In contrast to the Women’s Studies program, which chose to maneuver within the university’s established bureaucratic channels in order to obtain approval as a UNL major, Black Studies was largely created as a result of student protests. The students bypassed traditional mechanisms, and demanded to be heard by university administrators. Their protest launched race into the consciousness of UNL, challenged the authority of UNL administrators, and arguably paved the way for the creation of the Institute for Ethnic Studies. The history of the Black Studies program (which was later renamed “African American and African Studies”) provides an important snapshot for student activism and meaningful systemic change at UNL during the sixties and seventies, as well as the university’s attitude toward racial issues and systems inequality in general.
On April 15th, 1969, approximately two hundred students began a three-day protest at Canfield, UNL’s administration building. The African American Collegiate Society (AACS), an independent, student-run organization, organized the protest, which surprised the majority of campus.
Never before had the University experienced real, angry, mass demonstrations. Never before were the NU administrators faced with a sit-in right outside their own offices.
According to reports by the Cornhusker, student protestors burned a cardboard coffin labeled “The System” outside the building, while chanting, “The system is dead. Burn, baby, burn”.
William Wayne—a senior in UNL’s College of Law and the president of AACS— headed up the sit-in inside Canfield with over one hundred other protestors. Eventually, he gained a meeting with the Dean of Student Affairs (G. Robert Ross), the Campus President (Josesph Soshnik), and the Dean of Faculties (C. Peter Magrath). The meeting lasted two hours, during which Wayne presented a list of demands. “We’re not asking for miracles,” said Wayne. “We realize that time is needed and money is scarce. But we just want to see some real progress”. Their demands included the following:
- That the University of Nebraska-Lincoln recognize the AACS as “the official representative of the black community on campus”,
- That UNL engineer a Black Studies program, “staffed and directed by Black scholars, in its entirety to be instituted by September, 1970”, and
- For the university to hire more black professors, and that UNL’s current black faculty members “be elevated in status”.
Though the protest did not translate into immediate action by the university, it stimulated a greater awareness of racial issues on UNL’s campus. Vernon Slaughter, a UNL student and executive in AACS, illustrates this shift. “’I can’t speak for the organization, but my personal opinion is that most people just didn’t start to take an interest in black students, except for athletes, before the demonstrations last spring”.
The University of Nebraska-Lincoln, while not complying to the AACS’s demands in full, did implement significant changes in the next year. For example, in previous years the AACS organized annual letter campaigns that targeted high school seniors from poor schools, and encouraged them to attend college. In 1970, UNL created its own recruiting program, headed by university administrators. UNL’s first black student coordinator, Walt Strong, commented on the success of the program to the Cornhusker staff. “We have about 70 minority freshmen, mostly black, who would not be enrolled in this university if we had not sent out our recruiting teams.” And the new president of AACS, John C. Eaves, agreed. “I’ve been down here since 1965 and I have never seen so many minority students on campus.”
In addition to recruitment efforts, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln also expanded course offerings to more adequately address the experiences, voices, and histories of African Americans. As a UNL Cornhusker writer commented, “Several years ago there were no black-oriented courses at Nebraska. Now there are a dozen.” These new classes—the beginnings of UNL’s Black Studies program— were strikingly interdisciplinary; courses were housed within the English, history, psychology, and sociology departments. The most popular Black Studies course in 1970 was Psychology 182, which explored the causes and development of racism. Over two hundred students registered for the course in spring of 1970. Despite these gains, many students expressed concerns about the quality of the courses UNL offered; white professors overwhelmingly taught the courses, and the curriculum was clearly aimed at white students.
Black students also struggled to achieve adequate representation in UNL’s most powerful student organizations. The Council on Student Life (CSL), a relatively new organization made up of students and administrations, was one of the vehicles black students used to tackle racial issues on campus. Lee Harris, Vernon Slaughter, and AACS president John C. Eaves, for example, condemned UNL’s Greek system for its discriminatory practices in a CSL meeting.
By 1971—two years after the student protests at Canfield—the University of Nebraska-Lincoln officially created the Black Studies program. Though it only offered an undergraduate minor at the time, the formation of the program illustrates the power of the students’ non-violent activism. The following year, 1972, UNL’s Board of Regents approved the implementation of the Institute of Ethnic Studies. Ethnic Studies offered three program emphases: American Indian Studies, Chicano Studies, and Black Studies.