Campus Unrest at 50: Commemorating the Legacy of Dissent at Queens College

By Annie Tummino and Rachel Kahn

Queens College, City University of New York, was a microcosm of campus unrest in 1969, as multiple streams of dissent rocked the campus. The 50th anniversary of 1969 served as the perfect opportunity for current staff of the Special Collections and Archives (SCA) department to create an exhibit commemorating that memorable year. Untangling the events of 1969 was tricky business, as protests escalated in quick and dizzying succession. Moreover, this was our first experience putting together an exhibit.

Several positive outcomes resulted from this project. First, we possess a much better understanding of Queens College history in the late 1960s, as well as gaps in our collections that need to be filled. Second, we understand how to put together an effective exhibit, a skill that will carry over into future work. Third, and perhaps best of all, the exhibit served as a platform for outreach with community members, faculty, and donors, leading to increased involvement in the archives.

sitin1969
Sit-In, 1969, Queens College Communications Photographs.

1969 at Queens College
Two movements predominated during the 1968/1969 academic year at Queens College: anti-racist Black and Puerto Rican students sought self-determination and control over the Search for Education, Elevation, and Knowledge (SEEK) Program, while Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) targeted corporations like G.E. and Dow Chemical, exposing how they profited from the war in Vietnam. The movements were organized simultaneously and independently.

 

In 1966, the New York State legislature launched the SEEK Program to open the City University of New York to a new generation of working-class students. In 1969, the Queens College SEEK population was almost exclusively Black and Puerto Rican, but its teaching and administrative staff were almost entirely white. Informed by political ideologies of leaders like Malcolm X and organizations such as the Black Panthers and Young Lords, these students banded together to fight for autonomy over the curriculum and personnel of the SEEK program.

Meanwhile, predominantly white students, many of whom were active in the Queens College Chapter of SDS, led protests against the Vietnam War, taking aim at military and corporate recruiters on campus. As the students’ tactics escalated, so did the responses of the Queens College administration, leading to suspensions and arrests. To fight these crackdowns, an ad-hoc committee formed to fight for student rights and academic freedom on campus.

In the fall of 1968, a popular Marxist professor named Sheila Delany was fired (or technically, not rehired) by the English Department. The demand to “Reappoint Sheila Delany” became one of the rallying cries of the ad-hoc coalition, along with a demand to drop charges against students who had been suspended for disrupting the visit of a G.E. recruiter at the College Placement Bureau, and to reject the Max-Kahn Referendum, a CUNY policy which stated that the administration did not have to disclose the reasons when they chose not to reappoint faculty.

The SEEK activists won several of their demands, starting with the appointment of the first African American director. With increased autonomy, SEEK’s personnel and curriculum diversified, and Queens College SEEK became a truly innovative and representative educational program. Many of the demands of SDS and the ad-hoc committee were not met; however, significant changes to campus governance were made. Most significantly, an Academic Senate which gave voice to non-tenured faculty and students was established for the first time.

Lessons and New Directions
Co-curating the exhibit was equal parts daunting and exciting. We wanted to make sure that each part of the story was well represented, which was challenging for a few reasons. First, the bulk of our materials consisted of letters, flyers, and newspapers. While these print-based materials contained lots of relevant information, they often weren’t particularly eye catching.  Luckily, we were able to add visual interest by locating several relevant photographs in a recent unprocessed addition to our College Photographs Collection. We also had to learn to think like curators – figuring out which pieces were symbolic of larger events and would help the viewer understand the bigger picture. We worked hard to arrange the materials in a logical fashion, with text that was neither too long nor too short. This involved lots of staring from a distance, editing, and rearranging!

SEEK wheel
SEEK Coalition Flier, circa January 1969, Michael Wreszin Papers.

In terms of content, we wanted to represent both the anti-war and SEEK protests accurately and equitably. Unfortunately, the SEEK rebellion was not as well represented in our collections, illustrating the need for new and intentional documentation efforts. We did our best with what we had, including newspapers, a few key fliers, and information from a memoir by the Dean of Students. SCA also reached out to SEEK, borrowing a photograph for the exhibit, and utilizing and referencing a display located in the SEEK office.

SCA is staffed by a single full-time department head, along with several part-time archivists, student assistants, and graduate fellows. With the opening of a part-time position in February, SCA prioritized hiring someone with community documentation and oral history skills, who could help remedy gaps in our collections. We were thrilled to add Obden Mondesir, who has extensive experience managing oral history projects at the Weeksville Heritage Center, to our team. Obden is currently working on a historical treatment of the Queens College SEEK program and reaching out to existing contacts to gather names for possible interviews. We are excited to start this process with an interview of William Modeste, a counselor who has worked with SEEK since its inception at Queens College in 1966.

RachelandWally
Rachel Kahn and Wally Rosenthal at the exhibit.

Outreach and Engagement
It was fantastic to interview figures who were involved with the events of 1968/1969, including Sheila Delany (who went on to have a 36-year tenure at Simon Fraser University, pioneering gender studies and a Marxian approach to literature in many books and articles) as well as Wally Rosenthal, one of the student leaders of the anti-war demonstrations (who went on to serve as an “openly red” shop steward in his union). These interviews provided broader context for the events and helped clarify the narrative. For example, we assumed Sheila’s leftist politics had gotten her fired. Only from the interview did we understand the role that sexism played. As Sheila reported, she was told by the English Department Chair, “You could be a fascist or a communist, we don’t care if you’re charming enough.” She was also attacked as having an “abrasive” personality. From Wally we gained a better understanding of the thinking behind occupations and other disruptive tactics used in 1969. As quoted in the exhibit, the students were “protesting the administration’s complicity with corporations that produced weapons and other products used by the U.S. military in its horrific assault on the people of Vietnam and other Southeast Asian countries.” This anti-war position wasn’t always clear in the fliers from the period, which tended to focus on battles with the administration over suspensions and arrests. We also added panels that provided context for Sheila and Wally’s lives and continued activism since 1969.

The exhibit has also supported curriculum integration and programming. This past spring, we worked with a member of the history faculty to incorporate archival instruction into the class “America in the 1960s.” In addition to participating in a document analysis exercise and visiting the archives for research appointments, students were given the opportunity to write a reflection essay on the exhibit for extra credit. We are currently working with an English professor to incorporate primary sources into a class being offered this fall titled “Literature and Human Rights,” including a unit on the peace movement which will feature the exhibit, and Wally Rosenthal as a guest speaker. Finally, this September Sheila Delany is visiting Queens College all the way from Canada. We plan to track down additional 1969 associates to participate in a reception and Q & A, extending the invitation to current faculty and student activists. We hope this will be an opportunity not only to reminisce, but to discuss political parallels to today and how new generations of activists can bring the fight forward for a more just world.

You can preview the exhibit here and learn more about Queens College Special Collections and Archives here.


Annie Tummino is Head of Special Collections and Archives at the Benjamin S. Rosenthal Library, Queens College. Prior to that she worked as the Archivist at SUNY Maritime College and as a Project Archivist at several New York-based institutions. Outside of her paid work she organizes with National Women’s Liberation and volunteers for the Redstockings Archives for Action. She received her Masters of Library and Information Studies and Archives Certificate from Queens College in December 2010.

Rachel Kahn is an Archives Assistant at Special Collections and Archives at the Benjamin S. Rosenthal Library. She will be obtaining her MLS from Queens College in summer 2019. Previously, she obtained her MA in Cinema Studies in 2013 from San Francisco State University, where she became the first media librarian for the film department. She has done archival work with such institutions as the Museum of Jewish Heritage, the Museum of the Moving Image, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, and HBO.

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