Words, photographs, and videos by Kia Thomas
Featured image courtesy of the CCNY Archives in Cohen Library – photo by Nancy Shia
Fifty years ago, on April 22, 1969, the Black and Puerto Rican Student Community of City College convened in the wee hours of the morning to lock the gates of the South Campus, shutting out students, faculty, and staff with the purpose of eradicating racial disparity at CCNY. The students took over 17 CCNY buildings and effectively shut down the school for two weeks, refusing to relent without the recognition of five demands:
1. A SCHOOL OF BLACK AND PUERTO RICAN STUDIES
2. A FRESHMAN ORIENTATION FOR BLACK AND PUERTO RICAN STUDENTS
3. THAT THE SEEK STUDENTS HAVE A DETERMINING VOICE IN THE SETTING OF GUIDELINES FOR THE SEEK PROGRAM, INCLUDING THE HIRING AND FIRING OF SEEK PERSONNEL
4. THAT THE ACTUAL COMPOSITION OF THE ENTERING FRESHMAN CLASS BE RACIALLY REFLECTIVE OF THE NYC HIGH SCHOOL POPULATION
5. THAT ALL EDUCATION MAJORS BE REQUIRED TO TAKE BLACK AND PUERTO RICAN HISTORY AND THE SPANISH LANGUAGE
The Black Studies program, in conjunction with the Alumni Association, the Black and Puerto Rican Student Community (BPRSC) Association, and the President’s Office organized the “50th Anniversary Celebration of the 1969 Takeover of City College”, which took place from April 16 to the 18. The three-day celebration followed the theme “Remembering Our Past, Continuing Our Legacy.”
April 16: Panel Discussion
The first event was called “The Birth of Area Studies,” a panel discussion between Chris Henry, a CCNY USG Senator for the College of Liberal Arts and senior, Nancy Cardwell, an assistant professor in CCNY’s Early Childhood Education program, Asha Samad, a CCNY Anthropology lecturer associated with the Black Studies program, Center for Worker Education department chair and associate professor Kathlene McDonald, Sarah Muir, chair of the CCNY International Studies Program and Vicki Garavuso, Early Childhood Education director at CWE.
Featured on the panel were two members of the original Committee of Ten and the BPRSC, Charles Powell and Francee Covington.
Dr. Vanessa Valdez, the Black Studies program director at CCNY, moderated the panel.
Almost every panelist had been CUNY students during the 1969 protests. Powell and Covington spoke of the SEEK program in high regard, calling it a “safe haven” for the black and brown students who were admitted to the predominantly white City College through the program. Their foundational experiences and valuable academic exchanges with the faculty and staff at SEEK inspired them to demand black and Puerto Rican studies. Covington said that their experiences at SEEK also inspired them to demand freshman orientation for students of color.
Powell and Cardwell both commented on the politically charged atmosphere of 1969. The Civil Rights Movement in the US was technically over, yet injustice remained and only seemed to intensify. The year before, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated and in response black and brown neighborhoods were rioting.
Powell, who was born in New York, returned from Lincoln University after the assassination to “Harlem on fire.” Having joined the Black Panthers in Philadelphia, Powell was already familiar with the reality of racism and mobilizing for social justice when he became a student at City College. In fact, The Panthers mandated his involvement with the 1969 Takeover.
In this heightened era, many experienced a consciousness shift that allowed them to see the gross injustices they were facing. Along with the 1969 protests, resistance was being seen across the globe. Cardwell, whose mother was a CCNY black studies major, recalled her childhood being defined by these events and the coverage on television about the movement along with the representation of black people in the media becoming “very personal.”
Samad, who attended Hunter College and lived in Harlem during the protests, commented on the stark whiteness of not only CCNY, but CUNY. She went to school with her husband shortly after Hunter College opened its doors to women. Though she was not directly involved with the protests, she recalled the community providing food and laundry for the students occupying the buildings. She also recalled City College’s efforts to create divisions in the student body of color; she said they first threatened to expel the students and everyone involved, then later separated urban studies and designated majors by ethnicity.
