An Overlooked History
African American studies was born from the struggles of black students and staff on campus in the 1960s
On March 3, 1969, members of the Black Student Movement and other UNC students entered Lenoir Dining Hall, where employees were in the midst of a month-long strike, with the intention of slowing down service. In a first attempt, they sat one to a table with just a glass of water at each. But when that didn’t garner sufficient attention from university officials, the group returned the next day with a more volatile tactic in mind.
BSM leader Preston Dobbins and several other students stood at one end of Lenoir, announcing that everyone should either “Get out or come with us.” The group then moved through the room shouting, overturning tables, throwing chairs and inciting a few scuffles that resulted in minor injuries. One student was hit in the head with a sugar shaker and required almost 15 stitches.
The Lenoir food workers’ strike was coming to a head.
“It had gotten to the point, I believe, where people wanted to test us,” said Ashley Davis in a Southern Oral History interview. Davis is a UNC alumnus who was involved with BSM at the time of the strike.
“There was a support for doing the cafeteria thing to illustrate to people, ‘Now, look here, we’re not playing with you,’” he said.
In the late 1960s, UNC’s mistreatment of its black community was brought to light by courageous students and staff workers when BSM aligned with black non-academic workers to force University officials to acknowledge their neglect of the black community.
The University found itself under tremendous public pressure when a number of mostly black, female workers boycotted their jobs in Lenoir in protest of unfair working conditions. And just two months before the strike, BSM had presented then-Chancellor Carlyle Sitterson with a list of demands aimed at curbing racism and oppression against the black campus community.
Pressure from BSM and other sects of campus ultimately resulted in the creation of an African-American studies curriculum — an area of study that sought to investigate, highlight and celebrate the experience of those who have historically been neglected by mainstream society.
Some black students who attended UNC around this time said classes in the African-American studies curriculum were valuable not only for the learning experience but also for the welcoming community they provided for black students.
“Not all white faculty members were fair to African-American students in class,” said John Hankins, an African-American UNC alumnus from the class of 1975.
“In so many of my classes at the time, the faculty were almost adversarial … (My African-American studies) class was one of the few in which I felt that I would not be subjected to negative expectations from the instructor.”
The area of study has grown and changed a lot in the last 45 years — progressing from a two-course curriculum to a full-fledged department, vastly expanding the wealth of material covered in classes and, most recently, becoming the primary subject of an investigation into the integrity of UNC athletes’ education.
But despite the negative attention the department has received in the face of the academic-athletics scandal, many still wholeheartedly believe the department plays an essential role in the campus community.
Taylor Webber-Fields, a senior in the African, African-American and Diaspora studies department (formerly known as African and Afro-American studies), said she has been able to talk about issues in the AAAD department that can sometimes be ignored in other areas of study.
“You’re not gonna have those conversations in any other place — I’ve tried,” Webber-Fields said.
“I’ve gone to professors and said, ‘Can we talk about the other side of this literature?’ ‘Can we talk about the context of this document that we’re looking at?’ You can’t do it. You can’t get that kind of conversation in other departments.”
After years of defamation, finger-pointing, and even cries that it should be disbanded, the story of this department’s creation may be more important today than ever.
As a high school student, Hankins had dreams of attending Brown University, largely in part because of its booming black campus community and active BSM. UNC, in contrast, had a reputation for being resistant to desegregation and less-than-accommodating of its black students, much like most institutions of higher education at the time.
So when Hankins was nominated for UNC’s Morehead-Cain Scholarship, he said he had no intention of straying from his plan. Instead, Hankins used his scholarship interview as an opportunity to confront University officials about UNC’s racist practices.
“I thought for sure that I was just being a smart guy,” Hankins said. “I reminded them that John Motley Morehead would probably turn over in his grave if he even knew that they were interviewing me.”
But when Hankins did end up winning the Morehead scholarship, he found himself on UNC’s campus in the fall of 1971. He said his decision was made for him by his stern, 4-foot-10-inch Aunt Viola — a sharecropper on a North Carolina tobacco farm who never learned to read or write.
“My Aunt Viola looked at me and she said, ‘If those white people are gonna give you money to go to Chapel Hill … you are going to go. Cause they ain’t never gave us nothing. So you are going to go.’”
When Hankins began at UNC, he was one of only 449 black undergraduate students. At this time, only 3.4 percent of the student body was black. And even this was an improvement from just three years earlier when less than 1 percent of the campus was black — 113 students comprised the black portion of the 13,352-member student body in 1968.
