Jenness House: A fight for recognition

The Multicultural Center’s struggle for appreciation is best embodied in the words of Sharon George ‘91: “We are seeking to make life bearable here. You ask, ‘why aren’t we integrating?’ We are asking for acknowledgment and respect for our differences… Don’t ask us to integrate if you’re not ready to acknowledge what we are.”

Most students are not aware that we even have a Multicultural Center here at Williams, much less where it is, what it does, or why such a center is needed. Moreover, the center’s existence leads students to question why minority students must always segregate themselves.

A quick lesson is needed on the MCC. First of all, Williams does have a Multicultural Center, located in Jenness House. Unfortunately, many Williams students do not know where Jenness House is or how it serves the students and the community at large. For those of you who do not know, the MCC is behind the science quad next to Hardy House and is responsible for facilitating much of the academic and cultural programming on campus.

Until the late 1980s, there was no Multicultural Center. In 1988 the organization had many meetings with administration about their concerns, the last of which was on Mar. 17 of that year. C.A.R.E. (Coalition Against Racist Education) was tired of talking and listening to the administration’s promises. They felt they were not being taken seriously and decided to take action.

On Apr. 22, 1988, thirty students armed with a list of demands stormed Jenness House and took over the Deans’ offices. They demanded that the college require students to take a course in minority history and or culture, establish a Minority Special Assistant to the president, create a non-voting minority chair on the Committee on Appointments and Promotions, increase recruitment and scholarships for Blacks and Latinos from low socio- economic (and preferably urban) backgrounds, maintain two visiting professorships for Latino faculty, have one Black and one Latino tenure track professor in Division Three, assist the WBSU (Williams Black Student Union) in creating a memorial for the former theater professor Michael Knight ’77, and to have a percentage of Black and Latino faculty matching that of the student body.

The students planned their take-over to coincide with parents weekend to heighten their visibility. They got their wish and then some, as they were given national attention. The New York Times and The Boston Globe ran the story in their newspapers. Television stations across the country featured the story, some sending cameras to cover the negotiations process. President Oakley, the Dean of the College, and Provost Grabois met with fifteen students in Physics 107 to discuss the demands. They agreed that the college would work to address three areas: “the minority presence at Williams, the minority experience in the Williams curriculum, and the minority students and student life at Williams.”

The take-over lasted the entire weekend, ending on Sunday at 2:00 PM. The intially respectful campus reaction turned sour Saturday night, when one of the protesters returned to her room to find that someone had written “Niggers get out of Jenness” in shaving cream on her door. There were also reports of rocks being thrown at the windows of Jenness House Saturday evening. The Dean of the College confirmed that there were incidents which contained racial overtones. Vista, the Jewish Association, AASIA, and the BSU provided both physical and moral support for the student protesters, while Gladden House provided them with food. Throughout the take over the students were threatened with disciplinary action, but no such action was taken against any of the students involved.

Consequently, the college agreed to address the three aforementioned areas. Oakley supported a divisional requirement which would acquaint students with American minorities as well as the populations of Africa, Asia or Latin America. The college established four named scholarships supporting students from low socioeconomic backgrounds with preference to minority students, especially those from urban areas.

This take-over was not just a Williams phenomenon. All over the country students of color were demanding recognition. Duke, Wesleyan and the University of Vermont were among some of the schools involved in this nation-wide effort.

Today the MCC remains a vital part of the Williams College community. It houses the offices of Vista, AASIA, KASO and KOW as well as the offices of the director, secretary, programming director and others. It employs approximately 10 work study students. There is a library and TV room, as well as a conference room and a kitchen. Aside from the educational aspect, the MCC is above all a house. It is a safe space for students to communicate with one another, watch TV, eat, study, and learn from each other’s experiences. Despite misconceptions, it is open to all students, staff, and faculty. Those willing to learn are especially welcome.

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