Malcolm X House: History of a Community

by Khemenec Pantin

Following the Fisk Hall takeover in April of 1969, a unanimous faculty vote marked the inception of a residential dorm that fostered several novel programs as an integral part of the Black community at Wesleyan University. The initial house members known as the Vanguard class, established these programs. However, what some remarked as a modern day 1 "Black Renaissance" was cut short by attempts of its removal almost five years after its creation. Subsequent years are marked with the same recurring problem of a house struggling for existence through each decade.

Most of the sentiment for blacks at Wesleyan was propelled by a growing liberalism influenced by the Civil Rights Movement in the early 1960’s. The University committed itself to a black student body because of increasing pressure from the junior faculty organization in 1964 led by Professors David Swift , John MaGuire, and Richard Ohmann. They were well known for their involvement in the civil rights movement. Support for ethnic diversity became the mission for John C. Hoy as the new director of admissions in 1964. The fall of 1965 became an experiment for implementing a large black presence at Wesleyan.

Of the twenty-five blacks accepted to Wesleyan, thirteen became the Vanguard class of 1969. Most were placed in one of the ten Foss Hill units. Dorms with more than one black student were placed on opposite sides of the building to "edify" the larger Wesleyan University. " Ed Saunders stated in his initial reactions to being at Wesleyan, "I reject the notion of being here just to educate white folks."2

Despite their dispersion, black students created their own comfort zone. Sharing their experiences of black life at Wesleyan, Edgar Beckham remarked:

Wesleyan had hoped and expected that the new black students would be integrated into Wesleyan and it was shocked and disappointed when it was discovered that black people wanted to be themselves, often by themselves, and cultivate their own sense of being black without intrusions, or for that matter, without the benevolent observation of white wesleyan.3

Efforts were still made to integrate the growing black community into mainstream Wesleyan. The following year, minority students were placed in each hall rather than in each unit of Foss. Despite John Hoy and white students disappointment with the black students unwillingness to identify with Wesleyan, solidarity among them increased. Black students established a Reading Group in 1966 to discuss black intellectual works, and Foss 10 lounge became the social place for black students.

By 1968, the Afro-American Society was established to deal with social, and emotional issues not addressed by the Reading Group. With no political agenda or demands of the university, black students criticized it’s existence and white students questioned the need for it’s presence.

The death of Martin Luther King signaled changes within the nation and black student life at Wesleyan. A large majority of the black community began to believe that the integrationist philosophies were antiquated As Ed Saunders puts it, "What was happening in the country at large was also just very intensely unfolding for us too…We were intent upon not being left out of what was going on in mainstream America although we were isolated to some degree in Middletown."4

Sentiment consequently grew for a residence for black students. By the spring semester of 1968, the Afro-American society pushed for a special interest house sustaining five basic points:

  1. The need for a black cultural center that would house a library and sponsor speakers and events for the benefit of the Wesleyan community
  2. The need for a black student center that would promote social opportunities for black students
  3. The need for a liaison headquarters between the black community of Middletown and that of Wesleyan
  4. A headquarters for the Afro-American Society
  5. An accommodation for black performers and scholars —in-residence who may visit the campus.

Faculty support and minimal debate over black students creating an environment of their own to improve rapport with the University produced the Afro-American house on 150 High Street. However, it only held six people. This obviously fell short of the black students requests.

The late 1960s still saw a push towards more demands asked of the University to reaffirm their commitment to a black community on campus. Racial hostilities towards the black student body were a common occurrence. Black students felt that the university had no problem in using them as the token students in publications and the news. The discrepancy revolved around the inability of the black students to enjoy their own company without question, petition for a house, or form a student group like their white counterparts.5

The first signs of this resentment culminated in the burning of the Olla Podrida on the steps of North College in October of 1968 by the Afro-American Society to protest what they felt was the inability of Wesleyan to voice its own racist tendencies. There were only three pictures of African-Americans and no mention of the common hostilities on campus. A more radical undertone to 1968 formed the Wesleyan Black Panthers who felt that the Afro-American society was ineffective on campus and abroad.

In the spring semester of 1969 on February 21, 100 black Wesleyan students and Middletown residents entered Fisk Hall at 4:00a.m. Dwight Greene said it best:

Black students thought that Wesleyan is rich, all-powerful, great, smart, and can do all things for all people, and therefore, given that, it was not doing that vis-à-vis its black student body. The idea was that Wesleyan wasn’t doing enough. We weren’t making Wesleyan do enough.6

This historical demonstration officially protested the demand of a holiday for Malcolm X and review of Wesleyan’s policies and goals for aiding black students. A list of demands presented to the University at the end of the takeover demanded an administration to explore the African culture and request that the Afro-American House be moved to the southwest corner of Washington and High Street. Faculty offices for the Afro-American Institute later renamed the Center for African American Studies and a dorm adjacent to the center with room for over twenty residents was established by the spring of 1969. The former John Wesley House that was a faculty social space adopted the name Malcolm X-house in the Spring of 1970 after students refused to call it anything else.

