The murder of George Floyd help raise new awareness of the gaps in the teaching of Black history. Faced with demands from students, more universities and high schools added courses on this history, and ethnic studies.
The establishment of some of the first Black studies departments at colleges and universities decades ago also required protest. A new book aims to provide context for the history of student activism in demanding more inclusive curriculum on campuses by highlighting one 1960s protest in particular in which Black students forced reforms to campus life that are considered standard at colleges and universities today.
In The Tuskegee Student Uprising: A History, out Oct. 4, Brian Jones, a scholar at the New York Public Library, zeros in on an uprising at Alabama’s Tuskegee Institute on April 6, 1968, where students surrounded a campus building, essentially holding members of the board of trustees hostage at one of their meetings. Approximately 300 students participated in this occupation. Tuskegee, now called Tuskegee University, is known for its pioneering pilot training program during World War II, and also holds an infamous place in history as the site of an experiment on Black men with Syphilis, as exposed by the Associated Press in 1972.
Tensions were already high at the the time of the protest; civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated in Memphis just two days earlier. The National Guard had been deployed to demonstrations in cities, and the Alabama Governor sent the state’s National Guard to respond to the situation on Tuskegee’s campus.
Before swarming the meeting, students had tried to convey their demands by appealing to Tuskegee’s all-Black leaders in writing, but change was not coming quickly enough. Their demands included financial aid packages for athletes, the end to compulsory participation in the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) program while the war in Vietnam was raging, the formation of a Black studies program, and even changes to the structure of college classes, such as the right to see a syllabi for classes at the beginning of the school year.
At first, Tuskegee responded by shutting down campus and making students reapply for admission, in the hopes of weeding out the radical “troublemaker” students, a local TV station reported at the time. But in the end, administrators met students at the negotiating table, and their dramatic action ultimately led to the implementation of nearly all of their demands.
Tuskegee students’ push for a revamped Black studies program helped create a blueprint that Black students at other colleges followed to advocate for similar curricula on their campuses, says Jones. Their effort “cracked open the curriculum and made possible ethnic studies, women’s studies, LGBTQ studies,” he adds.
Jones hopes his book on Tuskegee students’ bold activism would re-center Tuskegee as a pioneer in modernizing higher education and highlight its place as a site of campus activism during the “watershed” year that was 1968. In today’s era of increased scrutiny of how U.S. history is taught, and book ban attempts, he believes stories about student activists who demanded more education are only more relevant, especially stories focused on a university like Tuskegee, founded in 1881 to educate Black Americans in the Jim Crow South.
“Black people’s education and Black history as a topic have always operated under threats of censorship and violent suppression,” says Jones. He says he also wrote this book to show that “the Tuskegee student uprising is one part of a long pattern of Black people fighting to expand the horizons of learning in this country.”
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