Jul 28, 2014

Those There Remember 'Manhattanville Takeover'

A panel shared memories from a six-day takeover of a Manhattanville College building in December, 1969.

Some would say that a six-day takeover of a building on 's campus 42 years ago altered the course of the school forever.

On Dec. 8, 1969, 16 African American students at the then all-girls catholic school barricaded themselves into Brownson Hall, disrupting finals and creating a major distraction on the campus. It was done in an effort to battle social injustices that they say existed on the campus during that time.

The standoff between students and administrators lasted six days, ending when the school's leadership accepted, in principle, a list of nine demands handed down by the students. 

On Tuesday Cheryl Hill and Roxena Mimms Tassie, two leaders of the Brownson Hall "takeover", were joined by the college's President at the time Elizabeth J. McCormack, and then Dean of Students Sister Ann M. Conroy at the very site of the takeover in 1969. Also speaking were E. Barbara Wiggins, a retired Lieutenant Colonel in the U.S. Army and Reverend Richard Dixon a well-known civil rights activist.

During the panel discussion, entitled “An Evolution of Social Justice”, the group fielded questions from students and residents about the standoff, which was one of the first steps toward Manhattanville becoming a school nationally recognized for its diversity.

Then only a teenager, Tassie recalled concerns ranging from upset parents to being ignored by the outside world during her time in Brownson Hall. Hill remembered an era of turmoil. Only 18 months removed from the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., she says it was a very turbulent time outside the Purchase campus' walls. That paired with a feeling of non-acceptance at the school led to the strike.

"It wasn't one thing, it was the climate of the times," she said.

A recently instilled program had given the opportunity to more African American students to attend Manhattanville. But the group, along with several other students on campus, felt they weren't being accepted by their peers.

So on that December evening, with finals fast approaching, the group locked themselves in and refused to leave unless a list of "non-negotiable" demands were met. The first takeover at an American all-women's school officially began on a Monday at 6:30 p.m.

Demands included admittance for 150 non-white students and for the addition of three black administrators. 

Although they didn't agree with the students' method, and the disruption it created on campus, the reaction from McCormack and Conroy was somewhat surprising. McCormack kept police from responding to the incident and made an effort to send food and blankets to the 18 girls.

"My first concern was: 'how are we going to take care of these darlings who are locked up in this building?'," Conroy said, adding that her next concern was addressing how other students would react and keeping outside protestors off school grounds.

"It was a tiring experience," she said.

The lockout continued through the week. McCormack said she visited the group two times to address their concerns, entering through a back window. Visits were tense at times, but she said she was impressed by their peaceful and diligent stance.

"The first night I was worried going in: what are they going to do to me?'," McCormack said. "As I got into the room I heard one 'revolutionary' say to another 'don't let her fall'."

Negotiations ended on Saturday, Dec. 13, when school leadership agreed to make some adjustments on campus. The incident cancelled final exams that semester, but the school chose not to punish the girls in Brownson Hall, instead choosing to recognize them for their convictions.

"Students (now) don't care, and it's disturbing," McCormack said looking back. "It was a great, although very difficult, time."

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