Student-administration tension leads to change

Daily Sundial

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Founded in 1968, CSUN’s Pan-African Studies department is one of the largest of its kind in the nation, and along with Chicano/a Studies, one of the first ethnic studies departments in the CSU system.

That was not always the case.

More than 37 years ago, CSUN, then called San Fernando Valley State College, was a predominately white campus within a wealthy community with little diversity in both the student body and the curriculum offered.

Many CSUN students are not aware of the struggles that took place in 1968 and how the creation of the Black Studies Department came at a heavy price.

“If you believe in something, you should be willing to fight for it,” said Arthur Jones, a former student and professor at CSUN.

On Monday, Nov. 4, 1968, more than 20 black students took over the fifth floor of the administration building disputing the treatment of minority students at CSUN.

“Nov. 4 basically was a catalyst to start the black student movement on the campus,” Jones said.

After a white CSUN football coach kicked a black student athlete during a game, a number of representatives from the Black Student Union set up a meeting with Glenn Arnett, director of athletics, to discuss the incident.

Student leader Archie Chatman and other black students, including Jones, demanded that the football coach be fired immediately.

“The meeting accomplished nothing,” Jones said.

Arnett said he did not have the power to terminate the coach.

“But that was a lie,” Jones said.

The students were advised to take the matter up with then-university president Paul Blomgren.

About 50 students marched from the physical education building to the administration building, with Arnett and athletic department faculty members Byrne Fernelius and Sam Winningham being forced to accompany the students against their will.

During the march the three faculty members were surrounded by a number of students.

The students entered the first floor of the administration building and asked to speak with the president and were told he was not on campus. The students then proceeded to the fifth floor of the administration building where the president’s office was located.

Hours later, President Blomgren arrived and the students forced him to sign a paper with a list of demands created by the students.

“Nobody was really aware of what we were doing at the time,” said Jones, then 28 years old and newly married.

Jones said on that day in the administration building the black students felt a sense of empowerment.

“We were so used to white people telling us what we can and can’t do, and now we had the chance to tell them what to do,” Jones said.

The student struggle did not end on Nov. 4.

In January of 1969, there were two days of rallies and protests by a coalition of students from all walks of CSUN life. A state of emergency was declared on the campus and a massive police presence by the Los Angeles Police Department led to the arrests of more than 200 students. A number of media outlets converged onto the CSUN campus.

“Basically everyone who got up to speak at the podium was arrested,” Jones said.

Soon after, a committee was formed between blacks, Chicanos and other minorities. The groups put together a 12-point plan to improve the academic environment for students of color.

The students were granted six out of the 12 points by the university, including the establishment of a Black Studies Department, the hiring of black faculty members, elevation of black personnel on campus, a commitment to increase the black student population, grievance boards for student complaints and tutorial facilities.

Nineteen students were eventually convicted on various charges from the November incident, but only a few actually served jail time.

This group of students became known as the “Valley State 19.”

Although Jones never spent more than a night in jail, he was convicted of charges against him

Jones returned to CSUN, eventually earning a bachelor’s degree in art. In 1971, he became an art professor in the Pan-African Studies Department.

He credits Jerome Walker and Bill Burwell with contributing to and influencing the black student movement on campus. Jones said Burwell and Walker taught black students to see the harsh realities of America, and to stop trying to live the American Dream.

The two activists helped Jones and Archie Chatman develop a sense of consciousness about their surroundings.

“Once Archie got involved (in BSU) he took it to the next level,” Jones said of his old friend’s assent as both a student and department leader.

“The department was developed by the same students who were charged,” Jones said.

The Pan-African Studies Department was designed not only to educate blacks about their heritage, but also to bring about social change and to help in the struggle for racial justice.

James Dennis, CSUN professor emeritus, said the Black Studies Department’s importance should not be lost on students, calling its establishment one of the most significant events of the last century.

“For the first time in the history of education we had people focusing in on black studies,” Dennis said. “The African-American experience was missing in the education system. It was as if we were invisible. We wanted to change that and more importantly, change the minds of black folks.”

Months before retirement, Professor Barbara Rhodes sits in her office on the second floor of the faculty building, searching through old newspapers and reflecting back on her experience as one of the first black professors recruited to join the PAS Department at CSUN.

Prior to coming to CSUN in the fall of 1969, Rhodes taught English in the black studies program at UCLA. More than three decades removed from those early days in CSUN’s history, the Pan-African Studies professor is still moved by the experience.

“I enjoyed being apart of the process of black studies,” Rhodes said. “Having our own discipline was a historic event, and I enjoyed every aspect of it.”

The biggest challenge many ethnic studies programs face is how to maintain the sense of urgency and need from those earlier days, those interviewed said.

Dennis and Jones share similar views on the uncertain direction the PAS department is taking. They said the message is lost in black studies because most black students feel they already know all there is know to know about black people.

“Students nowadays tend to forget the history of African Americans because they’re worried about themselves and have forgotten about the future,” Jones said.

Valencia Bankston can be reached at vbankston97@hotmail.com.