The 1968 Bursar’s Office Takeover and “Unbranded” Review- Northwestern University puts archives and images on display

Students in The Black House, a place secured for them by their Bursar's Office Takeover demands, 1973; photo courtesy of the Northwestern University Archives

On an afternoon in June, this reviewer and a friend, both of us particularly interested in the history of black civil rights/propaganda featuring blacks, had the opportunity to visit 2 intriguing exhibits currently on view at the Northwestern University campus in Evanston.

Through July 31, 2018, Northwestern University’s Deering Library, 1937 Sheridan Rd., Evanston, an outstanding example of collegiate gothic architecture, will continue to display documents commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the 1968 Northwestern Bursar’s Office Takeover. The have created an online exhibit entitled, “They Demanded Courageously” which is available online through The University Archives. The Northwestern Black Alumni Association (NUBAA) has created a documentary, “The Takeover”, about the event.

1968 was a pivotal year in a far-reaching epoch of civil rights activism. On April 22, 1968, members of 2 black student organizations, the African American Student Union (AASU) and For Members Only (FMO) delivered a list of demands to the administration at Northwestern, crafted in response to policies, practices, internal structures, and individual attacks that together constituted an intolerable pattern of racial discrimination.

Black students were being prevented from participating fully in the same campus life that white students enjoyed. Some few examples included their inability to swim in pools, rejection from sororities and fraternities, subjection to such “cultural activities” as blackface minstrel shows, and significantly, denial of on-campus housing. There were, also, of course, instances of racially prejudiced hostile remarks and actions.

Front View of The Bursar’s Office, May 3, 1968; photo courtesy of Northwestern University Archives

The 8 demands from black student organizations FMO & AASU to the Northwestern University administration:

 

  • Northwestern University present an official statement acknowledging the existence of institutional racism at the University
  • Increase admission of black students to 12 percent of the student population
  • Increase scholarships for students to avoid students taking on jobs and to reduce student loans
  • Offer living units for black students who want to live together
  • Add black studies courses to the curriculum and hire black professors
  • Hire a black counselor for black students
  • Establish a black student union
  • Advocate for open housing

When their demands for equal treatment went unanswered, in a non-violent and highly effective manner, on May 3, 1968, the black students occupied the Bursar’s Office, in a symbolic effort to get not just the same bang for their (tuition) buck as white students enjoyed, but to gain a sense of real participation- not to mention basic safety- on campus.

On May 4, 1968, after all-day meetings were held with student and University representatives, the substantive and a vast majority of the specific demands had been granted. However, implementation of these new rights along with the admission of significantly more black students became a developing process as did the creation of a complex working infrastructure to support students of color in a predominantly privileged white environment and student base.

The documents and photographs preserved at Deering and online are fascinating. The letters are hand-typed, the structure simple yet compelling. Intriguingly, the famous list of 8 demands is signed by a woman, Kathryn Ogletree first, with AASU leader James Turner’s signature following. The photos reveal a solemn-visaged group of young people from many different academic disciplines; they had the courage to come forward to make a change in campus life.

James Turner and Dean Jack Hinz meet to negotiate an agreement, May 4, 1968; photo courtesy of Northwestern University Archives

For information about the exhibit, call the library at 847-868-9059. Additional materials can be found at:

-Bursar’s Office Takeover Online Exhibit: http://bursars1968.northwestern.edu/

-Black Alumni Association: https://nubaa.org/

-Black Alumni Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/NUBlackAlumni/

-Black Alumni Twitter: https://twitter.com/NUBlackAlumni

-NU Takeover: https://www.northwestern.edu/bursars-takeover/

Through August 5, 2018, the Main Galleryof Northwestern University’s Block Museum of Art, 40 Arts Circle Drive, on the Evanston campus, will host “Unbranded”, by Hank Willis Thomas,an American conceptual artist working primarily with themes related to identity, history, and popular culture. Thomas explored the representation of the African-American male body in visual culture in his B(r)anded Series,  about which critic Arwa Mahdawi , writing in The Guardian noted: “Thomas’s work ‘unbrands’ advertising: stripping away the commercial context, and leaving the exposed image to speak for itself.”

The exhibit currently at the Block is comprised of some 40 photographs, all without any wording whatsoever. They are culled from 2 related collections, a 2005-2008 series entitled “Unbranded: Reflections in Black by Corporate America”, and a 2015 series entitled “Unbranded: A Century of White Women”.

“Farewell, Uncle Tom”, by Hank Willis Thomas; image courtesy of The Block Museum, Northwestern University

The images drawn from print advertising targeted towards blacks begins in the same crucial/crucible year as the Bursar’s Office Takeover, 1968, the year in which Dr. Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy were both assassinated. The images continue for the next 50 years, through 2008, which saw the election of the first black President, and are remarkable for their developing sophistication in photography yet the still primitive sense of “pandering” to what is conceived by the white advertising  world as black desirability.

The images of women drawn from 1915-2015 similarly shed light on corporate ad-age America’s mostly infantilizing and patronizing vision of white women. Naturally, because all of the original photographs/drawings were created to “sell” ideas and products, they stand in unspoken- or unbranded- stark relief as exploitative  portrayals of their own.  Stripped of sloganeering, the images are still accompanied by Thomas’ titles, which are highly suggestive of his personal reflective “take” or “spin” on the original concept.

Seen together, the deliberately structured images of blacks/white women carry a highly memorable- and disturbing- sense of how manipulated advertising can shape our view of our selves and each other. Visiting both exhibits on the same day gave one a sense of how young a time was 1968, and how far the world needs to go.

“The Taming of The Shrew”, by Hank Willis Thomas; image courtesy of The Block Museum, Northwestern University

 

For information about “Unbranded”, call 847-491-4000 or go to www.blockmuseum.northwestern.edu

 

 

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