Fifty years ago on Jan. 14, 1969, frustrated African-American students at the University of Minnesota decided to occupy Morrill Hall on the East Bank of campus to protest racism at the university.
What resulted was a significant turning point in the school’s history, including the creation of the Department of African American & African Studies, one of the first of its kind in the U.S.
The Morrill Hall takeover’s roots trace back to the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968. King’s death resulted in an outpouring of grief around the country, and at the U of M, the Minnesota Student Association quickly announced an MLK memorial fund to support low-income students; the administration, meanwhile, formed a human rights task force to address issues such as race relations on campus.
A week after the assassination, the Afro-American Action Committee (AAAC), a black student organization, presented the task force with a list of demands, including better recruitment and scholarships for black students and the creation of an African-American studies curriculum at the university.
At the time, the U of M had an estimated 100 black students on campus, despite some 40,000 students overall, and its curriculum on African-American experiences was sorely lacking.
Horace Huntley, secretary of the AAAC, recalled an American history class where the professor spent only 10 minutes covering all of African-American history. When Huntley asked if the course would cover any more African-American content, the professor replied, “Well, is there more?”
After the AAAC presented its demands to the administration, the students waited, but by January 1969, they were frustrated by a lack of movement.
On Jan. 13, the group presented three demands to President Malcolm Moos: Establish an African-American studies program by fall 1969, transfer management of the MLK scholarship fund to a black community organization and provide financial support from the university for a black student conference on campus.
The next day, about 70 black students met with President Moos about their concerns. But after the conversation wasn’t productive, the students decided to stage a protest in the funding and records office in Morrill Hall. The AAAC allowed staff to leave, but prevented anyone from entering the building by securing doors with coat hangers and eventually piling up desks as barricades.
Soon a crowd began to form outside the building to witness the takeover and, after nightfall, some 60 white students from the organization Students for a Democratic Society joined the protest in Morrill Hall’s outer lobby.
The takeover had detractors, too. Angry white students threw snowballs and rocks, shouted derogatory remarks and discussed storming the building. But other than a single student who bruised his back after being pushed away from entering Morrill Hall, the takeover stayed peaceful.
Victory and repercussions
Throughout the protest, the AAAC and administration negotiated, and after 24 hours, the two sides came to an agreement to end the takeover, with the U of M accepting most of the students’ demands. To avoid the gathered crowds, student protesters used underground tunnels to leave Morrill Hall.
In the aftermath of the takeover, some Minnesota state legislators were eager to rebuke the student protesters. Bills were introduced to deny state scholarship money to student demonstrators and punish demonstrators who caused injury or damage to public property.
In March, a Hennepin County grand jury indicted three AAAC students — Huntley; AAAC president Rose Mary Freeman; and Warren Tucker Jr. — on charges of aggravated criminal damage to property, rioting and unlawful assembly.
When the trial began in October, nearly 1,000 people, mostly students, marched to support the Morrill Hall Three. Ultimately, Tucker was acquitted of all charges while Freeman and Huntley were convicted on the charge of unlawful assembly. They were each given a 90-day suspended sentence and one year of probation.
Honoring the past
The AAAC students weren’t acting in a vacuum at the U of M. In Minnesota and across the country, black student activists were fighting for change on college campuses in the 1960s.
Today the U of M is home to Huntley Hall, a learning community for black men on campus. Horace Huntley is now a retired professor from the University of Alabama, Birmingham. In 2019, the University of Minnesota’s African American & African Studies department celebrates its 50th anniversary and includes among its faculty Dr. John Wright, who participated in the AAAC takeover in 1969.
Lauren Peck is a public relations specialist for the Minnesota Historical Society.