The early 1970 began a tremendous period of growth for several novel programs produced by AAI and Malcolm X-House. A black run tutorial program called Little Ujamma, a Annual Black Arts Festival, a free Breakfast Program for Middletown children, recreational areas, counseling offices, Lecture Series, and general meeting place were but a few of the activities offered from the buildings inception. Malcolm X-house became the black cultural center for the campus. Their problems with keeping the house would soon arise.

Malcolm X-house functioned as a special interest house reviewed on yearly basis by the Office of University Housing. A Student Affairs Committee on Interest Housing composed of administrators, resident staff, and students, evaluated each interest house. A formal proposal had to be submitted, and then approved by the Dean for housing; Dean Ed Shanahan The decision was then made to either reject, modify, or terminate the house by an on-going evaluation. The first criticism of this policy came in the March of 1976. The Coordinator of Cultural Events and Counselor in the Center for Afro-American Studies, Anita Cook wrote the following to Ujamaa:

Brothers and Sisters:
The time has now come again, that we are being threatened with the Malcolm X House being taken away from us. Therefore, it is of vital importance that we seriously act on recruiting this year’s freshmen, as well as next year’s freshmen to live here. What we need is commitment even from those of us who are upperclassmen. The housing office sent out memos concerning Special Interest Housing to members of the Malcolm X-House and the Latin House.

Our question is, why? A feature of the memo concerned the submitance of a proposal to retain that housing for next year. When questioned, the housing office replied that it would not affect either House. But we cannot deny the implications of the content of the letter not the fact that it was even sent to us. 7

The proposal for a Special Interest House was simple. One described the goal of the house, its contribution to the greater campus, and guarantee on the part of the house to "maintain an occupancy level of at least 95% for the remainder of the year."8 The house could not fill its occupancy. Cook alluded to a fundamental need for the house, firmly stating that Malcolm X-House being taken away meant a gradual receding in the foothold black students made within the past decade. No house implied, no power, no programs such as Ujamaa, CAAS, and Auja Campos.

The following excerpt from the proposal sent to Dean Shanahan by Ujamaa and Malcolm X-House on the 31 of March affirmed similar sentiments for the black residence:

The Malcolm X House serves as a means through which the concerns of Black people can be effectively voiced, and supports both ourselves and Wesleyan’s policy of diversity. In light of this, we submit this statement of purpose for the continued functioning of the Malcolm X-House. We hasten to emphasize that we do not consider ourselves as special interest housing with the frivolous and faddish concerns that the definition connotes. The Malcolm X-House is essential to our survival on Wesleyan’s campus and can provide an invaluable source of education for the Wesleyan community as a whole.9

Students retained the house for another year, keeping its Special Housing status until 1992. Special Interest Housing gave the residents exemption from the housing lottery and the right to choose the next years residents. Still up for a yearly review by the Student Affairs Committee, the review required a progress report from the House on attaining its original goals, list of current programs, and involvement of the faculty. Many agreed to live in the house following 1976, but sentiments persisted about Malcolm X-House being a house that segregated itself from the rest of the campus.

A four part series on "Black and White At Wesleyan: Individual Perspectives" 1976 feature in the Argus voiced alternate views of black and white students. Along the lines of the racial division on campus, one student wrote, "blacks seclude themselves in their own world, hiding behind the physical and spiritual sanctity of the Malcolm X-House. Black culture is also enhanced in the dining hall, where blacks sit together at one table to the exclusion of everyone else. He continues "what they achieve is a complete detachment from the real world. Secure within the confines of their own culture, blacks forfeit the opportunity to learn to cope with the outside forces that work against them."10 This main contention appeared yearly on the Universities campus. Professor Jay Hoggard, a Professor in the Music Department who graduated in 1976, and served as a co-chair of Ujamaa in 1972, comments "all that stuff is tied into Malcolm X-House. Did that particular residence provide that {support to the Black Community}in the context of the institution and should it..and when reverse racism questions come up about this , is this giving privilege to some ..this is when you get into specifics and the answer isn’t as simple as yes or no."11 The 1980’s notes two racial motivated incidents were Malcolm X-House was targeted.

In November of 1980 and May 4, of 1989 anti-racial sentiment produced speak-outs and moratoriums to discuss race relations on campus. Both events found raised the need for Malcolm X-House.Some of the greater community felt that Black students perpetuated separatism at Wesleyan with such a residence.

Jackie Graham ’84, a freshman at the time, said it best, "If you fall down and break your knee, you’re not going to go crying to your neighbor. You go to your mother, who understands where you hurt."12

To improve the residential and dining conditions, President William Chance formed the Residential Life Group in April 1991. The intention was to form a "concept" for countering what earlier committees sited as a "fragmentation" on campus. An early report by one of the RLF’s predecessors, the Residential Life Task Force in the Spring of 1987, stated in their report "students are pressed by circumstance into very small groups, often satisfying in themselves, but disconnected from other similar groups."13 The solution was to design already existing housing to generate a better community.

