49 YEARS AGO TODAY: Black Students Occupy College Hall 

April 23, 2020

Piece of WC history endemic to time of student protests, but also consistent with Quaker peacemaking testimony

President Robert Hinshaw wanted an unconventional inauguration, what some called an “un-inauguration” that focused on students rather than visiting dignitaries – he got it.

Against a backdrop of the 14th president’s inaugural, several dozen African-American students took over College Hall in the middle of the night on April 23, 1971, in an effort to publicize their list of demands presented to the administration days before – and as a means of applying pressure for an immediate response.

PICTURED: Hours after the student takeover of College Hall started, a paper airplane flew from the third floor stating the occupation would continue until their demands were “reasonably met.”

Since assuming the presidency in January, Hinshaw, an anthropologist, had been promoting the concept of a “multicultural campus.” With 51 blacks among the 953 students on campus, the occupation of College Hall was a call, at least in retrospect, for the new president to add immediate action to his rhetoric.

“We saw an opportunity with the new president coming in – we wanted him to hear the message,” said Reginald Broadnax, Class of ’72, one of the leaders of the occupation. “We believe he got the message.”

Broadnax said many black students where the victims of American society’s “institutionalized racism” and that some faculty, staff and students were “insensitive” to their needs at the Quaker school. For many, the College’s small town, rural setting was a stark contrast from the large urban areas that constituted the hometowns of most of the black students on campus.         Indeed, Broadnax recalled being harassed by a local policeman while bicycle riding with a female friend, who happened to be white.

“There was a lot of contention between blacks and whites. This was not just happening at Wilmington College. It was part of the times,” he noted, but was quick to add many white and international students were “ardent supporters” of their cause. “It was a very powerful period. With the Black Power and anti-war movements, everything was in a state of change. We believe we made the College realize that.”

Sterling Olmsted, provost at the time, admitted the administration was unduly complacent and unprepared in the months leading up to the occupation, in spite of demonstrations by African-American students across the country.“

“We had weathered Kent State and its aftermath without violence a year earlier – we had kept the College open, while supporting student protests against the Kent State shootings, the Vietnam War and incursions into Cambodia,” he said.

“Numbers of black students were increasing and we thought we were doing pretty well in meeting their needs,” he said. “After all, we were a Quaker college with a commitment to peace, nonviolence, integration, equality and now the multicultural campus. But this was a time of unrest and our black students needed to show their militancy to their brothers and sisters at Wilberforce, Central State and elsewhere.”

Several days before the takeover, a list of 111 “nonnegotiable” demands signed by 38 of the College’s African American students, primarily members of the campus organization Concerned Black Students (CBS), was presented to the president. The demands essentially included: additional scholarships for black students, new staff positions in admission and financial aid filled by African-Americans, a serious effort to secure more black faculty, waiving the requirement of SAT scores for admission of black students, stepped up recruitment and admission of black students, black studies added to the curriculum and greater opportunities for black students to work on campus.

Hinshaw’s response had been endorsed by the faculty and presented to the students; however, not all demands had been addressed to their satisfaction and the 48-hour deadline imposed by the students had passed.

“We went into College Hall,” Broadnax recalled. “It was controlled and planned. We did not plan to go in and damage anything – these were not crazed individuals, but we were serious about what we wanted.”

“At 4 a.m., my phone rang,” said Olmsted as he recalled the event some 29 years later. “It was (physical plant director) Johnnie Carr. He said, ‘They’ve made their move – they’ve barricaded themselves in College Hall.’”

Olmsted immediately went to the president’s home, where he, Hinshaw, Carr, vice president for business Brooke Morgan, science professor Phil Bayless and history professor Larry Gara discussed how best to respond.

“We were quite uncertain about how to proceed,” Olmsted said. “Wilmington College had gone through the time of troubles that accompanied the Vietnam War without a takeover of any kind, but many colleges had been through ‘occupations’ with disastrous results.”

Ideas ranged from the extremes of taking a soft line and continuing a mutually respectful dialogue to calling in law enforcement to force them out, canceling classes and inaugural events, shutting off utilities in the building and throwing tear gas if an ultimatum to leave were not met.

When Wallace Collett, chair of WC’S Board of Trustees, joined the meeting later that morning, he suggested, “Has anybody thought about getting some food in to them? They must be getting hungry.”

Collet’s perspective set the tone for the College’s response, which would be a soft line. Hinshaw, who told law enforcement officials he did not require their presence on campus, ordered classes that normally met in College Hall relocated. Also, inaugural events would proceed as scheduled. A representative of the U.S. Justice Department was notified of the situation. He had been meeting with black students periodically throughout the year to gauge their frustrations and the likelihood of a demonstration – in fact, his warning to WC officials that an incident was imminent went largely unheeded.

“We anticipated the College would respond in the manner in which they did,” Broadnax said. “I think they realized since the Kent State event it wasn’t going to be a military affair, but we did want to secure the building in case individuals got crazy.”

That morning, a paper airplane sailed from the third floor containing the message that College Hall would remain occupied until the students’ demands were “reasonably met.”

As the day proceeded with classes, inauguration-related lectures and a dance program, Olmsted recalled the occupation, what he described as a “play within a play,” was the undeniable center of the campus’ attention – and quickly that of the Wilmington community.

Rumors abounded that black militants were coming from other colleges and urban centers, the Ohio National Guard was on its way to Wilmington and someone downtown allegedly said he was “getting his rifle and would drive the black students out.”

“Tension on campus was mounting,” Olmsted said.

Pickup trucks with visible rifles in gun racks were creating an ominous presence circling the campus, yet, on the other hand – where else but at Wilmington College? – Olmsted recalled some of the black students in College Hall were allowed to go to the inaugural picnic on the mall to eat dinner and bring back food for the other occupiers.

Just before 6 p.m., one of the student liaisons asked Hinshaw, Olmsted and the Justice Department representative to meet with the black student leaders in College Hall. Olmsted recalled gaining entry after students removed the plywood that had been nailed over the doors.

After discussing the students’ demands – there was give and take on both sides – an accord was reached. The students soon left the building after the 19-hour sit-in. The only damage consisted of a few holes where the plywood had been nailed and the broken padlock that secured the College’s antiquated telephone system.

“The place was empty. The plywood was gone. Nothing in our offices was touched. Not a cigarette butt on the floor. The occupation was over,” Olmsted said. “Everything was neat and in good order – it was remarkable when you think of what happened at many colleges.”

“It was a successful weathering of a storm,” he added. “Through all this, Bob Hinshaw kept insisting that, if we had more black students, they would feel less embattled and defensive, and there would be less tension. In the next few years, numbers increased and his prophesy proved correct.”

A year or so later when College Hall was renovated, Olmsted noticed something missed when he and Carr inspected the building after the occupation. Etched on the handrail between the first and second floors were the words: “College Hall Liberated April 23, 1971.”

For Broadnax, subsequent decades have not lessened the personal significance of the experience.

“We felt it was something we had to do, to express this to the faculty, the other students, the city – even to ourselves, our parents and now our children,” he said. “I think it’s a very big event in the College’s history – it definitely is an event you remember if you were there.

“We did what we had to do and all these years later we’re still proud of it.”