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A Legacy of Campus Activism Kris Rhim explores the history of student-lead activism at Springfield College.

By Kris Rhim

Across the country in the 1960s, people were challenging the government and demanding change like never before. The Vietnam War dominated the decade, with large anti-war demonstrations versus those of pro war. At the same time, the civil rights movement reached its peak and leaders like Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. were killed.

During this time, young people fearlessly took the figurative baton from their elders and made the fight for equal rights their own.

In 1960, four students at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical University sat in at Woolworth’s in Greensboro and were joined by 300 others after three days. This sparked sit-ins all over the country. In ‘68 there were student takeovers of buildings at Howard University and Columbia University, among others.

Things were changing at Springfield College too. The Birthplace hadn’t had much history when it came to student activism. Martin Luther King was the only relation the school had to the civil rights movement when he spoke at 1964 commencement. It was always known for its strong Physical Education program, and as it is now, a school where almost everyone played a sport.

At the end of the decade, that began to change. Springfield became a school filled with student activism, and protests became the norm. There were two dramatic takeovers of the Administration building, one of Massasoit Hall, and an almost five-day long hunger strike. Close to 70 Springfield College students were arrested because of their protests and the campus was changed forever.

According to the Record-American in Boston, Mass., in February of 1969 there were 1,600 students and 120 faculty on Springfield College’s campus. Sixty of those students were black and three faculty members were black.

Rick Paar, now a professor in the psychology department at Springfield, practically grew up on Alden Street. He was a member of the class of ‘72 and his father was a professor here so he was always around the campus growing up. He played baseball for two years and remembers how racial tension strained relationships with teammates.

“The white community was very conservative on campus,” said Paar. “You would hear them say things like ‘What do they (black people) want!’ ‘They’re here, right?’ ‘Come on cut the s--- out!’ And if you try to have a discussion with somebody (and didn’t agree with their views), it led to ridiculous accusations.”

David Jones, a graduate of ‘73, remembers the strain on his relationship with the black community when he seemed to be too friendly with white people.

“I treated people like they treated me,” Jones said. “A small percentage of blacks were always on the defense and always wanted trouble. You try to talk to these guys and they call you an Uncle Tom or a n-----.”

John Curtis, regarded as one of the greatest receivers in Springfield College history and graduate of ‘71, remembered being filled with excitement to come to Springfield. He had always heard his older brother’s stories about how much fun he had at the Birthplace.

But, when he got here, it wasn’t anything like he expected.

“I was going to this place thinking it was going to be full of nirvana and I get here and I think there may be about 20 people of color on campus,” Curtis remembered. “There were times where I was just lonely socially. I didn’t feel so comfortable going to dances, people were going to bars and I was basically just sitting around.”

By the end of ‘68, Curtis and other students of color got together on campus and decided that this couldn’t go on. They formed the Central Committee of the Black Students and began to write demands.

On February 19, 1969, a group of 30 black students formed outside of then-Springfield College President Wilbert Locklin’s office ready to present those demands. Six leaders from the group of 30 were invited into the office, where the spokesmen read a statement followed by their list of objectives.

“Feeling that the present system of educating at Springfield College does not truly affirm the dignity and integrity of the black man in America, and recognizing the school's philosophy of humanics is nonexistent because it does not deal with the significance of and roles played by our people in this society, we the black students of Springfield College submit the following (9) demands.”

The demands included:

  1. Two hundred or more black students enrolled in the incoming freshman class of 1973
  2. A black man in the administration office immediately for year-round recruitment of black students
  3. Scholarships set aside for black students
  4. A day set aside during freshman orientation week sponsored by black students
  5. More black faculty, coaches included, as members of the teaching staff
  6. Establishment of a Black Cultural Center
  7. The establishment of a black studies program
  8. Black representatives on the board of Trustees
  9. The Central Committee of the Black Students must be consulted and must give their approval on these demands before any action takes place.

The demands came with a warning that if they weren’t acknowledged to the group’s satisfaction within 48 hours, then the students would respond with “positive action.”

Locklin called a meeting of faculty that same day at 4 p.m., where they talked about the demands presented by the students. The following day, in a six-page statement, Locklin said he would consider two of the nine demands made by students. And until further negotiating, he rejected the other seven demands, calling some of them “unrealistic.”

