Alumni Recollections: Dramatic ’69 Confrontation Altered UC’s History
May 19, 2016
“… I therefore give, devise and bequeath to the City of Cincinnati, and to its successors, for the purpose of building, establishing and maintaining as soon as practicable, after my decease, two Colleges for the education of white Boys and Girls, all the following real and personal estate, in trust forever, to wit …”
From the will of Charles McMicken, probated June 10, 1858
* * *
If Charles McMicken isn’t the father of the University of Cincinnati, he certainly was the benefactor whose gift provided the impetus for creating the institution we know today. The prominent 19th-century businessman held a personal desire to establish a university in his hometown. His 1858 death and bequeathal of most of his estate made that possible, although the Civil War, various litigations challenging the will, and the gathering of additional needed funds delayed the university’s opening until 1870. Still, the terms of the will specifying who was to be educated at the school would reverberate for more than a century, helping to shape UC forever.
* * *
“Our approach at that time was, if they don’t like what we’re doing, then we must be doing the right thing. It was just that kind of mindset.”
—Bob Merriweather, April 2016
* * *
When 1970 graduates Harrison Blackmond and Bob Merriweather returned in April for Alumni Weekend 2016, they hadn’t seen each other since they’d worked side-by-side as leaders of UC’s chapter of the United Black Association (UBA) in the late 1960s. Reunited, they reminisced about those turbulent times and their roles in advancing the university in terms of creating a more meaningful experience for African American students.
Blackmond and Merriweather have always been strategic thinkers. Blackmond studied speech pathology at UC, added a master’s in audiology, and then a law degree from the University of Michigan. His career has been spent in professional development, labor relations, educational reform and human resources roles primarily in Michigan. Merriweather’s degree is in mathematics. He has spent decades in the Cincinnati corporate world as a diversity-focused consultant, facilitator and trainer. Both men understand now, as they did in college, the inner workings of human motivation and cause-and-effect.
Against a backdrop of the escalating Vietnam War, the ongoing civil rights struggle and increasing student activism across the collegiate landscape, frustrations within the UBA had reached critical mass.
Change Has to Happen
“We’d had a little demonstration in ’68 and got no attention whatsoever,” recalls Blackmond. “People just took it as a bunch of black students with signs walking around the administration building. The administration was happy to sit down and talk, but nothing would change, so we figured we had to do something a little more aggressive. We came up with a list of demands, and on that fateful day, May 20, 1969, I stood out on the bridge by Tangeman University Center.”
Flanked by dozens of concerned students, Blackmond used a bullhorn to say the group was headed to the Administration Building (now Van Wormer Hall) to present their case to UC President Walter Langsam. As the 30 or so UBA members walked, they saw hundreds of students — black and white — coming along. Langsam soon appeared and was told about the demands, as well as UBA’s contention that all afternoon classes would be canceled to emphasize the urgency of the dialogue. When Langsam declined to do so and departed to absorb the list he’d been given, UBA made its second move.
“I told the students, ‘Since he won’t call off classes, we will,’” says Blackmond. With that, UBA students, accompanied by members of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), began going through academic buildings and classrooms to enforce the class cancelations.
“Whereas UBA was a black movement, SDS was a white group and more militant and confrontational than we were,” says Merriweather. “We all wanted to work for change, but they did their thing and we did our thing. We wanted constructive change, which is why we wanted to meet with the president. My memory is that when we said there would be no classes, SDS students started throwing chairs and kicking people out and slamming doors. They took it to another level.”
The desired meeting with the president and his cabinet came quickly, and Blackmond remembers Langsam asking, “How did all this get started?” Blackmond pointed to UC’s own origins as the catalyst.
“If you go over to the library, there’s a case holding a book which is open to a page that describes the founding of the university, right there for everybody to see,” Blackmond recalls telling the president. “It says, ‘Charles McMicken gave 10,000 acres of land to the City of Cincinnati to establish a university to educate white boys and girls.’”
At that point, Blackmond remembers Ralph Bursiek, who was UC’s executive vice president, erupting.
