Leaders of crucial force in black history at U share their stories

Emma Carew

IEditorís note: This is the third article in a four-part series featuring prominent black figures at the University in honor of Black History Month.

In the wake of the Martin Luther King Jr. and President John F. Kennedy assassinations, the Afro-American Action Committee presented seven demands to the University.

Nine months later, the administration had not met the demands, and on Jan. 14, 1969, a 24-hour takeover of Morrill Hall resulted.

More than 70 members of the Afro-American Action Committee remained in Moosí office until the next day. These are two participantsí stories.

John Wright
According to his colleagues, professor John Wright is the campus expert on black history.

Perhaps this is because in addition to having studied it extensively, Wright was an active participant in creating that history.

A fourth-generation Minnesotan, Wright was born and raised in Minneapolis and graduated from Robbinsdale High School in 1963.

Wright said he entered the University in fall 1963 ìat the tender age of 16″ with David Taylor, former General College dean, and Ezell Jones, one of the first recruited black athletes to attend the University.

At that time, there were ìprobably not more than 50″ black students on campus, most of them rooted in the General College, Wright said.

The years Wright attended the University were ìa time of great upheaval,” he said.

ìMy freshman year was the Kennedy assassination, and the spring I graduated, both (Martin Luther King Jr.) and Robert Kennedy were assassinated,” Wright said. ìBetween those years, the Vietnam War had expanded, so that most of us young men then had the specter of the draft hanging over us throughout our entire undergraduate time.”

In what Wright called ìthe era of the transition from civil rights to black power,” the black students on campus were influenced not only by King, but also by Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael and the emerging Black Panthers, he said.

Wright said he can recall times when police presence on campus was heavy, and Northrop Mall was home to intense protest.

In summer 1968, after initial negotiations with University administrators, he was part of a team that tried to recruit students from local urban communities of color, Wright said.

By fall 1969, when Wright began graduate school, the demands of the AAAC had not been met by Moosí administration.

ìIt was only after the slow and serpentine movement of University committees that we decided that direct action had to be taken in order to produce change,” he said.

That direct action began as seven representatives from the AAAC attempted to meet with Moos and ended with the Morrill Hall takeover.

The demands issued to Moos were very much like those put forth on campuses around the country, Wright said.

ìThey centered on forcing this University to live up to its land-grant mission and to begin serving all of the people of Minnesota,” he said.

Wright later was on the committees that searched for faculty members for the new Afro-American studies department.

ìWe had to look for potential faculty largely in the world of the black colleges and universities (in the South),” he said.

As a new institution on campus, Wright said, the department and the Martin Luther King scholarship program faced criticism and hostility from white students, faculty members and administrators on campus.

ìThere were strong allies and supporters (on campus),” he said, ìbut they were traditionally outnumbered by those who were hostile.”

Wrightís father and aunt had attended the University in the 1930s, and he said he was familiar with the hostile attitude of the University community toward black students.

ìThey were subject to all kinds of humiliation and insults,” he said, ìand those didnít disappear for my generation.”

Wright studied electrical engineering and was one of few black students in the Institute of Technology during the 1960s. He later did graduate work in literature and history.

Horace Huntley, one of the AAAC leaders during the Morrill Hall takeover, said Wright was ìvery studious.”

Public relations senior Ada Okolue said that as an instructor, Wright is poised, yet passionate, about his work.

Okolue said Wright pushed her to think about her plans after graduating, and gave her the opportunity to think about her future.

In the 40 years since Wright first entered the University, much has changed.

The number of black students on campus has increased by more than 25 times, and ìstudents of color are scattered throughout the colleges of the University in a much more representative way,” Wright said.

Rose Freeman Massey
The woman who would later face grand jury indictment for her involvement in the Morrill Hall takeover said she originally came to Minnesota for a Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee fundraising tour.

Rose Freeman Massey, 1969 president of the Afro-American Action Committee and University alumna, spent her first 21 years in Greenwood, Miss., and said she was actively involved in the civil rights movement there.

On her tour to Minnesota, Massey said, she met a woman who offered to help her attend school in Minnesota.

ìI didnít think much about it initially,” Massey said, ìbut at some point, I decided to think that maybe it wasnít such a bad idea.”

In 1968, Massey returned to Minnesota, enrolled in the General College and soon became involved in the black student community on campus.

ìThe first thing that shocked me was the weather,” Massey said. ìI thought every day that there was no way I would be able to survive Minnesota winters.”

The next thing that shocked her, she said, was the lack of black students on campus.

Of the 47,000 students, 87 were black; many were recruited athletes from the Deep South, she said.

ìI grew up in an all-black community,” she said. ìIt was a culture shock.”

Leading to the events that would take place at Morrill Hall, Massey said she was surprised to find that ìthat there was a black agenda that had been out there for over a year.”

The administration had not responded to the demands, she said, and this also surprised her.

ìI would have expected something like that in Mississippi or Alabama,” Massey said, ìbut not in Minnesota.”

Massey was able to use her experience from Mississippi to help mobilize the students at the University.

Horace Huntley, an Afro-American Action Committee leader during the takeover, said he connected well with Massey because they were both from the South.

Before meeting her on campus, Huntley said, he had only known of her from reading The Minnesota Daily.

ìShe was simply a dynamic leader,” he said. ìShe was the personality for the struggle on the campus.”

Marie Braddock Williams, secretary for the Afro-American Action Committee at the time of the takeover, said she learned a lot from Masseyís experience in the South.

ìShe seemed very determined to move things along in a positive manner for the students on campus,” Williams said.

Today, Williams said she and Massey remain friends, and ìsome of (Masseyís) flavor has not disappeared at all.”

After the takeover, Massey, Huntley and fellow protester Warren Tucker were indicted by a Hennepin Country grand jury, but the felony charges were later dropped.

Police gave Massey and Huntley a yearís probation each for the misdemeanor charge of unlawful assembly.

Massey said she recently met with students from the current Black Student Union and was impressed with their discussions and the projects they are engaged in.

In April, the participants of the Morrill Hall takeover will gather on the Universityís campus for a two-day summit, the first time they have all united in 37 years.

ìIím excited to see my old classmates,” Massey said. ìThirty-seven years is a long time.”

She said the reunion is also an opportunity for the participants to share their stories with the University and Twin Cities communities.

ìI think for any people, your history and your heritage is important,” Massey said. ìIf youíre going to know who you are and where youíre going, then you have to know your history.”