The demands that would be considered were:

  1. Black students participating in a special orientation day
  2. That a black cultural center be established.

The president ensured that the Freshman Orientation Committee would look further into the first demand and ask for more information on the second, as they weren’t fully sure what students meant by a Black Cultural Center.

On the final page of Locklin’s statement, he warned students of the consequences if this “positive action” was harmful in any way.

“There is no room for lawlessness and disorder in an academic community. I am sensitive to the threat of positive action in the event the response does not meet with the approval of those who called on me. Specifically, we would view an effort to disrupt any part of the education process, including co-curricular campus events, to be prejudicial to the welfare and students of the College.”

He continued by saying that he informed the dean of students to follow the disciplinary actions as needed.

Locklin began working on these demands and met with multiple black students on the specifics. He even told the students at one point that none of their demands were unreasonable (going back on his original statement of them being unrealistic).

Locklin wasn’t moving fast enough for the students though, and on May 10, 1969, they presented another list of demands to him. The first eight demands were roughly the same as those presented in February, but the last three were different:

  • Demands are to be signed no later than 4 p.m. Monday, May 12, 1969
  • No disciplinary measures will be taken against any black student who is taking part in positive action- as determined by us in getting these demands
  • We demand immediate ratification of all demands as stated with our approval

Below the demands was a section for Locklin to sign, a member of the faculty, and a black student witness to sign.

Locklin responded to those demands with a statement in which he pointed out the steps the administration and faculty had been taking to meet the demands of the students. The admissions office closing date was extended to allow more qualified black students to be accepted next fall. He also said that scholarships and financial aid were made available for these students, that black faculty were recruited, and black students were invited by white students to work with the Freshman Committee.

He ended the statement by saying, “The eleven demands handed me on May 10, 1969 will not be signed by the President. However, I will continue to work on the nine demands presented me in February.”

Dean of Students John J Costello released a statement warning the students, “Let it be clearly understood that any act of violence or intimidation on the part of any group of students whether it be those disseminating or those who are entering with the process of dissent will result in immediate disciplinary action.”

On Monday, May 12, students John C. Briggs, Brad Gough, Steve Goldberg, and Larry Libow demanded that the faculty support the demands of the black students, and that Locklin sign them. The following day, the president and faculty members rejected the 11 demands, voting 83 nay, 23 yea.

Later that night, the black students had a meeting on the eighth floor of International Hall where they discussed what their next move would be. This meeting got very heated and confrontational, and Curtis became the target of a lot of the anger, as he was being accused of betrayal after he was seen talking to Locklin.

“One kid I went to grammar school with in Newark said, ‘John was always an Uncle Tom,’” the standout receiver recalled. “One girl made a (negative) comment about my brother (who died of an aneurysm at 19) After that, I stormed out and almost broke the door, and from that point on I just shut my mouth.”

On May 13, at around 10:50 p.m., without Curtis, 25 black students went into the Administration building.

The students entered after being let in by a janitor, chained the doors, and vowed to stay there until the 11 demands were signed. The College initiated court proceedings and called the police, but the students left the building, led by Professor Jesse Parks, before officers arrived. They were charged before the Faculty Hearing Committee.

Paar remembers how that takeover of the Administration Building negatively impacted some of his friends’ opinions on black students.

“I remember a guy who lived right across the hall from me in Massasoit, we would have talks and arguments all the time to try to make him see the light,” Paar said. “Around the time of the administration take over, he said, ‘you almost had me convinced but those n------’ and said some other vile things.”

On June 6, 1969, — Springfield used a trimester system, so classes ended in June — students who occupied the Administration building were placed on strict probation and required to perform 300 hours of non-paid “work service.” Many students didn’t return to the College because of this punishment. A large amount of them worked summer jobs to help afford college, so it was impossible for those students to complete 300 unpaid hours and pay for school.

Later that June, Locklin approved an experimental Black Cultural Center for the upcoming fall semester and a modest room was set aside for this purpose. That ended a year of unprecedented turmoil, but Springfield hadn’t seen the worst of it.