April 17: The Commencement Ceremony
The commencement ceremony took place on April 17 in the NAC Ballroom. The room was filled wall to wall with City College alumni, including some of the original members of the Committee of Ten, their families and old peers. Current students, faculty, and staff mingled with each other.
The ceremony was the keynote of the series of events. Attendees danced to oldies and mingled before the speakers began, evoking palpable energy throughout the room. At one point, some alumni got into a circle and began to sing “Power to the People,” chanting “Black power for black people, Puerto Rican power for Puerto Rican people”.
The ceremony began with a call to order and drumming by The Nubian Messengers, followed by an invocation by Reverend Afiya Diane Dawson. A tribute to the ancestors was held and included a libation ceremony by James Small, a CCNY alumni and former black studies professor, a reading of the poem “Tom and Judy” written by Louis Reyes Rivera and a memorial video presentation created by former Bronx Community College professor Khadija DeLocache.
Several New York City public office representatives standing in for people such as Mayor Bill DeBlasio, Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, Community Board 10 (where Charles Powell is the Vice Chair), and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer officially recognized April 22, 2019 as “City College Takeover Day,” “The 50th Anniversary of the 1969 Takeover,” and “Black and Puerto Rican Student Appreciation Day.”
The representatives bestowed honor to those who participated in the protests and acknowledged the alumni as trailblazers who “courageously defended and fought for social and educational justice.”
Ron McGuire, a white student who was expelled for his participation in the 1969 protests and now a pro bono lawyer for CUNY students bringing cases against the University, spoke on his role as a participant and his experiences as a City College student.
McGuire and a group of white students occupied Klapper Hall, which then housed the School of Education, in solidarity with the Black and Puerto Rican student protestors. Since he had already been placed on academic probation, he was expelled for his participation. McGuire recalled telling the hearing board, “If you expel me for this, you’re saying that I am in some way responsible for the events that took place here. There is no greater compliment you can give me.”
He brought attention to the “counterrevolutions” by CUNY in response to not only the 1969 protests, but to University and nationwide protests, such as the demotion of Black Studies from a department to a program, sweeping faculty and staff firings, the closing of an “Afrocentric” daycare housed in Aaron Davis Hall, and the eventual end of open admissions at CUNY. McGuire hoped the losses would be a “wake-up call to the youngbloods.”
Powell and Covington returned for the second day. Alongside them was Tom Soto, a lifelong political activist and member of the Committee of Ten. Soto was visibly moved and became emotional before he began to speak, paying his respects to revolutionaries such as Nat Turner and Toussaint L’Overture.
Powell reminded the audience of the power of the SEEK program, emphasizing its role as a sanctuary for students of color. Coming from public schools that did not believe they had the capacity to learn to a college where it was clear they were unwanted, SEEK provided a place for Powell and his peers to be heard, seen and acknowledged. “There is nothing worse than not being seen,” he said.
Powell shouted out several members of the SEEK faculty and staff, including Allen Ballard, the founding director of the SEEK program.
Covington spoke of the activist roots that lead her to participate in the 1969 Takeover and her “continuum” of fighting for marginalized people.
Arrested at 14 years old for protesting at Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn, Covington was able to grasp the deep-seated inequities people and children of color faced in the United States, especially within the school system. Covington remarked, “We [SEEK students] were thought to be people who didn’t get into city college the normal way because we had some deficiencies. We were graduates of the New York City public school system. We did not leave our homes deficient.”
Powell acknowledged that the work the Committee of Ten did set in motion a series of events, protests and negotiations that led to the instatement of open admissions. After the success of the 1969 protests, he said he and some of the Committee became “takeover specialists,” using similar methods to tackle other social injustices within the community of Harlem.
