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NU marks ’68 Bursar’s Takeover, 38-hour anti-racism protest watched by nation

Kathryn Ogletree, a retired administrator at Ohio Wesleyan University, was an 18-year-old freshman at Northwestern University during the Bursar's Office Takeover of 1968. As president of N.U.’s African-American student group, she was lead negotiator during the harrowing 38-hour standoff. | Photo by David Rudd

It was early morning May 3, 1968, on the campus of north suburban Northwestern University, which then had a population of about 115 African-American students.

Plans had been laid the night before for what would become known as the Bursar’s Office Takeover.

Just before 8 a.m., about 100 students stormed NU’s central offices, triggering a 38-hour standoff with police and administrators.

“We’d been talking back and forth with the university for months with our concerns. We weren’t getting anywhere,” said Kathryn Ogletree, a retired administrator at Ohio Wesleyan University, at NU on Thursday for events commemorating the 50th anniversary of the incident.

“We were experiencing racism from white students and racism in residence hall policies. We had nowhere to congregate, no representation. The takeover had been our last resort,” said Ogletree, then an 18-year-old freshman, and president of NU’s African-American student group.

“We knew we were risking our lives and our college careers, against the landscape of racial tensions and what had just happened at Columbia University,” said Ogletree, who was lead negotiator.

Martin Luther King had been assassinated a month earlier. The nation was wracked by demonstrations.

Days earlier, on April 30, 1968, New York City police had violently quashed a weeklong student occupation of Columbia University buildings, resulting in 712 students arrested and injuries to more than 100 students, faculty and police officers.

Jabbar Bennett, Associate Provost for Diversity and Inclusion, Northwestern University. | Provided photo

With the nation watching — and police contemplating a replay of Columbia — negotiations began over African-American students’ demands for policies combating campus racism.

In the end, NU took a different path than Columbia, negotiating resolution of the students’ demands. Their agreement had a lasting impact on universities nationwide, and forever changed NU policies affecting black student enrollment, student housing and the study of black history.

“The celebration of these events reminds us of the important issues of the past that still challenge us and many members of the black community today — and essentially underscores and acknowledges our history,” said Jabbar Bennett, NU’s associate provost and chief diversity officer.

John Bracey, a department chair and co-director of African-American Graduate Studies at the University of Massachusetts was a graduate student at Northwestern University to whom undergraduates turned to help organize the Bursar’s Office Takeover of 1968. He was a leader of the 38-hour sit-in. | Photo by David Rudd

John Bracey, a department chair at the University of Massachusetts, was a graduate student at NU who had been active in the civil rights movement, when undergraduate students asked him to help organize the takeover.

“We didn’t know how many of the students would show up that morning. Of the 115, we ended up with 100. A lot of them were first-generation college students, who had a lot to lose. But they hung in there . . . and they won,” said Bracey, who was also here for the commemoration.

“They proved that a principled and courageous group of people can change any situation. If they can do it, young people today can do it too.”