Celebrating 50 years of African American studies

Rose Mary Freeman, Horace Huntley, and Warren Tucker Jr.
Protesting students Rose Mary Freeman, Horace Huntley, and Warren Tucker Jr. celebrate after the successful takeover of Morrill Hall.

On January 14, 1969, a group of about 70 African American students—along with community activists—occupied administrative offices on the first floor of Morrill Hall with a list of demands for then-president Malcolm Moos.

The protesters were led by Horace Huntley and Rose Mary Freeman, two officers of the Afro-American Action Committee. They negotiated with Moos and other administrators and finally reached an agreement after about 24 hours.

That demonstration led directly to the creation of the Department of Afro-American and African Studies at the University of Minnesota. Now named the Department of African American & African Studies, the department is celebrating its 50th anniversary this spring.

John Wright is a professor in the department and in 1969 was involved in the takeover as a student. Wright points out that the protest was a culmination of months of unrest and unmet student demands, triggered by the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968.

It was also part of a groundswell of activism affecting colleges from the South to the North, public and private. “We had the sense of being engaged in something that was nationwide,” Wright says.

As his department and the Morrill Hall takeover reach the 50-year milestone, Wright is even more aware of the span of that movement.

“I’ve always considered [that] to be—and now, more so than ever—a transformative moment in the University’s history,” he says. “At the same time, I’m also much more aware now of the historical backdrop for that, because ours was not the first black student unit to confront the University administration. … I have a much clearer sense of our being part of a trans-generational process, not simply a product of the 1960s.”

A new gallery exhibit, "Takeover: Morrill Hall, 1969," is opening January 22 in Northrop's fourth-floor gallery to tell the story of these events. The exhibit features archival documents, photographs, and recordings—some publicly exhibited for the first time. Also learn more about a yearlong series of teach-ins examining the past, present, and future of black protest, activism, and community uplift, beginning with a teach-in on January 29.