As chancellor, Sitterson was charged with leading the University's desegregation effort. He ramped up recruitment at black high schools across the state and appointed someone in the Admissions Office to deal directly with them.
"We also sent students out to (the black high schools), and I wrote letters to all the principals, all of them in the state of North Carolina, telling them that we wanted to do this and urging them to welcome these students who were coming through, explaining the University," Sitterson said in an interview.
Hankins said since there were so few black students on campus, he met most of them by the time he graduated. As one of the first black Morehead scholars in University history, he said he often felt singled out by faculty.
There was an encounter in an entry-level psychology course in which the professor — teaching from the textbook — taught students that because African-Americans typically scored lower on IQ tests than those of European descent, the tests proved that blacks were less intelligent than whites.
“Literally the textbook had a hierarchy of intelligence based on race,” Hankins said. “And of course, Negros were always at the bottom of those lists … What that literally means is that people of a certain race have less intellectual capacity than other people.”
The week before the IQ test lecture, Hankins visited his professor in his office to explain the issues he had with the offensive material in the book. Hankins told him the content was discriminatory, explained to him why he didn't agree with it, and even cited a research study by another professor on the cultural bias of IQ tests.
“He was very adversarial,” Hankins said of the professor’s reaction to his concerns. “He was like, ‘You’re going to respond the way I teach you.’”
So on the day of the lecture, Hankins raised his hand, explained to the class the issues with the material, and asked the professor to tell the class if he agreed with the textbook’s interpretation of intelligence.
“I kept trying to get him to tell me if he believed what he was teaching,” Hankins said. “And he wasn’t having that … He was like, you know, sit down and be quiet.”
Hankins was one of only four black students in the room and consequently had little support from the class during this interaction. He said he was frustrated that none of the other black students confronted the professor, especially given that some were activists outside of the classroom.
“Even some of the most progressive and outspoken (black) students — in the classroom I was kind of shocked at how compliant they were to sometimes not-so-subtle … racism by the faculty.
“You can’t do that … You can’t be out in public and advocate for something and then when you’re in a classroom, where it’s our right as much as anybody else’s to have an opinion, you can’t sit there and not be progressive in class.”
Hankins said after that day, his relationship with his professor only worsened.
“He fought me every day in class for the rest of the semester,” Hankins said. “I remember this guy would give me stuff like B++ … to try not to give me an A.”
For Hankins, it wasn’t an isolated incident. He recounted a similar scenario from one of his Journalism classes. In a course on editorial writing, his professor chose a racist editorial to use as a class example on writing technique.
“He prints these editorials from 1950s Charleston and Savannah newspapers responding to the Civil Rights Movement,” Hankins said. “They were just totally, totally racist and derogatory. But when we discussed it, there was no discussion whatsoever about the content of the editorial – it was all about style.
“So we’re talking about how you have to present your argument or something like that, but is that the only example that you can use? Where, you know, these people are saying that (black) people are inferior. I mean literally talking about how black people didn't have the mental and physical capacity to be full citizens and all this stuff – foolishness.
“And I’m supposed to — being the only black person in this class — supposed to sit there and not respond to the content of that.”
Davis, who attended the University around the same time, said in an interview found in the Southern Oral History collection that he felt a similar sense by University officials while at UNC.
“The (attitude) is, ‘I’m not going to let you blacks come up here and take over our University. We were doing so well before you got here, and we’ll do well when you leave here,’” Davis said in the interview.
“I think that’s the main thing, the ‘fortunate to be here’ part … ‘You are lucky to be here.’ And this attitude, I think it just prevailed on the whole campus – if not outwardly, then inwardly.”
Davis felt others on campus were finally starting to take note of UNC’s discriminatory environment.
“People were so uptight at that time, generally pissed off at the University about the way they were treating BSM, treating black people that were working in the cafeterias,” he said.
“People began to see that the University really oppressed the black people.”
In the 1960s, black non-academic workers felt the brunt of University neglect. After a long history of negligence by University officials, more than 100 dining hall workers — almost all of whom were black women — went on strike in February 1969 to protest what they felt were unfair working conditions.
Davis, who was active in the BSM that played a supportive role to workers during the strike, said dining hall management talked to the women condescendingly and consistently passed up black workers for managerial positions.
They would also routinely schedule the women for split workdays — assigning them a shift from 6 a.m. to10 a.m., and then another shift from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. This was especially inconvenient because many of the workers lived in Durham, he said.