Powell and Covington both recalled being in the Committee of Ten as grueling, filled with “many sleepless nights and many meetings.”
The political atmosphere of 1969 was incredibly dangerous. Black and brown activists were murdered then framed as criminals or junkies and discredited. This was a method of disrupting the Black Power movement. Many members of the Committee of Ten were under surveillance for years after their participation with the Takeover. Covington told her friends, “If I’m found dead in an alley with a syringe in my arm, you know I was murdered.”
Despite this, the students stayed motivated because they were able to depend on the support of one another. They delegated roles among themselves, from standing at the front lines to prevent angry students from coming over the walls to “squashing any rumors” about the Takeover. Each of them assumed responsibility to make sure their movement had legs to stand on. At the end of the day, they knew they had no other choice but to fight. Covington said, “The reason we were successful is because we did our part by pushing [and] pulling…in 1969 we did our part in kicking down the doors of racism that lead to open admissions.”
Covington gave a suggestion to older revolutionaries who may have less energy than the used to. “I don’t have to be on the front lines, I can write a check. I don’t have to be on the front lines, I can make phone calls. I can support a young person who is trying to make a change.” She said.
Felipe Luciano, a founding member of the New York Chapter of the Young Lords and The Last Poets, spoke on behalf of Henry Arce, a member of the Committee of Ten and president/co-founder of Puerto Ricans Involved Student Action.
Luciano focused on the strides the committee made compared with where CUNY is today, concerned by the “lack of urgency” and “weakened spirit of the new generation.” He encouraged young changemakers to take advice from their elders and open themselves to guidance, saying that young people need a framework for how to resist effectively while staying alive. Reminding the audience of the devastating effects of COINTELPRO and other federally-funded attempts to create divisions within communities of color, Luciano urged students to consider “there was, there is, a plan to kill you.”
“Public schools are the next revolutionary vanguard movement,” said Luciano. With NYC having the most segregated public school system in the United States and recent uproar about the demographics in New York City’s specialized high schools, he urged the audience to protect invisible communities.
“We need to extend the coalition to more people of color,” he said, recognizing that Black and Puerto Rican communities are only a few amongst many who struggle under unjust systems.
Dr. Valdez returned as a speaker for the ceremony. She spoke of her Ivy League experience in higher education and how it contrasted with her own Latinx upbringing. She earned her bachelor’s degree from Yale University, where she was an English major and her doctorate from Vanderbilt University, where she majored in Portuguese and Spanish.
In these spaces, she observed a disturbing “disregard for each other” amongst her well-off, white peers. Valdez described their attitudes as “inhumane” and completely departed from how she had been taught to treat others as a young Latina woman.
At Vanderbilt, Valdez was introduced to Afrolatinx literature for the first time. This, she said, opened her eyes to the erasure that Afrolatinx people have faced throughout the modern history of the Americas.
She contributed our compulsion to make differences between Hispanic and black identity to a legacy of Western antiblackness, racism, and subjugation. “There is no contradiction between Black and Latinx.” Valdez asserted. Her studies inspired her to focus on “combatting the erasure of black Latin Americans.
Valdez wrote Diasporic Blackness: The Life and Times of Arturo Alfonso Schomburg, placing one of the most famous Black collectors and archivists of our generation squarely in the middle of his Latinx heritage without compromising his Blackness.
As the Black Studies program director, Valdez implored the audience to “hold her accountable” for protecting and expanding Black Studies at CCNY. One of her goals is to make Black Studies an academic department again.
Jeanette Adams, a CCNY alumni and former SEEK tutorial coordinator, recited an original poem she wrote as a CCNY student after the assassination of Martin Luther King.
Lumumba Akinwole-Bandele, director of Community Organizing NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, a CCNY alumni and a former CUNY lecturer, came into the world a while after the 1969 Takeover, yet was deeply impacted by the work of the Committee of Ten.