“He jumps up and comes over to me, and his face is just red, and he’s yelling, ‘You started it — you’re the one who started it!’ And that was the point where we thought, ‘Hey, they’re reacting to us now. We’ve got some power here. Maybe we’re able to move this university.’”
UC’s leaders were not alone in feeling the heat. Black student organizations had been sprouting up nationally; demonstrations and demands were becoming common.
“But you couldn’t make a demand with a smile on your face — you had to be serious,” Merriweather says. “Previously it seemed that the UBA had been more about making friends with the administration, but eventually we came to feel that the more the administration liked us, then we weren’t doing our job in terms of addressing these major issues. We embraced a quote from Frederick Douglass, ‘Power concedes nothing without a demand.’
Original Sin Undone
UBA’s struggle was inevitable in the life of the university, yet the group likely didn’t realize the personal wishes expressed in McMicken’s bequest never had any traction. Born in 1782 in Pennsylvania, McMicken moved to Cincinnati in 1803 and became a wealthy merchant and slaveholder (although his will also stipulated that any slaves he might hold upon his death would be summarily freed). The writing of his will and his subsequent death predated the Civil War. And culturally, 19th-century Cincinnati was in many ways as much Southern as Northern.
Recognizing the immense opportunity provided to them by McMicken’s estate, the city fathers worked toward establishing the university McMicken proposed, but they also understood the impracticality and moral issues inherent in precisely enacting his wishes regarding admissions in an increasingly cosmopolitan city, especially post-emancipation. In fact, the city contested the will all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled that since the will did not specifically exclude people of color, admissions would not be restricted to whites. From 1870 when it opened its doors, UC has had no such racially based exclusion.
* * *
From President Langsam’s “Open Letter to the Students” in the 1968 Cincinnatian yearbook: “Nothing is so permanent as change. Relatively few people, however, seem to recognize this fact … A static world is a retrogressive world. Our thirst for knowledge and its responsible use therefore should be unquenchable …The solution to bigotry remains buried in men’s hearts…”
* * *
Like McMicken, Walter Langsam was a product of his times and environment. In the spring of 1969 he was 14 years into his tenure as UC’s 21st president. (He had previously led Wagner College in New York as well as, interestingly, Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania, around which was fought the Civil War’s signature battle.) Through his UC years, he successfully oversaw a complex institution that grew enrollment from 14,000 to 35,000 while its operating budget grew tenfold.
Yet, in retrospect, Blackmond and Merriweather feel his personal experiences — and those of most of his advisors — may have left him ill-prepared to fully internalize what was being presented to him at that pivotal time.
In the demonstration’s aftermath, Blackmond was one of several students pegged for expulsion, but two senior administrators testified on his behalf.
“Bill Nester, who was dean of students, said that of all the people who were around that day, I did as much as anyone to try and control what was happening. The other one was Richard Baker, who was director of community relations, and I’d spent a lot of time talking with him about what was going on. So they decided not to expel me.”
Some significant changes resulted from the confrontation — a new Black Studies Department, the hiring of more black faculty, outreach to recruit more black students, and greater student involvement with important university issues. Still, UBA leaders knew that future progress would be challenging due to what they perceived as a fundamental disconnect with the administration, the result of a dearth of understanding on the part of the administration and UBA around what life was like for the other.
* * *
From President Langsam’s “A Letter to the Students” in the 1969 Cincinnatian yearbook: “One of the challenges facing us today is the modification of cultural patterns and prejudices that tend to act as barriers against the direct and basic interchange of ideas.”
* * *
During the years when the university printed a hard-bound yearbook, an editorial and design theme was usually employed throughout. The university’s sesquicentennial provided the creative framework for the 1969 edition. Ironically, a retracing of UC’s 1819 origins and the historic McMicken gift contrasted with campus life in 1969, underscoring the events of that May.
* * *
From the introductory pages in the 1969 Cincinnatian: …The establishment of the University of Cincinnati on a secure base became possible in 1858 through the munificent bequest of Charles McMicken to the city for this purpose … 1968-69 marks the 150th anniversary of UC. In this current period of rapid flux, students are no longer willing to remain passive. Involvement is the key phrase for today’s generation. It means an awareness of political, social, economic events and an interest in revitalizing and restructuring the world.