Elizabeth Brooks1, a Lenoir employee and one of the primary leaders in the strike, said management — and specifically the Director of University Food Services George Prillaman — shortened their paychecks weekly, refused to give workers the raises they were promised when hired and created a hostile work environment in the dining halls.
Brooks said she and the 16 others who worked on her shift were good, efficient workers — sometimes serving 1,700 people in just two hours. But Prillaman would still watch their every move.
“(Prillaman) would stand back to the back of the room and he would just watch over us,” said Brooks in an interview in the Southern Oral History collection. “He made us feel like we were being watched at all times … He made us feel like we were just like a bunch of slaves.”
“I mean, really, the way these workers were treated was just like dogs,” Davis said. “These people were really being treated bad.”
Brooks said she and several other employees had meetings with Prillaman to discuss the mistreatment and pay discrepancies, but the group saw no results — even after presenting administrators with a written list of their grievances.
“(Prillaman) had this way of sort of ironing things out, smoothing it over,” Brooks said. “And then as we got a little more persistent, he began to make promises. And this went on for quite some time and he never kept any of the promises.”
Brooks said she and other workers had also met with administrators in the Payroll Department and other dining hall supervisors, but their concerns were never addressed. And the BSM, too, tried to make the University aware of the problems in the dining halls.
In December 1968, BSM presented a list of 23 demands to then-Chancellor Sitterson, and one of those demands was to improve the “intolerable working conditions of the Black non-academic workers.” Sitterson responded that the University was continually working to improve the situation, though in actuality they were ignoring the workers’ grievances.
“We had lost all confidence in them,” Brooks said. “We had just gotten to a point where we didn't trust any of them. Because we caught them all in lies. None of them had told us anything that they had really followed through with.”
So one Friday afternoon in February of 1969, after Prillaman had been particularly nasty to Brooks during her shift and the workers were fired up over what they felt was an unfounded expulsion of a colleague, some workers got together with BSM and planned to strike that Sunday.
“We came in on the Sunday, and set our counters up, and everybody was standing there ready to start serving when (the shift supervisor) went and opened the doors,” Brooks said.
“And when he opened the doors, the thing just teed off. We walked out from behind the counter and everybody just sat down.”
Brooks said BSM had spread word of the strike throughout campus, and hundreds of students showed up that Sunday in support.
“It looked like there were about three or four hundred students outside,” Brooks said. “And they all came in, and they lined up around the counter – and they took trays as they came in – and they just began to bang on the counter. Just stand there at a steady pace, just banging on the counter.”
After that afternoon, the workers were granted a meeting with Prillaman’s supervisors in Raleigh. But Brooks said the meeting again resulted in a lot of talk and no change. So the workers formed a picket line and remained on strike for nearly a month with the support of BSM, some students, professors, and parts of the Chapel Hill community.
“We had high school students that came over and had rallies,” Brooks said. “We also had students from other colleges … Mothers would come pushing their babies in strollers and carrying their babies on their backs and walking in that picket line. So we really had a lot of support.”
Davis said a big part of the strike was holding marches, meetings, and rallies throughout its duration, as well as distributing leaflets to passersby.
BSM aided the strikers by raising money to help them support themselves while they were out of work. Students would polish shoes, carry signs downtown asking for donations, and help the dining hall workers run a makeshift cafeteria in Manning Hall, Brooks said.
Davis said2 the group opened up a “soul food cafeteria” so the women could earn money while they were out of work. The strikers would cook meals at home and bring them to Manning Hall twice a day, where people would give donations for the food. Davis said they were able to pay each worker $35 a week with this system.
“That was the whole idea behind the cafeteria — to pay them so that they could stay out on strike,” he said.
With the exception of the March 4, 1969, table-turning incident — which prompted the administration to close Lenoir Hall for two days — the protest remained wholly non-violent. Even so, then-Gov. Robert Scott sent in five squads of riot-trained Highway Patrol officers to restore order to campus and ensure that Lenoir Hall would reopen as scheduled. Gov. Scott also directed Sitterson to vacate Manning Hall, and when the black students refused to leave, Scott sent in Chapel Hill police to arrest them.
The strike eventually came to an end on March 21, 1969, when Gov. Scott agreed to pass legislation that would raise not only the Lenoir workers’ wages to $1.80 an hour, but also the wages of all other minimum wage workers across the state.