Bandele said he been born into the Black Liberation movement, taking part in political action from an early age. He pointed to a lack of black history education in public schools, both now and then. Bandele said that, in fact, “the education system is almost the same for black and brown students as it was in 1969.”
Bandele stood in direct opposition to fellow speaker Luciano. He countered his generation’s claims that the youth are “lazy and detached,” using the comprehensive, well-organized and youth-led Black Lives Matter movement as an example.
Since the movement does not look the way it used to, older generations may tend to assume young people are not invested in their futures. He gave the audience a link (policy.m4bl.org) to the demands of The Movement of Black Lives as another example, repeating it several times to make sure everyone got it. “Young people put their lives on the line every day,” Bendele said.
He said there has been a radical shift in the way activism addresses the role of leadership, which causes older generations to view them as ineffective. Bendele urged professors and faculty to take accountability for their student’s understanding of the world, saying that young people of color need to know about themselves. “It is a marathon, not a sprint,” he said.
Though Bandele acknowledged that he is not young, working with youth and being a revolutionary from virtually birth helps him identify with their struggle for socioeconomic equality. In his counseling, he tells students that “the hard way is not the right way.”
He commemorated many of his mentors and role models who died of exhaustion due to their relentless yet damaging dedication to social justice. Bandele said, “Caring for yourself, taking care of your health and getting rest, is revolution.”
Sebastian Uchida Chavez, president of CCNY’s chapter of Young Democratic Socialists of America, started off by thanking the Committee of Ten for organizing the Takeover. He said that their efforts made CCNY’s diverse undergraduate student government. “We are walking in the footsteps of giants,” he said.
He apologized for not living up to the standards of social justice that the generations before held for themselves and for the increasing racial disparity in public, specialized, and higher education. He promised to continue the legacy of Chavez, reciting a quote by Salvador Allende, former president of Chile, which read “To be young and not a revolutionary is a biological contradiction.”
April 18: Remembrance Rock
The last day of the events took place on April 18. Friends of the Committee, alumni, former and current faculty and staff walked together from NAC to Remembrance Rock in South Campus. Many speakers from the day before returned to give remarks. On the way, students and faculty joined the walk, some curious about what was going on and some recognizing old friends and colleagues.
The speakers at the walk clearly felt more at liberty to speak their minds about the state of higher education. Before the speeches began, the audience was led in a call-and-response protest chant: THEY SAY GET BACK – WE SAY FIGHT BACK, GET BACK – FIGHT BACK.
A plaque was erected in 1999 to commemorate the events of 1969 that led to City College’s dedication to open admissions. The irony did not go unnoticed by the speakers and participants of the march. They urged students not to be discouraged by setbacks, but invigorated.
“First of all, we didn’t call it a protest. When we took this place, we named it Harlem University and we called it a reclaiming,” James Small clarified for the intimate group.
A 1969 Takeover participant and an imam at the historic Mosque No. 7 in the 1960s, Small was assigned by mosque leaders to help the Committee of Ten execute their reclamation. He was moved to see his peers the day before, strong and continuously fighting, after so many years.
He acknowledged that segregation in New York is almost as bad as it was in the 50s. He pointed to our neighborhoods and disparity in higher education, specifically the differences in what different racial groups study in college. Learning about our history, he says, can erase the mystery of why we are so divided. “Racism, as subtle as it is, is as gross here as it was in Mississippi in the 1940s,” Small said.
Small identified poverty as a central issue, not only during the Takeover but at the root of every social struggle. The Committee and those who participated advocated for the entrance of poor white students into CCNY. He said that poor people are driven to poverty, and do not have sustainable methods of securing food or housing because of their lack of access to education. “You have to fight at the level where people get trained to produce the kind of skills necessary to provide food clothing and shelter for themselves and their families,” Small said.
Small made sure to make a distinction between redistribution and assimilation to capitalism. He reminded the students that the Takeover’s purpose was to make college accessible for people who did not have money. “That has to be part of the message: we didn’t come here to join oppression and the oppressors; we came here to go back and liberate those who are being oppressed,” he said.