The summer of ‘69 saw Apollo 11 carry three U.S. astronauts to the moon. In August, the Woodstock music festival produced a crowd of half a million people on a dairy farm in Bethel, N.Y. For three days young people coexisted without security, sharing food, shelter and drugs. At a time when the country was so divided this showed that there was still some sort of unity in the country.

The first trimester of the ‘69-’70 school year embodied that unity. There weren’t any protests on campus and with the Black Cultural Center in progress, it looked like the demands would be met after all. By the spring of 1970, however, there wasn’t any significant progress on the other demands and the black students began to wonder when their objectives would be met.

“We were competing in Springfield to have more black studies or black people in school teaching,” Jones said, “and the school wasn’t complicit in even approaching the subject. So in ‘69, the upperclassmen decided to take it (Massasoit Hall) over.”

On the night of March 9, 1970, a few black students began kicking residents out of their rooms, starting with the all-girls third floor.

Paar lived on the fourth floor of Massasoit, and he was having fun in an intense water fight with friends that night, not even realizing what was going on just a floor below.

“We were having fun and then our RA got a phone call that there was a bunch of black boys that were in with the women,” Paar remembered. “The guys basically said, ‘f---- you’ we’re not going anywhere and barricaded themselves in the girl’s room.”

The night went on and more black students flowed into the halls. By the next morning, the entire dorm was taken over by black students. When Paar came back from breakfast to see that the doors of Massasoit were chained and that he could not get into his dorm, rather than being worried, he saw it as a day off.

“I was never one to go to class anyway so we saw this as a two-day vacation,” Parr recalled with a smile. “I remember being around the back of Massasoit yelling up to my room, ‘Don’t touch the White Album!’”

Paar says he didn’t really take the situation all that seriously until unverified rumors began circulating about the students calling in non-Springfield College students with guns.

The group was approached by Locklin and Costello at 8:30 a.m. and asked to leave. The students refused. They were approached two more times that day, before being served a preliminary injunction and temporary restraining order issued by the Supreme Court of Massachusetts.

Jones was one of the students on the inside, but he never felt completely comfortable with what he was doing.

“It was this brotherhood that was really fake because I was in a building with people I didn’t really trust,” he remembered. “We had kids who could barely read and write. They were failing class anyway so what did they have to lose?”

The following day, students were warned that they would be served a contempt citation if they did not leave. None of them left and were each served a citation.

The black students issued a statement explaining their reasoning for taking over Massasoit. The students said that it was because they were disappointed in the handling of the demands made on Feb. 10, 1969, in addition to, a mixture of frustration and fear that overshadowed the everyday lives of black students.

As the days went on, students inside Massasoit Hall were fed by white students on campus, who would pass food through the first floor windows. The feeling inside the building began to change as time passed and people began to panic.

“It wasn’t very upbeat inside,” Jones said. “This one woman was crying because she was half white so she had conflict. She was actually at the window threatening to jump. I felt so bad for her, because it seemed like the world was so black and white at that time, and if you were in the middle, you weren’t accepted in either.”

On the third day, the Springfield Sheriff and his deputies arrived in a chartered bus to take the students into custody. A group of almost 700 students gathered outside of Massasoit to see the 49 black students load the bus. The students were taken to Superior Court and assessed a $50 bail. The bail was covered by outside sources.

At the trial on Mar. 19 all 49 black students were convicted of civil contempt. Forty-seven of the 49 were sentenced to jail time ranging from 20-30 days.

A month later on Apr. 6, 1970, there was a hearing for the students in the Administration Building who were arrested and found guilty for the takeover of Massasoit Hall. A group of 16 mostly white students interrupted these hearings at 12:30 p.m. in protest and ended at 3:30 p.m. when police arrived. All students were arrested plus two others outside when police moved to clear the driveway. They were charged with trespassing and breach of the peace.

Two days later, students set up tents in front of the Administration building around 11 p.m. and spent the night in sleeping bags. The students were protesting disciplinary action against the 49 black students and the arrest of the 18 students who occupied the administration building on April 6.

