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a small insurrection a great divide

In 1968 Reed’s Black Student Union barricaded the president’s office.
In the end, the highest wall wasn’t built between the black students and the college,
but between two bitterly opposed groups of the faculty.

By Todd Schwartz

insurrection photoEven though she had been half expecting it, the ring of the phone startled Linda Howard ’70 awake. The sound cut deeply into the silent, very early hours of Wednesday, December 11, 1968.

She knew what the call signaled—the time had come.

The overall plan, and the specific night they would seize Eliot Hall, was known to only three people. But like several of the other 38 black students at Reed, Howard had been given duties to perform when the moment arrived. First, she called the people on her list to let them know that it was on. Then she gathered up the several hundred slips of paper that were hidden under her bed, quietly left her room, and walked over to put one in each of the student mailboxes.

The notes read, “The Black Student Union of Reed College has taken over the second floor of Eliot Hall.”

Then she reported to the dark and empty building, where members of the Black Student Union broke a window and went up the stairs to president Victor Rosenblum’s office. Four or five of them locked themselves inside the office with their resolve and a box of groceries. The rest, using lumber and furniture, barricaded themselves in the main hallway, controlling the admission, registrar’s, and financial offices, along with the faculty mailboxes.

Howard, a junior from Virginia, hadn’t been involved in the planning for this action. “The leaders of the BSU told me I had too many white friends,” she remembers now, “and that I couldn’t be trusted.” But she had, in fact, been entrusted with a final, very public task. A few hours later she would stand in the cold morning air to greet Rosenblum, whom she knew well, when he arrived at Eliot. Howard remembers being nervous, but not afraid. And she remembers, 35 years later, the exact words she used. “Good morning, President Rosenblum,” she said to the surprised and soon-to-be angry man. “Your office has been converted to other purposes by the Black Student Union. You are invited to a meeting at noon today in the chapel, where all of the details will be made clear to you.”

So began seven days of what, by the standards of the 1960s, was a small insurrection—but one that opened a great divide for a generation of the Reed faculty.

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