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Black Student Activism at Penn

February 18, 2011
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During the late 1960s and early 1970s the number of Black undergraduates at the University of Pennsylvania grew dramatically. These students influenced by Black Power, Black Nationalism and the Cultural Revolution had different backgrounds, ideas and interests than the affluent middle and upper class white students who constituted the majority of the undergraduate population. During this time, Black students successfully protested for the creation of several on-campus institutions as well as for improvements in the surrounding community.

For example, on April 29, 1968 members of the Society of African and Afro-American Students (SAAS) held a demonstration at 133 S. 36th Street where a branch of Girard Bank was located. SAAS charged the building owners with racial discrimination because there were no black employees. That morning, SAAS members carried placards and picketed in front of the building entrances. Their activism resulted in a meeting with the university’s president, Gaylord Harnwell, high officials of the administration, and the building owners. While the owners denied any personal knowledge of discrimination, they promised that 2 Black people would be hired to fill existing vacancies and that SAAS would be notified of any future job openings in the building. This demonstration was one of the very first recorded protests by Black students at Penn.

More recently, in 2004 Black students and faculty peacefully marched down Locust Walk to College Hall demanding to speak with President Amy Gutmann regarding a conflict between a Black Penn student and Penn police. The group, dressed in all black clothing expressed concern about racial profiling and the recent mistaken arrest of a Black student by Penn police. Students held signs reading, “Do I fit the description?” and “Students against racial profiling.” After 2 hours of an impressive, well-organized silent protest, three student representatives were allowed to meet with Gutmann, the Interim Provost and Chaplain William Gipson after which all parties seemed satisfied.

Marlowe Williams, C’11

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