You are on the campus of Michigan State University, East Lansing, Michigan. It is Spring Term, 1969. This is a true story.
It was a late Monday afternoon in the last week of April. Spring was in full bloom. After hibernating in the dorms all winter, we were reveling in soaking up the sun. The University grounds were now green in contrast to the depressing drabness of late winter. We could open our dorm room window and enjoy the warm breeze. Every once in a while someone would set their stereo speakers in their dorm window, put a favorite record on and crank it up loud. A few more weeks and the term would be over, and the campus would pretty well empty out for the summer.
It was time to go to work. I worked about 12 or so hours a week in the Wilson Hall cafeteria. Wilson Hall was one of the many dorms on the campus of our major state university. For this Sophomore year of my college life, it had been my home away from home.
This particular day I was scheduled to work the supper shift. As student employees, we would go in early and eat our own supper before the shift started. Then the dining room doors would be opened to the general dorm population.
I went up to the cafeteria kitchen area and got a tray of food. The full time cafeteria workers were busy in the kitchen finishing up the supper preparations. I took my filled tray out into the dining hall. Other of my fellow student employees were already there, including our student supervisor. Over the school year we had gotten to know one another, and had formed the kind of acquaintances one forms when rubbing elbows with one another at work and in our common student life as residents in the same dorm.
I sat down to eat, and tuned in to the conversation at the table. That was my first hint that not all was well, though the full import of the conversation did not dawn on me until latter. The table was abuzz with the news that three of the full time cafeteria workers had walked off the job. And it was no coincidence that all three who had walked off the job were Americans of African descent; in our cultural vernacular "blacks". It seems they were upset by certain actions and treatment by the cafeteria manager and also the assistant manager. One of the white part time female student workers made a comment about how this particular manager had an alleged reputation for being a little free with the women workers. Implied in that comment was the kind of alleged activity, which if proven true, would in future years get such a person fired for sexual harassment.
The table we were using was at the west end of the dining hall; the end closest to the kitchen area. The main public doors into the dining hall were at the east end. I happened to glance down that way. Through the windows of those east doors I saw black students milling around; some peeking in at us momentarily. That was a little odd, but then there always were some students who lined up at the dining hall door a little earlier then the opening time for supper. I turned back to my plate of food.
The doors suddenly banged open. We looked up to see a wave of black faced humanity surging towards us. I would not say they were angry faces as much as they were very sober and purposefully serious faces. We sat there quietly. I don't know if it can be said we were afraid as such. I think we were trying to comprehend what was happening.
They came on across the cafeteria, approaching our table. There was some shoving of tables and chairs, but nothing to indicate that the intent was to trash the property. The thought in my mind was they probably intended some kind of non-violent sit-in based on the model used in the Civil Rights movement of recent years. One of them, I assume he was one of the leaders, firmly but very politely asked us to leave. I distinctly remember that politeness, and my concluding from it that what was happening was indeed intended to be non-violent. We kind of glanced at one another, then the student supervisor told us to comply. I can only assume he purposed to avoid confrontation, and that in line with his responsibility for his and our safety, as well as the realization that what was happening would have to be handled at a much higher level then his.
We got up to leave. I do not remember if we took our trays with us or not. I have it in mind that we didn't. We went back through the kitchen area, and down the stairs to the first floor. The full time kitchen workers were down there also. Just about all of the full time workers were women, and many of them about the same age as my own mother or older. Of course at this point, the only full time workers gathered there with us were those who were Americans of European descent; in our cultural vernacular "white". Over the year as we had worked in the cafeteria, we had gotten to know some of them and would banter back and forth with them. I suppose to some degree some of them were like substitute mom's and grandma's to some of us.
One of these ladies, an older white haired lady was agitated. She was worried that up in the kitchen was a drawer full of knives, and she feared those knives would be taken by the blacks. I agreed to go back up and get the knives out of the drawer and bring them down. She told me exactly where the drawer was, and gave me an apron to wrap them in so they wouldn't be seen when I brought them out. I will leave it to you the reader to choose for yourself if what I was about to do was brave or foolish. For myself, in retrospect as you will see, it was neither.
Taking the apron in hand, I headed back up the stairs to the kitchen. At that point, no one else was in the area. I went to the drawer and opened it. I glanced up to see a black student walking across the other side of the kitchen. He glanced my way, said nothing, and kept right on walking to wherever it was he was going. I remember the glance. It was not threatening, an almost friendly look as though nodding to one another when meeting on the street.
I scooped up the knives into the apron and turned to leave. As I was turning, I inadvertently bumped a tray of dessert dishes. The dishes were filled with a fruit cocktail, and the tray had been set there as part of the supper preparations. One of the dishes fell off the tray.
I was a little stunned and thought, "Boy am I in for it now!" Then a voice called out from over on the other side of the kitchen. I didn't see the speaker, and I don't remember the exact words, but the clear meaning was, "Hey! None of that! No busting things up!"
I headed back down the stairs thinking how ironic it was that the only property damage done in this whole affair was not done by any of the blacks, but me, the white guy breaking the dish. Once back downstairs, I delivered the knives to a much relived and thankful, dear little old white haired lady.
At that point there was nothing more for us to do, The Black Student Association held the cafeteria, and no supper was going to be served there on this late afternoon in April.
The Assistant cafeteria manger went home that night and never returned to work.
A day or so latter, a hearing was held where the three full time black employees aired their grievances.
As a result of the hearing, the cafeteria manager and a dorm manager were moved to non-supervisory jobs, the three black workers were reinstated in their jobs, and an ombudsman office was set up in the University to handle grievances involving racial issues. There were other changes recommended relating to these items as well as race relations at the University in general. The Black Student Association agreed to end the cafeteria sit-in.
Dr. Walter Adams in his capacity as temporary University President is to be credited for handling the Wilson Hall Cafeteria incident in a manner that worked to defuse the situation rather then confront it. My own observations of his actions at that time confirm those written records crediting him for keeping this incident from becoming the kind of ugly confrontation that would have left a permanent negative mark on the University.
As far as I know, aside from the prepared food that had to be thrown out, the only real property damage from this incident was one broken dessert dish; broken not by any black students involved in the takeover, but broken by one clumsy white guy. And now you know the rest of the story. Peace.
Copyright © April, 2009, forty years latter. All rights reserved.
"BSA holds Wilson cafeteria; claims harassment of blacks" ; Michigan State News, April 29, 1969
"Wilson hearing airs charges; BSA stays; decision pending"; Michigan State News, April 30, 1969
"BSA leaves Wilson cafeteria; committee suggests 9 changes"; Michigan State News, May 1, 1969
"Adams’s Peace In History: MSU’s Approach To Student Activism From 1967-1970"; Susanna A. Muzbeck and Kahler B. Schuemann ; (Date unknown); paper published