commitment to the implementation of these demands, conditions at Vassar will remain unsatisfactory and volatile, not only for those Black students who attend Vassar at the present, but for any potential Black applicants.”
We gave Vassar three business days to comply. We requested receipt of plans for implementation, signatures form the college president and vice presidents, and any other necessary official endorsements by Monday, October 27. The letter was signed, “Black Students of Vassar College.”
Our demands “would be considered” was the first response we received. Silently, we prepared for the alternatives.
A formal response came that afternoon. I received a two-page letter from President Simpson, personally addressed to me. In his reply, President Simpson stated, “Much in your letter is unacceptable in form and substance.” He reiterated the “experimental” status of the Black studies program and the Black house. President Simpson expressed no intention of meeting our deadline, recommending instead that we discuss our issues with the dean, the vice presidents, and various committees. He projected that resolution of these matters would take months.
My nostrils flared as I read President Simpson’s letter of rejection. I snatched the piece of paper off of my desk and flung it onto the floor. Simpson was putting us off. Didn’t he recognize how crucial our issues were? I called an emergency meeting of SAS. The other students were as incensed as I. The consensus was unanimous – President Simpson’s response was not acceptable. We knew we had no choice but to plan a demonstration. In true confrontational mode, we resolved to make something happen. In our favor.
As Gloria and I were the artists in Kendrick, we fashioned a pig from a pillowcase stuffed with rags and fallen leaves. His legs and head were created by tying off the edges of the padded pillowcase with string. I drew in the eyes and a mouth with a magic marker. A tin can served as the pig’s snout. We draped a sign around the pig’s neck, labeled it “THE ADMINISTRATION” and made placards reading, “DOWN WITH THE ADMINISTRATION.”
On the afternoon of Saturday, October 25, 1969, a group of twenty-three Black students peacefully marched the half-mile down Raymond Avenue from the Black house to Alumnae House, brandishing our pig before us.
Alumnae House, a beautiful three-story Tudor-style building built by the College in 1924, sat on a hill overlooking the campus. Double winding stone staircases led to its front door. Between the stairs at their base was a fountain cast of cement in the shape of a scallop shell and embedded in masonry. Plumbing to the fountain had been turned off for years.
The annual Seven Sisters College Conference was taking place inside Alumnae House, which meant that faculty not only from Vassar but from several other women’s colleges in the Northeast would bear witness to the Black students’ protest. Vassar’s administrators had been forewarned about the demonstration. The Dean and a vice president of the college were waiting when we arrived. I recited our nine demands to the small crowd. Gloria and I placed the pig in the fountain’s hemispherical belly. I removed a cigarette lighter from my pocket and set the pig ablaze. The surrounding concrete and stone withstood the flames with dignity.
The administrators looked on in silence. Conference attendees peeked through the windows of the Alumnae House’s grand parlor. Decades later I learned from Glen Johnson, a Vassar faculty member, that one of the onlookers was the newly-appointed president of Mount Holyoke College. He recalled similar demonstrations at Columbia during his recent tenure as dean and shared with Mr. Johnson his regret at not having addressed Black student demands more expeditiously. At Columbia and Cornell, Black students had seized buildings in an attempt to implement demands similar to ours. On other campuses, Black Panther factions had been organized.
As of our deadline, Monday, October 27, 1969, there was still no commitment from the college. Our pig-burning demonstration had failed to prompt President Simpson to sign off on our demands. Our appeals had been made to authorities who did not view our concerns with the same degree of urgency that we did. We decided it was time to escalate our protest. An emergency meeting of SAS was held that evening.
“They don’t give a damn about us.”
“Even when we play by their rules, they ignore us.”
“Yeah, and they’re still ignoring us.”
“We’ll just have to get them to take us seriously.”
“That’ll take something revolutionary.”
“Well, we’re prepared for that!”
“It’s time to do something drastic.”
That night, SAS designated four students as our strategy committee. They would decide what measures were to be taken and present that plan to the Black student body in forty-eight hours. I volunteered but was voted down. The group decided that as president of SAS, I was already at highest risk for any consequences and it would be best if I were not on the strategy committee. Gloria was assigned as the strategy committee mastermind.
