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Why black students occupied the U’s administration building for 24 hours in 1969

Black students at the University of Minnesota waged a twenty-four-hour protest at Morrill Hall, the school’s administrative building, in 1969. The demonstration led to the creation of the university’s Afro-American Studies Department.

On January 14, 1969, about seventy black students with the Afro-American Action Committee (AAAC) occupied the University of Minnesota’s bursar’s and records office in Morrill Hall to protest the hostile campus environment towards black students and the absence of an African American studies department. The protest became known as the “Morrill Hall takeover.”

The demonstration, which lasted twenty-four hours, was the culmination of events sparked by the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (MLK) on April 4, 1968. After Dr. King was assassinated, the Minnesota Student Association (MSA) announced an MLK memorial fund for economically disadvantaged students, and the university organized a human rights task force.

On April 11, 1968, the Afro-American Action Committee presented demands to the task force, which included funding scholarships to black graduates from Minnesota high schools; establishing counseling and recruitment offices for black students; reviewing athletic department policies towards black athletes; and creating an African American studies curriculum. The task force recessed at the end of spring quarter with little action taken to meet the demands.

In December 1968, black students approached University President Malcolm Moos for financial support for a black conference. Moos told the students that the university would assist with raising private funds. However, by early January 1969, only $1,500 had been raised for the conference that was planned for February.

At this point, the AAAC asserted that its demands were not taken seriously. It claimed that the university had failed to address the lack of an African American studies department and the isolation and marginalization that many black students experienced.

On January 13, 1969, AAAC representatives went to President Moos’ office with a list of three demands: (1) establishment of an Afro-American studies department by fall of 1969; (2) contribution by the university of half the expense for the black conference; and (3) transfer of the MLK scholarship fund supervision to an organization in the black community.

On January 14, 1969, about seventy students met with Moos at Morrill Hall in the Regent’s Room, but the students felt the discussion was not fruitful. They went to the office of the bursar and records and staged an occupation. They blocked the front door and refused to allow anyone to enter, though staff were allowed to leave. The protest was peaceful apart from one incident, in which an angry white student tried to force his way into the building. The AAAC began negotiating with university staff about their demands.

On January 15, 1969, the students and the university reached an agreement to end the demonstration. The university agreed to: (1) support the development of an academic program leading to a bachelor’s degree in African American studies; (2) give AAAC $5,260 from non-public funds for the black conference; and (3) add seven community members to the fourteen-member board of the MLK scholarship fund.

The protest ended peacefully with $7,229 in damages—most of them for office-equipment repair, custodial cleanup, personnel overtime, and long-distance calls made by students during the occupation. Some state legislators and the president of the Minneapolis Police Officers Federation urged the Hennepin County attorney to prosecute students who had participated. A grand jury indicted students Horace Huntley, Rose Mary Freeman, and Warren Tucker Jr., for aggravated criminal damage to property, rioting, and unlawful assembly.

The arrests sparked protest by thousands of students and community members. Protesters claimed the indictments were “politically motivated.” Freeman, who was president of the AAAC, and Huntley, who was secretary, had led the takeover. On November 7, 1969, Freeman and Huntley were convicted of unlawful assembly and given a ninety-day suspended sentence and one-year probation. Tucker was acquitted. The jury rejected the “criminal damage to property and rioting” charges.

The Morrill Hall takeover resulted in the establishment of the Department of Afro-American studies in 1969, which was one of the first in the nation. It later became the African American & African Studies department. The demonstration spurred the creation of scholarships and programs for black students. In 2012 the university created the Huntley House, named for Horace Huntley, for African American Men to provide support for students.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.

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