Remembering the Morrill Hall Takeover
Professor Emeritus John Wright participated in a pivotal moment in the U’s history.
Fifty years ago, in January 1969, 70 black students occupied Morrill Hall on the U’s Twin Cities campus to protest institutional racism and the lack of outreach, support, and culturally relevant coursework for students of color.
The takeover, which lasted for 24 hours, was peaceful. And it was powerful, succeeding in changing the campus forever. For one, it spurred the establishment of the U’s African American and Afri-can Studies Department, among the nation’s ﬁrst.
Professor Emeritus John Wright, who just retired from that very department, was at Morrill Hall as a recent graduate; he’d authored the list of demands presented to the administration on behalf of protesters. “Right-wing student groups tried to disrupt the takeover, and they were trying to break into the building to get at us,” Wright recalls. “They were shouting profanities and the usual racial epithets.” He remembers phoning his parents to round up bail money. “We thought we’d end up in jail—but with honorable precedents.”
When Wright (B.E.E. ‘68, M.A. ‘71, Ph.D. ‘77) came to the U in 1963, the country was in turmoil. “The Civil Rights movement was peaking,” he says. “And over the course of my ﬁve undergraduate years, the focus of that movement shifted from dealing with Southern de jure segregation, and started moving northward to deal with various forms of de facto segregation, in housing and jobs and on university campuses.
“We saw the rise of Black Power,” he says.
“Young black people were becoming more and more globally aware for multiple reasons, including decolonization in Africa and the Caribbean.” Why, students wondered, wasn’t this reﬂected in University policies and programming? “We were as segregated intellectually as we were socially.”
At the time, few students on campus were black. Statistics from 1973, the earliest available, show that just 2 percent of the student body was African American. Black students began seeking educa-tional enrichment outside campus, forming study circles with community organizations focused on racial justice. In 1966, they created Students for Racial Progress (or STRAP, which became the Afro-American Action Committee) to agitate for equality at the U.
STRAP brought Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to campus to speak in 1967 and, soon after, Stokely Carmichael. “We wanted to hear both sides—the Civil Rights agenda and the Black Power agenda,” Wright says. Both informed STRAP’s actions as it began confronting systemic racism on campus.
A new exhibit, “Takeover: Morrill Hall, 1969,” in Northrop’s fourth-floor gallery, tells the story of the protest. The exhibit features archival documents, photographs, and recordings—some shown publicly for the first time. It runs through December.
When King was assassinated in April 1968, long-simmering racial tensions came to a boil. A wave of civil rebellion swept the country, from Washington, D.C., to Chicago to the West Coast. Wright and his fellow students were ready to take action.
Wright grew up on his grandparents’ farm in what’s now the Minneapolis suburb of Robbinsdale. His father and aunt had attended the U in the 1930s, during the presidency of Lotus Coffman, who enforced policies barring black students from living in campus dormitories—policies his aunt had helped organize the first black student organization to oppose.
A high school math and science standout, Wright graduated early with honors. He might have chosen a historically black college in the South, but he planned to study engineering. The U’s engineering school was unmatched by any of the HBCUs, his father said, and in-state tuition was low.
Wright soon discovered that Minnesota’s premier public university was still jarringly inhospitable to students of color. “As soon as I got on campus, I comprehended the reality that there were only a handful of black students,” he says. “I was the only black student in any of my classes in the Institute of Technology. The sense of isolation was intense.” Nonetheless, he would earn a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering, a master’s in English, and a Ph.D. in American Studies and the History of African Peoples.
The Monday after King’s assassination, Wright was asked to write a position statement for the Afro-American Action Committee. He drafted a set of seven demands, which were submitted to then-President Malcolm Moos. They included increased recruitment of and scholarships for black high school graduates, counseling and support for black U students, representation of black students on policymaking groups, and the creation of an African American Studies program.
The administration’s response wasn’t hostile (Moos later called the students’ demands “eminently reasonable”) but bureaucracy kicked in almost immediately. “The University did what universities do, which is to set up a task force to study the issues,” Wright recalls. “I don’t think it was a matter of bad faith, but a standard procedural response.” Wright helped launch a recruitment team that went door to door talking with prospective students of color; beyond that, “we saw little evidence that much was being accomplished.”
That led the 70 black students to occupy Morrill Hall the following winter, on January 14, 1969, which Walter Cronkite reported on the CBS evening news.
Two of the group’s three main leaders, Rose Mary Freeman (B.A. ’70, M.A. ’74) and Anna Stanley (B.A. ’71, M.A. ’75), were women—the third was Horace Huntley (B.A. ’70). Wright notes that, “black women had always played key leadership roles in Civil Rights movements. That historic role has been underreported, underestimated, and undervalued.”
The situation might have devolved into chaos, given the presence of angry counter-protesters. But AAAC members were committed to nonviolence, and an allied group, the U chapter of Students for a Democratic Society, showed up to form a barrier between the demonstrators and counter-protesters. In the end, no one was hurt. And though Freeman, Huntley, and a third demonstrator were indicted, the most serious charges were dismissed.
The protests prompted the creation of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Program in the College of Liberal Arts, which provides admissions and coun-seling services. Wright ran the program in the early 1970s. And, most significantly, the call for a department of black studies was answered. Wright taught his final graduate seminar—Introduction to Studies in Africa and the African Diaspora—there in December.
Yet, a half century later, “there are many unfulfilled hopes.” Wright cites the closure of General College a decade ago, rising tuition costs, and a lack of African American faculty as factors inhibiting the recruitment and retention of black students. In Fall 2018, students of color made up 21 percent of the Twin Cities campus student body; 5 percent were African American.
For today’s activists, the Morrill Hall takeover offers useful guidance. But, Wright cautions against trying to replicate the past. “People can get caught between historical romanticism on the one hand and historical anachronism on the other hand—idealizing the past or inappropriately projecting the tools and outlooks of the present onto the past.”
Wright believes young activists “have to develop a historical consciousness that will enable them to think coherently and creatively about what is usable and what is not today.
“They need to be clear about their philosophy and goals around the issues they’re trying to confront now.”