Two days later, we met at 11 p.m. in a basement room of Kendrick. Gloria took the floor and announced, “If there’s anyone here who does not wish to participate in whatever plan of action is about to be revealed, you will not be ostracized.” She continued, “We realize that the end result of our actions could be expulsion, and taking such a risk is an individual decision. Those of you not prepared to take this risk will still be able to provide support in many ways.” Gloria paused as she scanned the room. “Anyone who cannot commit to following a plan that is yet unknown, please leave now.”
Five students left the room. Thirty-four remained.
“We’re going to take over the Main building,” Gloria announced.
There was silence. Wide-eyed glances were exchanged throughout the room.
Main was the largest building on campus. It housed the administrative offices, a number of students, and the Co-Op, which was the college store. The mailboxes and campus communication center were also located there. All calls to Vassar came through the switchboard in Main Building. Not even the college president had an outside line. Main was the very heart of Vassar.
When Gloria unrolled a blueprint of Main, I suddenly realized the serious nature of what we were about to undertake. Our goal was to disrupt the entire operations of Vassar College.
“We will occupy only the first floor,” Gloria said. We gathered around the blueprint. Senior dorm rooms, parlors and offices were on the upper levels. Gloria reported, “We’ve studied all the doors with strict attention to what it will take to barricade each one. We’ve arranged for materials to be on site to secure the doors.”
We divided ourselves into three groups. Each group was instructed to meet at a designated location on campus at three o’clock in the morning. We would begin to move in on the building at three-fifteen. We were told that once inside, each group would be responsible for barricading specific doors, using the materials provided by Anival and Carmello ─ the two Vietnam veterans who had instructed us in combat training and who would be assisting us. Collectively, we accepted our assignments and synchronized our watches.
“Wear dark clothes and sneakers,” Gloria instructed. “If you have any canned foods or drinks, bring them with you. There’s no telling how long we’ll be in there. So bring your toothbrush, changes of underwear and any personal supplies you may need. Most important of all, do not tell a soul what’s about to go down. Don’t call your mama, your papa, or your boyfriend in the next few hours.” With this statement, Gloria squinted and looked everyone in the eye.
The college switchboard was in the lobby of the area we planned to seize. An operator was always on duty, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. We would give her the option of staying or leaving, and if she wanted to leave, she would be escorted to the second floor on the elevator. Then, the elevator would be returned to the first floor and locked.
Perhaps because of her Southern charm, Maybelle was assigned to confront the operator and run the switchboard. Maybelle was one of two seniors committed to the takeover. The other was Jettie. Both were slated to graduate in June and had the most to lose if our actions caused us to be expelled. Both aspired to attend graduate school, and harsh disciplinary actions by Vassar administrators would surely crush those dreams. Yet, Maybelle and Jettie took the risks, embraced the struggle and joined our ranks.
Donna and I returned to our room at midnight, still stunned. For a few moments, we sat on the couch together, in silence. I thought of other Black student take-overs that had made the news. A front-page photo of armed Black men at Cornell came to mind. But that was Black men. We were women – the so-called ‘fairer sex’. I considered the tremendous amount of courage and unity it would take to pull this off. No other Seven Sisters school had experienced an occupation by Black students. I resisted the urge to call my mother and forewarn her.
After changing into our navy blue sweat suits, Donna and I gathered cans of deviled ham, tins of sardines, boxes of crackers and bottles of soda that were in our room and began to stuff our backpacks. She had a sleeping bag, which she rolled up to take along. I attempted to get an hour of rest, but sleep was out of the question. Fear of the consequences that could result from tonight’s decision kept me anxious and awake.
At 2:45 a.m. on Thursday, October 30, 1969, Donna and I quietly left Kendrick House, crossed Raymond Avenue and walked through the arched, stone entrance of the college. We diverged without uttering a sound, Donna to the right and I to the left. I walked to my group’s assigned spot under a large oak at the north end of Main Building. Soon, we were a dozen under the tree.
The dimly lit campus was still. I could not see the other two groups in the black of night. We waited. Tension pierced the darkness. At exactly 3:15 a.m., the twelve of us queued up and approached the entrance to Main, single file. The other two groups emerged out of the darkness, softly, silently, until three rows of warriors converged in unison upon Main Building. Anival and Carmello had recruited two friends, and the four men carried large pieces of lumber and rubber hoses.
Damn, we’ve really got this thing together, I thought.
