Brandeis alumni recount Ford Hall occupation
On Wednesday, Jan. 8, 1969, between 60 and 75 student members of the Brandeis Afro-American Society began to occupy the Ford Hall building. The occupation, which lasted until Saturday, Jan. 18., began when 10 to 15 Black students told the building’s two switchboard operators to vacate the premises and took over the phone system. The students ordered students in classes to leave the area and secured the building. They then held a news conference in the office of Black student advisor Lathan Johnson, during which Rocard Millet ’68, MSW ’71, Ph.D. ’74 and Brandeis Afro-American Society President Roy DeBerry ’70, MA ’78, Ph.D. ’79 read a statement consisting of for the University. This historic event now lives on in the .
50 years after the Ford Hall occupation in 1969, the Brandeis community gathered to commemorate the 50th anniversary of one of the demands those students made: an African and Afro-American Studies department — now called the African and African American Studies department. Millet and DeBerry, as well as five other students involved in the occupation of Ford Hall in 1969, returned to Brandeis for a panel on Friday to discuss their experiences at Brandeis, including the events surrounding Ford Hall 1969. Hamida Abdal-Khallaq ’72, Randall Bailey ’69, Vera Plummer ’74, Helen Stewart Ph.D. ’80 and Patricia Van Story ’72 joined Millet and DeBerry for a conversation facilitated by Prof. Chad Williams (AAAS).
Abdal-Khallaq recounted coming to Brandeis in the fall of 1968 and being excited to arrive on campus. “When I got here … being in this environment, we were the biggest class. There were thirteen of us,” she said, referring to the number of Black students in her graduating class. “But we bonded so quickly and so tightly … because we felt like we needed each other, and we did not really associate with other students.”
Abdal-Khallaq mentioned that she regrets only interacting with other Black students, but explained that many Black students went into Ford Hall simply to be with their community. She said she was nervous during the occupation, but never scared, and shared that many students’ parents were afraid their children would lose their scholarships or be hurt by police. She said, however, that her parents were supportive of her despite the risks. Her family was often involved in the Jewish community in Roxbury, Massachusetts, so they had established positive relationships with Jewish people.
When Williams introduced DeBerry to speak, he mentioned a few of the demands that DeBerry had shared with the University 50 years ago. These included the creation of an African and Afro-American Studies Department with the ability to “hire and fire” faculty and securing involvement in selecting the department’s chairmen and faculty.
DeBerry spoke about why such demands were important and why merely a concentration in the discipline — which University faculty had already approved — was not sufficient. “We felt very strongly that we needed a department,” he said, “not something that was going to last for a few weeks or a few months, not something that was not going to be funded well. We wanted to, again, have a viable department, and with that we also wanted to have professors … and see the real effort to recruit more students of color.” He explained that they achieved some, but not all, of the demands when the occupation ended.
Millet, who Williams called “one of the older students in the protest,” expanded on the necessity of a department. Millet highlighted how Black students’ desire for a more diverse student body culminated in the creation of the Transitional Year Program in 1967. Between 1967 and 1968, however, the University rolled back the program, which upset many students and made them realize the problem with negotiating for something that could easily be taken away. Therefore, instead of another TYP, they wanted a department that would be permanent. Millet said his mother and others pressured him to leave the occupation, but he persisted, holding onto the notion of “truth even unto its innermost parts” by advocating for a discipline that was missing. Today, the Myra Kraft Transitional Year Program admits “students who have shown academic promise, tenacity, leadership, and resilience in their life experiences, but have had limitations to their pre-college academic opportunities,” .
Stewart, a sociologist, explained that she came to Brandeis for its intellectual depth and because some of the best sociologists in the nation worked there. She described the divisions within the Ford Hall group about appropriate courses of action, as many people feared for their lives. Plummer, a TYP student, came to Brandeis to avoid the “school to prison pipeline,” he said. As a student, he was grateful for Brandeis, but said that he felt it was not following through with the promises it had made. Students had watched negotiations with the administration prior to Ford Hall 1969, but no progress was being made.
He recounted the night the occupation began, when Black students met in Ford Hall with San Francisco State University representatives. The SFSU students told stories of their own similar experiences. According to Plummer, Brandeis “made a lot of promises [and] they did a lot of good things, but they weren’t following through, and that was very disheartening.” Plummer explained that it was while the SFSU students were speaking that the Brandeis students began taking over the building and the switchboards, getting people out of the building, and securing and barricading the doors. More students were subsequently recruited and the outside community began to provide support, such as restaurants providing food for the students.
Van Story ’72, who was originally a pre-medical student, said she joined the movement after realizing that “at some point of time in your life, you have to stand for something, you have to believe in something, and it may not go along with your plans that you have that day, or later in life, but you have to step out of yourself and look at it. And that’s how I made my decision to support Ford Hall.”
Bailey brought up his experience as a Black Jewish student. Then-University President Morris Abrams had accused Black students of anti-Semitism, so Bailey was chosen by DeBerry as a spokesperson so that Abrams could not continue to employ those accusations, Bailey remembered.
Bailey said that while he was sad that he did not have a Black professor while at Brandeis, he played an important role in creating the department that has incorporated many Black faculty into the University.
Ford Hall 1969 made a lasting impact that led to students participating in Ford Hall 2015. According to a , after the 12-day occupation, administrators agreed to pursue new policies to further address racial injustices on campus. Though the students occupied the Bernstein-Marcus Administration Center, as Ford Hall was torn down to make room for the Shapiro Campus Center, the protest was named after the 11-day takeover in 1969.