In May, the University relinquished control of food services when it hired SAGA Food Services to manage the dining halls. The workers went on to strike against this company a few months later when working conditions failed to improve.
About two months prior to the Lenoir food workers’ strike, BSM had submitted its own demands to the University.
The group’s demands received wide press coverage, prompting dozens of UNC alumni, state and local community members, as well as UNC faculty to write letters to then-Chancellor Sitterson expressing their opinions on the matter.
Some letters were votaile:
Others were more sympathetic to the plight of black students, and urged Sitterson to seriously consider their demands.
In the end, not all of the demands were met, but one request Sitterson did honor was the establishment of a curriculum in African and Afro-American studies. Thus, AFAM was born.
The department started small. Kenneth Janken, the current director of undergraduate studies in the AAAD department, said when the curriculum first began in the fall of 1969, it offered two classes: an Introduction to Africa course and a survey course on the black experience.
During Hankins’ time at UNC, he took a course in the curriculum on post-Civil War history with a professor named James Brewer — a black faculty member on loan from North Carolina Central University.
“(Brewer) made the African-American students feel special in his class,” Hankins said. “Not so much by any overt thing he did or said, but just by the glimmer in his eye when he called upon us to speak. He expected us to be brilliant.”
“He had these expressions that he would interject — sometimes he would call you ‘Doctor’ if you did something right, and that just made you feel good … The fact that he would strategically call on you and say ‘Dr. Hankins,’ — you felt like you had to be prepared all the time.”
In addition to making the black students feel positively about themselves in class, Hankins said Brewer also taught his material from a fresh perspective.
“He could give a lecture on some aspect of Reconstruction that would be entirely different from a white professor,” Hankins said. “Because he’d actually done research about the African-American contribution to Reconstruction.”
“That inclusiveness doesn’t describe the perspective of most classes I took at Carolina – you had to pretty much bring that. And here you had the faculty person bringing it, and I just thought that was really bold.”
Webber-Fields said she has had a similar experience with the department today.
“The department is phenomenal — I’ve had nothing but great experiences,” she said.
“I have a personal relationship with every single one of my professors in the department … I’ve been in other departments and I have not felt that same welcoming sense.”
Janken said the department has grown and changed a lot in the 24 years since he’s been at UNC. For one, it progressed from a curriculum to a department in 1994. The department has also expanded its scholarly reach to include more aspects of the black experience as well as a wider geographical span.
Janken said the department has also made changes in recent years as a result of the academic irregularities found in the department during the unfolding academic-athletic scandal. He said one of the biggest changes is that individual faculty members are now more involved in decision-making processes.
“One of the findings of the Wainstein report affirmed what I already knew … that individual faculty members in general were powerless in this department,” Janken said.
“Decisions were made not in the interest of the department … but were made by one person or two people. And most faculty members in this department were shut out of any decision-making responsibilities. How decisions were made were frequently a mystery to people — that’s not the case anymore.”
Janken said the department now makes an effort to include faculty members in decisions such as what classes are taught, what fields within the department are emphasized and what types of campus activities the department engages in beyond teaching. He said the establishment of committees has ensured that those types of issues get brought before the entire faculty and are debated and voted on — a major difference from how decisions were made three years ago.
Webber-Fields said she’s disappointed in the University’s handling of the academic scandal, and she believes it has set back progress for the black community on campus.
“(UNC’s) neglecting of the department as a whole allowed this scandal to transpire,” Webber-Fields said. “So that reflects, for me, the general culture of the school … I think there’s an undervalue of non-Eurocentric values.”
“It’s just very frustrating because something like this sets us back when we want to be so progressive at this school,” she said. “We’re so diversity-friendly. We’re all about ‘Oh, Carolina Way, Tar Heel life,’ but there is a black portion of Tar Heel life that refuses to be acknowledged.”
Webber-Fields said she thinks it’s imperative that students continue to respect the department, in large part because of the groundbreaking conversations being had in the classroom.
“You wanna talk about racism in America? We’re having these conversations in the classroom,” Webber-Fields said. “Barriers that America needs to face – we’re breaking down in this classroom. So to disregard this department, you’re disregarding the future of America.”
1. Interview with Elizabeth Brooks by Beverly Washington Jones, October 2, 1974 E-0058, in the Southern Oral History Program Collection #4007,Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
2. Interview with Ashley Davis by Russell Rymer, April 12, 1974 E-0062, in the Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007), Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.