1989 Hannah Administration Building Occupation

19 09 2014

Michigan State University prided itself for what President John Hannah called an “assault on inequality”. Though, by 1989, racial equality on college campuses was the goal, it was not in fact a reality. Fueled by tensions rising across the nation, and sparked by anonymous phone calls of racial slurs and threats, as well as racism from the police and in the classroom and newspaper, MSU found itself with a student body formed to make significant progress for racial equality. In May of 1989, a group of 200 Michigan State minority students staged a sit-in on the first floor of the Hannah Administration building. For eight days, the students blocked the doorway and crowded the hallway, costing the university a good deal of money as many financial matters were handled in the Administration building.

The events that led up to the sit-in indeed called for action. In February 1989, ASMSU was charged with discrimination during the selection process of its leaders. That same month, the State News published a personal opinion piece by a student who claimed white supremacy was on the rise due to the increase of racial discrimination claims. In April, a MSU Professor wrote in his State News column that minority student enrollment in his courses were low because his material was “too tough” for them (State News). The Black Student Alliance spokesperson and a sit-in leader, Darius Peyton, claimed that the administration had not done nearly enough in response to the obvious racial tensions and discrimination that had built up on campus.

The black students on campus formed a set of demands to be met by Michigan State’s administration, and staged the sit-in to see those demands dealt with immediately, as they had seen previous promises drawn out for too long. Some of the demands included “regular forums on racism” and awareness events, an increase in “black faculty, staff and administrators by specific dates”, reevaluation of current anti-discrimination procedures, more courses in black studies and scholarship for black students, and the observance of MLK day (to include the excuse of students from class).

Female student styles hair of another student during the 1989 Hannah Building occupation

Female student styles hair of another student during the 1989 Hannah Building occupation

The sit-in lasted for eight days, when it concluded after a very extensive negotiation period between the student representatives and President DiBiaggio. The President agreed to meet all thirty-six of the formal demands of the students, which ended the sit-in.

Not all Michigan State students agreed on the necessity or the success of the sit-in. A majority student group called No Equality Through Inequality (NETI) fought against those who partook in the sit-in. Their group called for the protestors to evacuate the administration building. Even more notable was their request to have a majority student representative present when the minority policy was to be created.

The fight did not end there. Following the sit-in, different discussions, newspaper responses, and follow-up protest occurred. At the end of May, a panel of students that participated in the sit-in led a discussion, along with a question and answer period, which addressed the event. Most of the crowd was black, but a few white students were present. One white student questioned the intentions of the protestors. The response summed up the need for such a protest; minority students simply needed to demand to be treated the same as majority students and that they wanted nothing more than what majority students already had (State News, “Students learn from sit-in”). Though the administration agreed to the demands and many demands had been met, in September of 1989, the student body once again felt that the slow pace was unacceptable and together 400 black students protested with a walk down Shaw Lane. Their persistence encouraged other minority groups to also confront the administration on accounts they had witnessed of discrimination. Though the MSU spokesperson told the Detroit Free Press in October 1989 that she was frustrated with the disapproval, the administration would continue to work with the students to ensure results. The feeling overall left students proud of the accomplishments of the sit-in and felt that their commitment would show results for themselves as well as future MSU students.

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Sources – (The State News 05-09/1989, The Detroit Free Press 05-10/1989)

Written by Laura Williams

Breaking Barriers: First African American Students at Michigan State

28 02 2012

As Black History Month is coming to a close, I thought it would be interesting to highlight some of the first African American students at MSU that broke barriers changing the way the University and its students perceived the presence of African American students on campus. The following three individuals were among the first black students to be a part of the Michigan State community.

Myrtle Craig arrived at MAC after graduating from a small school in Missouri. Craig was not only a woman enrolling at MAC, but was the first African American student to attend the university. She faced many obstacles during her time here.  Not only was the Women’s Building too expensive for her, but she was not allowed to live there because of her race. When she first began at MAC, she lived with Addison Brown, the secretary to the State Board of Agriculture and cooked as a way to pay off her rent. She then moved in with Chance Newman, an Assistant Professor of Drawing and worked as a sales clerk, in a clothing store, and as a waitress to make ends meet. On May 31, 1907 she graduated and received her diploma from United States President Theodore Roosevelt. For the next forty years she devoted her life to teaching African American students.

Gideon E. Smith was also a very influential figure in the history of Black individuals at Michigan State. Starring at left tackle for the Aggies during the 1913, 1914, and 1915 seasons, Smith was the first African American to play football at MAC. He was one of the most influential players on the team and contributed a lot towards winning seasons of football. However, like all other AFrican American students before 1930, Smith’s name and picture were not included in the men’s societies’ pages in the yearbook. Despite his involvement in sports and other societies on campus, there was no visual record of Smith due to the way that African American’s were perceived in society. Despite his struggles to gain credibility among the college community, Smith graduated with a BS in Agriculture in 1916. He went on to become one of the first professional football players and he served in the military during World War I. He then dedicated the rest of his life to teaching and coaching African American youth.

Everett C. Yates, the first colored individual to play in the college cadet band and orchestra, also paved the way for future Black students here at Michigan State. Yates was a percussionist in both of these organizations that provided music for the parades and dances at that took place on campus.  He graduated with fellow classmate Gideon Smith in 1916 receiving a BS in Horticulture. Even though the two men graduated together, it was not until recently that Yates’ legacy was recognized; there were no images or documents acknowledging Yates as being the first African American in these bands. After graduating from MAC, Yates went on to become a very successful teacher, teaching music in schools around the country.

These three individuals, Myrtle Craig, Gideon Smith, and Everett Yates, were some of the first African American students to break color barriers on campus. Through their persistence in their respective and highly visible activities, they paved the way for future Black students at Michigan State.

African American Exhibits Online

16 02 2010

In honor of African American History Month there are two exhibits on the Michigan State University Archives & Historical Collections website that celebrate the history of African Americans at MSU.  The first exhibit is called The African American Presence at MSU:  Pioneers, Groundbreakers, and Leaders, 1900-1970.  It is known that African American students were enrolled at Michigan State as early as 1900.  While their numbers were never large in the first half of the century, African American students coming here exemplified leadership and achievement not only in their scholastic and extra-curricular activities but in the careers they forged for themselves.  This exhibit honors some of these pioneers and gives recognition to their achievements.

The second exhibit is about Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Visit to MSU in February 1965.  This exhibit features some photographs of Dr. King, some audio clips from his speech and explains the background of the STEP program, which sponsored his speech.