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The Willard Straight Takeover & The Legacy of Black Students

This course focuses on the complex history related to this famous incident from 1969 and draws on a range of materials, including some of the archival resources available in the John Henrik Clarke Library.  It is interdisciplinary and comparative in orientation and incorporates community engagement.  The April 19, 1969 incident known as “the Willard Straight Takeover” occurred during Parents’ Weekend when black students occupied the student union on campus and, when threatened, returned with firearms in self-defense and also advocated for an Africana center to be developed.  When the takeover ended, the students were photographed by Steve Starr as they exited with their firearms.  The image won a Pulitzer Prize and has become iconic and world-famous.  This protest, which one of its most vocal critics has identified as a catalyst for the nation’s “culture wars,” is one of the most important events in the history of Cornell University, even if the memory has been deeply unsettling for some.  Yet, even after nearly fifty years have passed, this event remains misunderstood, and its facts are sometimes grossly distorted or exaggerated.  Even worse, sometimes this history has been forgotten or else routinely omitted from major histories and timelines at Cornell.  In all of these respects, it is absolutely crucial to set the record straight.  The topic of the Willard Straight Takeover is one of great interest and fascination among many students.  The main goal in developing this course is to make a scholarly framework available in which they might expand and reinforce their knowledge of this topic, while contributing to new research on it, for so many students are curious about this history.  Black women were central in the development of this student movement from its inception, a role that is frequently discussed in relation to the incident with black female students at Wari House.  One of the goals of the course is to highlight the crucial contributions of women to the Willard Straight Takeover, which have sometimes been overlooked.  This background underscores that there is no one history or narrative of the Willard Straight Takeover incident, but many overlapping histories, and that gender, race, and class have been central factors in constituting them.  Students will explore these materials as a way of gaining a basic historical introduction to this incident.  In the process, they will reinforce their skills for analyzing and interpreting various media and archival materials.