Still Magnificent: Program celebrates 40 years of African-American history

By: Jennifer Sicking, ISU Communications and Marketing Staff
October 10, 2012

William Powell walked with five other black men and one white man carrying sleeping bags, food and other supplies toward Indiana State University's Administration Building. Inside the building, they found their way into a vice president's office.

They pushed the office furniture against the door and they began the wait.

Powell never set out to make university history.

"All I wanted to do was go to school, get a B average and graduate," said the Navy veteran who enrolled at ISU in 1967.

About 7:30 a.m. on May 1, 1969, a secretary arriving for work found her office blocked and the sit in well under way with additional students joining those who became known as the "Magnificent Seven." Students walked out of classes and gathered at the building until a crowd of about 500 stood outside what is now known as Gillum Hall. Students also shut down The Grill, the campus eatery.

"I was surprised," Powell said, recalling that day. "I didn't think they would support us."

The sit-in followed demands presented a year before demanding the recognition of black fraternities and sororities as well as establishing black history courses and the hiring of more black professors. While that request saw a national black fraternity on campus, ISU President Alan Rankin also agreed to support petitions for courses in black history.

But on that May day in 1969, the requested demands included a reduction in tuition, the city police not to have jurisdiction on campus, more freedom for professors in academic affairs, unlimited serving in residence hall cafeterias and the creation of a black studies department.

That take over, a race riot and other efforts led to the establishment of an African and African-American studies program, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. As part of its celebration, a panel discussion will be held at 3 p.m. Oct. 20 in the University Hall Theater. Powell and Sam Dixon, another student leader during that turbulent period, will speak as part of the panel.

"Obviously, we're hoping to get participation in a broad ranging discussion of what it was like at the time," said Chris Olsen, chair of Indiana State's history department, of which the African and African-American Studies program is a part.

ISU's interdisciplinary program is one of the first in the Midwest and one of the earliest in the nation. The Commission on Higher Education approved ISU's program in August 1972.

"It's a testament to survival that we still have it," Olsen said. "It's important historically for an institution that likes to brag about being an institution with African-American students back to the 19th century."

 

More than 500 students enroll in the program's classes each semester.

 

"I can fill any number of classes that I can put on the schedule," Olsen said.

Powell said all of the students' requests on that May day in 1969 were eventually accomplished.

"We knew action had to be taken to get them to pay attention," Powell said. "Once we took that action, they were forced to listen."

The students did have one miscalculation in their takeover of the vice president's office.

"We thought it was the president's office," Powell recalled with a laugh.

When Sam Dixon enrolled at ISU in 1968 he had already belonged to a group in high school that brought about curriculum changes.

"We wanted the full history included, to have full access for all nationalities," Dixon said. "I wanted the true picture of America."

Powell and Dixon said they both respected and liked working with Rankin to make changes on the campus.

"I think we had a lot of respect for each other," Dixon said. "We worked through some things the best we knew how. Our goal was the same - to enhance Indiana State. We had different ways of coming at it."

Almost a year after the sit-in, racial strife reached a boiling point on the campus. On April 23, 1970, a bulletin board in Blumberg Hall featuring photographs of national Black Panther leaders, the Chicago Seven and lynchings had been torn up and racist and other remarks were scrawled on two black residents' doors. Black female students staged a sit-in at Blumberg in protest of the desecration. That day rumors grew and expanded among the black and white students causing tensions to rise as they jostled each other at the residence hall.

 

Dixon helped to quell the crowd at Blumberg and to leave the residence hall peacefully.

 

But the peace didn't last.

That night at the Sycamore Towers threats boiled into action. White and black students threw rocks and other objects at each other before the white students briefly retreated. They returned in force with between 400 and 600 white students, according to Crystal Reynolds, who wrote her dissertation on "Leadership Response to the Black Student Protest Movement at Indiana State University." An Indiana State Police report stated that the students wielded weapons that included gas pipes, ball bats, rocks, bricks and tire tools. White students threw rocks and bricks into the lower windows of the Statesman Towers where 75 to 100 black students had congregated in the stairways. Police in riot gear arrived, firing shotguns in the air and teargassed the students to disperse them.

"It was unexpected, astonishing," Dixon said. "It overwhelmed all of us. We just reacted to it. No one expected that much resistance. It was beyond talking then."

But in the aftermath, Dixon said opposing forces joined together "so it wouldn't happen again."

Now to speak as part of the 40th anniversary of the program, Dixon said he feels deeply humbled.

"I had no vision how this day would come. I want to make sure that we preserve this once-in-a-lifetime event so it doesn't fade away," he said.

African-American history is part of American history and it should have a place in institutions of higher learning, Dixon said.

"It's part of our nation," he said. "It gives the full picture of our country and our state."

Other 40th anniversary events are:

• Nov. 27, Isabel Wilkerson, author of "Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration" will lecture at 7 p.m. in the University Hall Theater as part of the University Speakers Series.

• Feb. 10, Roby George will direct the School of Music's Wind and Percussion Scholarship Concert of "American Guernica," which is dedicated to the victims of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing. Guest performers will include Mojah Tuba. The concert will take place at 4 p.m. in Tilson Music Hall.

• March 5, Thavolia Glymph from Duke University and author of "Out of the House of Bondage: The Transformation of the Plantation Household," will give a lecture on "Rosa's War: Enslaved Women in the Battle for Freedom in the Civil War." The time and place are to be announced.

• April 26, Arnold Rampersad of Stanford University and author of "Jackie Robinson: A Biography" will lecture on "The Life and Legacy of Jackie Robinson." The time and place are to be announced.

Details on the events can be found at www.indstate.edu/afri40.

Photos:http://isuphoto.smugmug.com/Other/Media-Services/African-American-History/i-JkQ2Snx/0/L/magnificent7-L.jpgThe Magnificent Seven in the vice president's office. ISU Archives

http://isuphoto.smugmug.com/Other/Media-Services/African-American-History/i-HLcFsMm/0/L/studentsforabetteruniversity-L.jpgMembers of the Magnificent Seven speak to gathered students outside of the Administration Building, now called Gillum Hall. ISU Archives

http://isuphoto.smugmug.com/Other/Media-Services/African-American-History/i-nwrvzZN/0/L/statesman-02-27-1969-L.jpgISU Statesman photo of students protesting during a basketball game. ISU Archives

Contact: Chris Olsen, Indiana State University, history department chair, at Christopher.Olsen@indstate.edu or 812-237-2710

Writer: Jennifer Sicking, Indiana State University, associate director of media relations, at jennifer.sicking@indstate.edu or 812-237-7972