On Oct. 14, 1968, 12 black students fed up with the treatment of African-Americans on campus barricaded themselves inside North Hall, renamed the building “Malcolm X Hall” and refused to come out until the chancellor accepted their terms.
“We thought we were doing the right thing,” said Dalton Nezy, a high school counselor in Sacramento who was one of the 12 protesters. “I still think it was the right thing.”
The Black Student Union (BSU) made eight demands that morning in response to an educational system they said did not reflect their needs. One of those eight conditions was to create a college for black studies.
Chancellor Vernon Cheadle, under pressure to use force to immediately evict the students from the building and by the BSU to accept the demands, chose not to call in armed police to storm the building, which was then the computer center of campus. Still, the police presence and the barricaded building drew a large crowd, and soon vaulted UCSB’s BSU into the national spotlight.
“Once you cross the line, you cross the line,” said Nezy, who, as a 22-year-old junior transfer student, was one of the oldest protesters in the building. “There was no going back once we got attention.”
Nezy’s comrades inside the building spoke through megaphones to the mostly white crowd below, which grew to approximately 1,000 near the end of the day. They reiterated their demands and tried to illustrate the problems facing African-American students at UCSB.
Some of the audience members were sympathetic, and some were incensed. One professor tried to calm the crowd and asked them to admire the courage of the protesters, while another told students that anyone involved would not get a grade in his class.
Others, angered by the protests, tried taking the situation into their own hands; one graduate student broke through the glass doors and tried to storm North Hall before students in the building turned a fire extinguisher on him. Another man shouted that there had never been any problems before blacks arrived on campus.
A number of the white students in the crowd gathered around the building to prevent police or administrators from getting past while others, unable to join the protesters, threw food up to them.
Late in the day, at the request of Vice Chancellor Stephen Goodspeed, the police withdrew and the barricades were taken down. Cheadle agreed to all the demands but one, which called for the firing of Athletic Director and football Head Coach Jack Curtice and Physical Activities Director Arthur Gallon.
Almost 12 hours after they had entered the building, the students left, facing only suspended suspensions for actions that would directly impact the university for the next three decades.
The department, created over the course of the 1968-69 school year, enrolled 83 students beginning Fall Quarter 1969.
Out of the Flames of Protest – But Still Under Fire
With the department created, however, things did not get easier. The chair, Dr. Sethard Fisher, resigned after one quarter. An executive committee of four people was put in place to search for a replacement. By fall 1970, three of the four resigned under pressure from their original departments. The only one left, art professor Dr. James Smith, became chair.
The department had problems with staff fluctuation and finding replacements who were willing to put in the extensive hours needed to construct their own curriculum. In addition to staffing problems, black studies struggled to prove it belonged among the other academic departments on a campus where many professors disapproved of ethnic studies in general.
It also faced a problem with professors who would use the department to advance their careers. Professors interested in the established departments would enter the university through black studies, then immediately request to switch to traditional subjects.
“We brought people in who wanted to change the focus of the program, people who weren’t sincere, people who were just using black studies and even [the Educational Opportunity Program] as a stepping stone to achieve their own personal goals,” Nezy said. “They had no particular interest in projecting themselves in any way that they would be concerned about African-American students.”
In 1974 Smith resigned as chair, and Dr. Gerard Pigeon took over. For 26 years, Pigeon led the fight for acceptance, refusing to let his department die.
“Without him, the black studies program would not be in existence,” Nezy said. “He played a tremendous role in providing a continuous focus on the historical composition of African-American society.”
Pigeon resigned as chair earlier this year, leaving the Black Studies Dept. with nine professors, four lecturers, three of the last six valedictorians, over 4,000 enrolled students and a top-10 national ranking for faculty research.
A Harbor in Case of Turmoil
Pigeon credits a new administration under Chancellor Henry Yang and retirement of old-guard professors whose views of ethnic studies he calls “narrow” for the greater acceptance of ethnic studies.
“People started to take us seriously,” he said. “The curriculum we’ve brought in was adopted by the campus. They were frowning on it – now they welcome it.”
The number of professors opposed to ethnic studies has shrunk to a minority while the number of professors teaching black studies has grown. Yang said black studies will get another two faculty positions soon to add to its nine full-time employees. The department is currently looking for a new chair to replace Pigeon, who will continue as a professor.
The new chair will have to maintain the department’s original intentions while managing the growing pains that come with larger size. Although Pigeon said black studies has remained true to its foundations, there is still work left to be done.
“The political intentions and academic intentions have not changed. We maintain a high academic standard, and politically we maintain the commitment to educate all students about the black cultures of the Diaspora, but also to see an increase in the number of black students on this campus,” Pigeon said. “[Even] if we’ve succeeded in the first, we still need to work on the second.”
The emphasis on serving the African-American students of UCSB, demanded by protesters back in 1968, has not been lost in the department’s academic growth.
“[The department] is like a harbor. In case of turmoil, in case of need, [students] come to see us,” Pigeon said. “We provide more than academic advice. They don’t have to be black. In case of need, [students] can count on us.”
Senior black studies and sociology major K.C. Mmeje agreed. “The department sponsors a lot of different events on campus, provides a forum for students to come together. They’re a support group for students,” he said. “The faculty are more than willing to listen to you and help you out – and more than in the sense of academics. It’s like an extended family.”
Although it offers more activities than other campus departments, Mmeje said black studies is above all an academic department. “Its legitimacy gets questioned a lot,” Mmeje said. “But you have to look at it like any other academic discipline.”
‘Like Any Other Academic Discipline’
In 1998, UC Regent Ward Connerly criticized ethnic studies departments – a point he reiterated when he spoke at UCSB in October – as too political, with professors more concerned with politics than academics. Frequently, these political pursuits run counter to Connerly’s own.
Students walked out of classes in October of 1998 to protest Connerly and argued instead that ethnic studies programs are vital to presenting a different and essential point of view.
“All we’re taught is from one perspective. And that perspective is pretty obvious,” junior black studies and English major Dora Morse said. “It’s not U.S. history – it’s white U.S. history. … Learning that one type of history makes you feel that there is only that history. You regurgitate all those facts and it’s not the full picture.”
Some people, Pigeon said, may never accept ethnic studies. But, this number is decreasing as ethnic studies programs become increasingly accepted.
“There’s still faculty who look at black studies and minority studies in general as a dirty appendage,” he said. “But that’s not the majority.
“There’s people you can’t change,” Pigeon said. “You can’t straighten out bananas. … The point is that we’re here teaching about the black culture of the Diaspora, and that’s what we’re going to do. That’s what we’re here for.”
The tradition will continue in the future, Pigeon said. “Ethnic studies is here to stay, and black studies is here to stay.”