There was a large poster outside of the tent signed by 70 students that read, “We believe that no college disciplinary action should be taken against the recent occupiers of the Ad building and of Massasoit Hall. Until such time as all disciplinary proceedings are dropped, we the undersigned will protest this injustice by fasting.”

Only six of the original 78 students who began fasting remained when they ended the strike after 115 hours. The students took down their tents and left an epitaph in their place with a quote from Robert Kennedy: “If you make peaceful revolution impossible you make violent revolution inevitable.”

In May of 1970, the administrative staff at the College organized what they called a “Collegium.” The group consisted of 32 Springfield College students, faculty, administrators, trustees, and alumni. The goal of this group was to reevaluate the College’s purposes, goals, and actions.

The Collegium released a statement recommending that the President invite the 19 black students back separately to return in September or December, depending on his judgement. They also recommended that the 19 black students and a representative group of the Springfield College community participate in a workshop to improve black-white relationships on campus.

The establishment of the Collegium, marked the end of arguably the most turbulent years in Springfield College history.

Fifty years since the day 30 students stormed into Locklin’s office, the campus — and America as a whole — hasn’t fixed the problems evident in those original demands. Paar doesn’t think that the campus has grown since then and thinks things may have been done better during his time as a student.

“I think it (Springfield College) pays really good lip service to what it's supposed to do, but actually doing it, not so much,” Paar said. “The idea of humanics is really done from this person to that person. I don't think you can have such a thing as institutional humanics.”

He continued, “I think there was a lot more urgency 47 years ago to get something done and get connection to the community and connect with people like you (people of color). Now it seems to be kind of pawned off to this club will do that and that club will do that.”

Jeannie Marsh, a graduate of the class of ‘73, echoed Paar's feelings.

“Springfield College isn't terribly diverse and never has been terribly diverse,” said Marsh. “In some classes, you walk into there's a sea of white faces. Even if you walk down the street to schools like AIC or Western New England you see more diversity.”

And in 2016, 47 years after those 30 black students presented President Locklin with their list of demands, senior Elijah Ryan walked through campus with a sign that read ‘Springfield College doesn’t care about black people.’ Along with the sign were his list of objectives, which were eerily similar to those of the students in ‘69.

They included a call for the hiring of black and Latino faculty and athletic coaches, enrollment of black and Latino students, and to increase curriculum and course work that integrated black and Latino history.

One excerpt from Ryan’s call for action reads, “The majority of people of color have been conditioned to put our heads down and survive a four-year sentence. Unlike most of our white counterparts, Springfield College is not ‘the time of our lives.’ For many of us who endured the Springfield College experience long enough to graduate, we did so with much suffering. For us ‘proud alumni’ the suffering is over, and the end is here. There’s no strings still attaching us to SC and now we are free. Free to never return to a place that doesn’t care about us.”

The problem of diversity and inclusion at college campuses across America has been around forever and will probably continue to be around forever. While Marsh, Paar, and Ryan’s comments may be true, Springfield College has taken some initiative to try and make the campus a more welcoming and inclusive environment. In 2015 the campus hired Calvin Hill, a black male, as the Vice President of Inclusion and Community Engagement. The College has a class in African American literature, there are black representatives on the board of trustees and any sophomore can run for the student trustee position. Next year, for the first time ever Springfield has made the SAT/ACT test optional for applicants, as a way to increase applicants from low income and urban communities.

Calvin Hill and Felicia Lundquist speak to COMM 482

Hill has taken steps in his four years on Alden Street to make the campus more welcoming and in doing so has met some of the objectives of the students in ‘69 and Ryan in ‘16. Even with the improvements that he has helped the College make, he knows that Springfield is far from where it wants to be.

“We constantly strive to diversify our student population as best as we can, but students have to select us,” Hill said. “What we have seen is that for a host of reasons--possibly our location, possibly our price point--students aren’t selecting us. Ultimately, we want to give anyone that has a desire to come to Springfield College the ability to do so.”

He continued, “I think a student today could write those same nine demands that were written in 1969. Having been in your shoes as a student, I was asking for the exact same things. I think that if an alum from 30 years ago or 40 years ago looked at us today, though, they would say they’re happy, but not satisfied.”

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Kris Rhim
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Photos courtesy of Ryan Duffy and Springfield College Archives

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