Thirty-four Black female students marched through the enormous double doors of Main Building. Maybelle entered the reception booth to the right of the vestibule and approached the switchboard operator.
“This is a take-over,” Maybelle calmly reported. The operator’s face blanched.
“We’re not going to hurt you. If you’d like, you can leave. Or, you can stay and show us how to use the switchboard.”
“It took me six months to learn how to use this thing,” the operator said. “You’ll never learn it on your own. I’ll stay and at least show you the basics.” Maybelle sat down with the woman and took instruction.
Gloria and the other members of the SAS strategy committee supervised the securing of all doors. There were two doors on either end of the vestibule that opened outward. Jettie and Earnestine jammed eight-foot-long wooden boards into their large spring latches to prevent entry. My job was to secure a set of double doors at the center of the lobby that led to the Co-Op in the rear of the building. These doors opened inward, with a C-shaped handle projecting from the inner edge of each door. With Anival’s assistance, I slid a wooden slat through the handles and bound it with rubber hoses wrapped tightly in a figure-of-eight. Next, we pounded nails into boards across two stairwell exit doors and shoved a vending machine in front of each. Gloria locked the elevator on the ground floor.
It took thirty minutes to fortify the interior. The men wished us well and left. We barricaded the two front doors behind them by nailing two-by-fours into the solid cherry wood. The quick penetration of each nail made that beautiful, aged wood moan as if in pain.
The lobby of Main Building was now officially occupied. We settled in and waited. I sat on the floor against a wall, my head resting on bent knees. Maybe, I thought, I can get a few winks.
By six in the morning, most of us were awake and apprehensive, awaiting the repercussions of our actions. Maybelle had mastered the switchboard within two hours and Gloria had escorted the operator into the elevator, letting her out on the second floor. The operator left the building by a stairwell that bypassed the occupied area and led to the outside.
At 6:05 a.m., the first call of the day came in. It was Glen Johnson, assistant professor of political science and assistant to President Alan Simpson. He had witnessed the Black students’ pig-burning demonstration through the windows of Alumnae House, and now he was about to witness our take over of Main building.
“Yes?” Maybelle answered the switchboard.
“Could you put me through to the president’s house?”
“Mr. Johnson, is that you?” Maybelle asked. She had taken Glen Johnson’s political science course.
There was a pause on the other end of the line. “Maybelle?” Mr. Johnson said, curiosity in his voice.
As Mr. Johnson struggled to understand the implications of Maybelle’s familiar voice on the telephone, Maybelle put the call through – and listened.
“Hello?” President Simpson answered. His voice was husky with sleep.
“Good morning, Dr. Simpson,” Mr. Johnson started. “I’ve just learned there’s been a student take-over of Main Building.”
“What?” The president’s voice was shrill with disbelief. “Main? Main?” echoed again and again, through the telephone. “Is this some kind of prank?” It was, after all, nearly Halloween.
“No, I’m afraid it’s not,” Glen Johnson answered. “Students have occupied the Main Building.”
“The Black students. I suppose they feel the college hasn’t taken their demands seriously.”
“Why, that’s absurd!” Dr. Simpson declared. “I will not make any decisions under duress!”
Word of Dr. Simpson’s retort spread quickly among us. Donna quipped, “Yeah, it’s 6 a.m. I’m sure he’s really under du-ressed.” Donna’s humor was unflappable, even in the face of adversity.
Students and early morning employees began arriving at the entrance to Main Building around 7 a.m., to find the doors barricaded. News of the takeover traveled rapidly throughout the campus. Milfred and Diane Fierce learned about it by word of mouth. Calls came in and out, and Maybelle was privy to the content of all the conversations. President Simpson put a call through to the chairman of the board of trustees, but she was in London and unavailable. He called the board’s vice-chairman, Orville H. Schell, Jr., a prominent Wall Street attorney. Dr. Simpson briefed him on the situation. An emergency meeting of Vassar’s board of trustees was called. The board of trustees was Vassar’s most powerful governing body composed of alumnae, benefactors and President Simpson. For the first time, we would have the opportunity to discuss our concerns with the trustees.
Soon, the media called, and then parents started telephoning the campus. Some parents responded with anger and chastisement. With Maybelle’s help, I called my mother. She’d heard about the takeover that morning on CBS radio in New York. Her first impulse had been to get to Poughkeepsie immediately. She had packed a bag, but changed her mind after consulting her minister. He pointed out that it might be embarrassing to the Black student president for her mother to be waiting outside of the building.