Small admitted that the introduction of tuition at CUNY took the struggle right back to where it had started. Regardless, he reminded the youth to stay undeterred and to “fight for the least of us.”
Small emphasized the importance of “remembering,” or the act of placing past struggles and leaders in the context of the present to create a better future.
The next speaker was McGuire, who apologized for taking up space alongside some of the original Committee of Ten and other dedicated students, staff, and faculty of color. Essentially, his role consisted of taking orders from the “heroic” black and brown student leaders.
“I’m here to commemorate, not to celebrate,” McGuire said, reminiscing on an Afrocentric City College during the 70s and 80s filled to the brim with students of color, complete with a progressive Child Development Center. McGuire shed light on the fact that every demand made by the Committee of Ten has been scaled back or completely reversed by City College. He said the assertion that CCNY has a diverse campus needs to be challenged by students, faculty, and staff who are genuinely interested in making radical change at CUNY, as it is less diverse than it was thirty years ago.
Over 40% of the student body was black after the Takeover, and CCNY’s Black Studies department was the largest in the nation. Now, black students comprise 18% of the student body. McGuire acknowledged the statistic as the biggest drop of a Black student body in any of CUNY’s senior colleges. He pointed out that the Black Studies department is now a program.
After the abolishment of remediation and the Black studies department, many black and brown faculty and staff were “purged” from CCNY.
McGuire pointed out Small, who was fired from his position as director of Finley Student Center. Powell, an adjunct professor at the time, was another victim of the firings. Wendy Thornton, interim vice president of Student Affairs, was able to keep the Childcare Development Center alive amidst firings until 2015, when it was closed for renovation. “There are going to be people…who are going to be telling you about all the great things that were won in 1969. You gotta know about all the things that were lost in the 1990s,” McGuire said.
McGuire pushed against the Free Speech Policy put forth by President Vince Bordereau last year that allows faculty moderation and video recording of “controversial” campus events. “In 1962, the NAACP fought the case in the US Supreme Court to say that the state of Alabama could not compel the NAACP to give up its membership list…this free speech policy is unconstitutional,” McGuire said.
“The courts are not on your side. These people did not sue to get open admissions.” McGuire said. “What’s going to make change is you all.”
As Esperanza Martell was introduced, McGuire cheered and said, “She lost her job here!”
A former CCNY professor and mentor Martell was a 23-year old non-matriculated student during the 1969 Takeover. As a Harlem community leader, she took the opportunity to acknowledge those who do the groundwork of social change without any recognition. “We remember leaders, but we don’t remember people who were behind the leaders. We don’t remember how leaders are created. The strike did not come out of thin air like people say,” Martell said.
She recognized those who were not publicly lauded for their efforts and were often the backbones of the movement to get black and brown students into college. It was not only students, but parents, families, and community members. Martell said those people, many of them from nearby Manhattanville Projects, were the ones supporting, feeding, and motivating the participants of the 1969 Takeover as it played out. Why are these vanguards of change pushed to the foreground? Martell said, “Ultimately, because they’re women, and they’re poor working class women.”
She dropped names such as Maria Ortiz, who was behind the name of P.S. 161 Pedro Albizu Campos Elementary School, and Janet Carlson of the Harlem Joint Schools Committee. Martell pointed out the organizing going on at that time made the 1969 Takeover possible. “We cannot forget that we’re linked. When people talk about the enslaved Africans, I always say the only reason I’m alive today is because they had a dream and they organized,” She said.
As a Puerto Rican woman, Martell asserted that her people are constantly being erased from the history of black and brown liberation. She mentioned Evelina Antonetty, the founder of United Bronx Parents, and Antonia Pantja, founder of ASPIRA, as women who made it possible for Puerto Rican students to attend City College. “The educators that were in the streets of our community: they are why I am here today speaking to you. That is the only reason that I’ve had an opportunity. And understand that I graduated from Julia Richmond High School with a fifth grade reading level. Not material for college, but the street taught me how to read and write,” Martell said.