“If anyone has to go, I’ll go,” he offered.
My mother had then resisted the urge to call. When I called her, she was very happy to hear from me. I reassured her that I was in no danger. “You have my full support,” she assured me. My mother believed in activism, and, when necessary, civil disobedience. “Any leader worth his salt has spent time in jail,” she told me, with conviction. As noble as this sounded, I hoped I wouldn’t join the list.
Throughout the morning and afternoon, we received calls of encouragement – and calls filled with hate. Members of the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan sent their “regards.” That first day, Black students who had elected not to participate in our action addressed the press, recruited food and blankets for our use, and kept us informed through a front window. They warned us to limit our appearances at the windows, because FBI agents posing as students were trying to get our photos.
Black students on the outside helped represent our cause to the college.. Unable to meet with those of us sequestered inside, Orville Schell met with the Black students who remained outside and conducted negotiations on behalf of the trustees. Jo, the former president of SAS, now a senior at Vassar, had chosen not to participate in the take-over, which had perplexed me, but her gift for candid oratory was invaluable on the outside. Jo embodied the spirit of unity between Black students inside of Main and those outside. She was our voice.
That night, we shared crackers and canned meat as our group of thirty-four assessed the events of the day. There had been no formal response from Vassar. We carefully weighed information relayed by Jo, and dissected fact from rumor. We offered our speculations and shared our fears. In anticipation of some communication from the college, we planned our response. Giving up was not an option.
The following morning, newspapers throughout the country featured stories about our sit-in. The New York Daily News ran a front-page photo of one of us peering out a window. Shortly after daybreak, I cautiously looked outside and saw an apparition. I rubbed my eyes but the scene was the same. Thirty or so White students sat within the grassy circle in front of Main, some holding placards, all wearing black armbands. They were staging their own sit-in. I looked more closely and recognized members of Vassar’s Student Government Association. Then, I read their signs. They pleaded for the college to grant us amnesty.
We also got support from ministers, elected officials, and other spokesmen from the Poughkeepsie Black community who came onto the campus. These community activists donned black armbands and rallied around our cause, joining the students in the circle. A local African-American physician came to the window and volunteered his services in the event that any of us needed medical attention. We learned that actor Ossie Davis had directed his secretary to call our parents, to console them, and let them know we were all right. His daughter, a sophomore, was one of us – one of the thirty-four who occupied Main Building.
That second day, Orville Schell presided over the emergency meeting of the board of trustees. The board expressed the desire to resolve our issues without the use of force. They committed to the enhancement of the Black studies program. All of our other demands were tabled, but the trustees agreed to negotiate further with the Black students occupying Main. Jo continued a dialogue with Orville Schell and reported to us.
Word of our occupation spread to Poughkeepsie’s sheriff, who plotted an invasion of the Vassar campus designed to drive us out of Main. It was campaign season, and he eagerly sought re-election. A successful raid would surely earn him many right-wing votes. The college administrators learned of the plot, and hastily recruited faculty and other staff to create a human shield at the main gate that would physically barricade entry by the sheriff and his posse. A Vassar trustee alerted Governor Nelson Rockefeller of the sheriff’s plans, and a directive was swiftly communicated from the governor’s office that the sheriff was not to enter the Vassar campus uninvited. That afternoon, supporters from Poughkeepsie passed a basket of fruit and a bouquet of flowers to us through a window.
November 1, 1969 dawned. There was still no full commitment from the college administration. It was Saturday, the third day of our occupation. I was mentally weary and physically disheveled, but I was now an activist and did not complain about the lack of comforts. That morning, a group of White students decided they’d had enough of this sit-in business and attacked the north door. The sudden pounding startled us. The two-by-fours began to give way. We watched the door creep open. Several grasping hands protruded through the opening. High-pitched screams mixed with cries of, “They’re breaking in!” made us all rush to the door to reinforce it. Gloria grabbed a fire extinguisher off the wall and emptied its frothy contents through the crack in the door. The writhing limbs retreated, and the door was once again secured.
Our negotiations with trustees continued through Jo, our envoy. Later that afternoon, we finally heard from President Simpson. He presented us with a settlement document, drafted by the trustees and signed by Orville Schell. It promised that the college would satisfy every one of our demands and that we would be granted amnesty.
With brooms, mops and rags from a utility closet, we scoured the area that had been our residence for the previous three days. We removed the barricades. We checked the floors and walls, and even scrutinized the corners, to make sure everything was left in even better condition than we had found it. Our final task was to extract the nails from Main’s front doors. We pried the nails free and removed the planks, liberating the cherry. The tremendous doors whined as they pivoted on their axes, and the sun’s radiance burst through. Those of us in front, shielded our eyes. Once adapted to the brilliance of the outdoors, thirty-four weary women marched, heads held high, through the wooden portal to the ovation of on-lookers. We left behind an arrangement of daisies on the switchboard operator’s desk, standing tall in a Coca-Cola bottle. For me, I left more than a clean, well-swept area, and a bottle with flowers in it. I left behind nineteen months of anger.
A few days after we relinquished Main Building, Ossie Davis visited the campus, and in his resounding voice, he began, “As a parent of a student here…” He went on to say he applauded the Black students’ passion for effecting change and he encouraged the college to honor its commitment.
Over the months that followed, trustees, faculty and students studied the concerns that had been raised by the sit-in. When Black students were invited to attend a trustee meeting in Manhattan on December 9, 1969, we chose Earnestine as one of our representatives because of her connection to Poughkeepsie’s Black community and her unbridled style of expression. I took the train with her to New York and also addressed the trustees. Orville Schell, President Simpson, and a feisty woman named Sally Catlin, were among the trustees present. Milfred Fierce submitted a comprehensive report on the Black studies program and spoke of the gains that had been made since the Black student sit-in. Earnestine and I emphasized the need to recruit more Black students for admission the following fall and volunteered to be involved in that recruitment.
The board of trustees formed a joint ad hoc committee chaired by Sally Catlin, on the education of minority students. Orville Schell and Alan Simpson sat on the committee. Earnestine and I were among the student members. There was also a White representative from the Student Government Association who had worn a black armband and carried a sign that supported us during the sit-in. Milfred Fierce was one of five faculty members. Trustees, faculty, and students on the committee reviewed Vassar’s policies for the education of Black students and drafted a proposal for change. (Perhaps inspired by our sit-in, Orville Schell helped organize a demonstration to protest the United States presence in Cambodia and was one of one thousand lawyers who marched on Washington against that war, May 20, 1970.)
One year following the take-over, the ad hoc committee submitted the Catlin Report to the college. This document affirmed the right of each student to seek and develop her own cultural identify. It stated that “effective education for more minority students is a matter of national urgency.” The report mandated that priority be given to issues involving African-American students. Goals were set to increase Black representation among students, faculty, staff, administrators and trustees, and to allocate a larger proportion of financial aid to Black students.
The Catlin Report supported our demand for the highest academic standards for the Black studies program. One of the report’s stipulations was the appointment of a nucleus of qualified full-time Black studies faculty. The report insisted that separate housing be open to Black students coming to Vassar, that an African-American Cultural Center exist and that the Urban Center for Black Studies remain part of the Black studies academic program. If I had harbored any lingering doubts about the validity of the take-over, they were now erased.
The Black studies program at Vassar College became a model for colleges around the nation. Its faculty included prominent scholars and Dr. Milfred C. Fierce directed the program with a style unique to his sincerity, candor and expectations of students. As students of Black studies, we researched our national and international history. We visited the Institute of the Black World in Atlanta, a leading center for Black studies research. We took field trips to Malcolm X Liberation University in North Carolina, as well as the Black People’s Topographical Research Center in Chicago, a facility dedicated to the critical study of the status of Blacks in America.
My participation in the occupation of Vassar’s Main Building taught me that crucial decisions do not come without risk. Some choices will be unpopular, but they must be based upon personal values and an unwillingness to compromise those values. I had expressed these thoughts in a feature article in The Poughkeepsie Journal on December 7th, 1969. The writer described me as a president of SAS and “leader of the recent sit-in,” but he was mistaken. Each woman who entered that building was equally committed to our common cause. It was an unprecedented display of unity.
In May of 1971, I graduated with honors from Vassar College as a Black studies major. I was on my way to new adventures and new challenges, at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.