In the eyes of Martell, community organizing inspires and supports university-level politics, not vice versa. She pointed out the whitewashing of social justice. “I’ve worked with folks doing serious work, not at the University, but in our communities. Without community activism, without the unions, without Fight Back, there wouldn’t have been a Takeover,” she said.
Martell encouraged students to wake up to the reality of the movement and consider where it will go once they are gone. “We’ve won many battles, but we’ve lost the war. We didn’t think, ‘fifty years from now, what is this going to look like?’”
Hank Williams, a lecturer at Lehman College and community activist, kept his remarks brief to make time for the people he wanted to hear speak.
A 2002 CCNY alumni, Williams followed in the steps of his father, who graduated in 1952 after coming home disabled from World War II. His father relayed many of his experiences in college to Williams, specifically about the racism he dealt with. “In a lot of the courses he was in, he remembered being told no Black student – they didn’t use the word black – would ever get higher than a C,” he said.
This disturbing legacy at CCNY is one Williams urged the audience to consider. Williams was fired from his 12-year position as a CCNY SEEK counselor last year. He remembered a five-year stretch in which he could count the number of Black men in his classes “on one hand.” Quoting John Henrik Clarke, he said “The use of history is basically to orient you, to remind what has been done and what needs to be done.”
As a graduate of the CUNY Graduate Center, Williams testified to its highly segregated environment and how it remained virtually untouched by the efforts of the community organizers back in the 60s. He said we have to “be honest” about what the 1969 Takeover could not accomplish in its time. “They were able to keep the levers of power and just give us a little bit. That is a piece that still has not been won,” Williams said.
Inez Barron, Council member for the 42nd District of the New York City Council and Chairperson for the Higher Education Committee of the New York City Council, chose to run late for a council meeting in Brooklyn to attend the commemoration.
Although Barron was not a part of the 1969 Takeover, she said she was aware of their actions and supportive of the movement. The students’ tireless efforts from then up until now made an enormous difference in the way this generation regards higher education. “I want to recognize all the speakers who went before me, because they were the ones who had their bodies here on the line. They stayed on the battlefield. They stayed at the position that they had in terms of being able to bring the message to our people,” she said.
Barron said as a councilmember, she has called out CUNY on its failure to hire adequate numbers of black faculty to its colleges and has advocated for the return of a tuition-free city university. She invited the audience to come and speak at a City Hall meeting on April 30, saying “I can fight the battle, but I need people behind me to feed me the information. If I don’t have the information, then I’m just going by what CUNY puts out and not what you know you have experienced.”
She described the insidious, quiet way power structures take away our rights in hopes that we won’t notice or forget. She urged the audience to confront President Bordereau and the Board of Trustees about their grievances with City College and to never doubt the power of the collective. With perseverance, persistence, dedication and arduous work, Barron says that we will be able to regain much of what was lost in the years between 1969 and now. “We have to continue to wage the battle for what we know we are entitled to. We have to reverse the trend,” Barron said.
After the speakers, an open mic was held. Audience members and friends of speakers chimed in with stories of their own experience, how the Takeover affected them, and what they will do to ignite change. Students, alumni, professors, staff (working and fired) and other audience members provided their perspectives on the fight for equality in higher education.
At the end of the Remembrance Rock visit, speakers, alumni and black studies faculty laid their flowers on the 1969 Takeover plaque.
Throughout the three-day commemoration, it was clear that the 1969 Takeover does not exist in a vacuum of time. Student organizations like the YDSA and the “7k or Strike” rank-and-file campaign remind us of that continued momentum.
The dedication of The Committee of Ten and the students who spent two weeks on campus sparked an atmosphere of revolution and passion for social justice that has not stopped, despite frequent setbacks.