This proposal became known as the Cluster Report. Adamantly opposed by the general Wesleyan community, it intended to integrate dorms with more upperclassmen, and group students in housing for all four years. The only standing decision of the report for reorganization was program housing. Race-based houses like Malcolm X-House, Latin House, and Asian/Asian American House remained as Priority housing, not Special Interest Housing. Preference went to students of color with the agreement that there was no need to justify itself through the proposal process. The Houses would still serve as a meeting place for affiliated student organizations, and provide programming for the larger community. A Priority House also underwent a three year review rather than a yearly review.

Program Housing differed from Priority Housing because the committee sited that fragmentation increased due to the "isolation of the houses, their potential lack of true interaction with the broader Wesleyan community, and the occasional misuse of these houses by students who may be more interested in living in the physical structures than in fully developing a proposed program."14 Program Housing status was granted on an academic or cultural mission with a need for a residence. A Residential Life Policy still stipulated that all vacancies had to be filled or the house could still be lost.

On April 21, 1996, of the 30 slots available inside of Malcolm X-house, seventeen were reserved for upperclassmen but only four slots were filled for the upcoming year. Dean Denise Darringrand, the Dean of Student Life for seventeen years, placed those openings into the general lottery in accordance with the residential life policy of unoccupied rooms in special interest housing. Nine non-black students tentatively held spots in Malcolm X-House. On April 22nd, 1996, students and faculty would meet on the steps of North College to protest and later an Emergency meeting was held in Malcolm X-house basement to discuss why no one wanted to live in the house. Yolanda Peoples Goodman began the conversation by asking, "Are we willing to fight for it?"15

Alexander Alexander ’01, originally ’98, commented on the week of April 1996.

It was like there was a meeting every night and discussions in and outside of the classroom. People really didn’t think that it could happen and there it was. At the meetings, people wanted a Malcolm X-House because it was like your own anchor and place to be. No one…as an {upperclassman}..wanted to live there because it was like a dorm but they didn’t want to see it taken away either.

People then started getting into the problems with Malcolm X-house, it was too loud, you just had a whole lot of parties, and people were in your business. Others felt that if black students didn’t want to live there then maybe it should be integrated. However, you had Inter-cultural house for that. There was enough room on this campus for all views to be expressed and we wanted our view and our house. You ended up with a couple of squatters who decided to stay in the house for the following year and a couple who exchanged their spots with the white kids who got placed in X-house.16

By the end of Monday night, nine black students would volunteer to trade their slots in other dorms to keep the house all black. A newly written charter by a six member ad hoc committee consisting of Thomas Kawano’98, Lori Moses’96, Benny Vasquez ‘’97, Sumayya Ahmed’98, and Musa Abdul-Basser’99, would allow all students regardless of race to live in the house. Those in the house could still decide who could live there in subsequent years.

The rooms placed in the general lottery was not a coincidence, but indicates a systematic attempt by the administration to phase out race based housing siting that ethnically based housing was discriminatory. Paraphrased comments from a Student Affairs Committee discussion during a review of the house’s status indicate Dean Denise Darrigrand noted the exclusionary policy of the house. This was a comment on Michael Lawrence Riddel ’98, a white student, who attempted to apply to the house was denied the year before. Riddel’s later comments that Malcolm House should remain autonomous like all Priority Housing did not distract from the argument.

Those in attendance, Professor Gage Averill, Molly Steele, Harrison Owen, Dean Allen Green, Oliver Stockhammer, and Professor Nat Brodie, voiced the possibility of extending the house to Af-Am Studies Majors, or challenging the theme of a house for all blacks with white students. It was ultimately decided to table the meeting until there was input from the Student of Color Community. This never occurred. There was no response to the house’s evaluation and no one informed President Bennet of the discussion until after the Housing Lottery on the 20th of April, 1996. The former Dean could not be reached for comment.

Still, President Bennet did declare that ethnically exclusive housing was discriminatory. Bennet was mentioned as stating at the Emergency Meeting held at Malcolm X-House on the 22nd of April "I don’t necessarily buy into this idea that separate is better. It doesn’t mean that the house is going to change, but I think a clause like that weakens it..a clause which is exclusive is damaging."17 Bennet later elaborates "the choice I thought we faced was very fundamental it’s history with Wesleyan. There was still the commitment but I thought it was a weak way to do it. It was illegal. A related incident at Cornell University alludes to some the potential problems foreseen by this clause.

A complaint made by the Office for Civil Rights dropped allegations that the Ethnic Dormitories, Ujamaa and the Latino Living Center "program houses" violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which "prohibits race based discrimination for programs receiving federal aid."18 Michael Meyers, executive director of the New York Civil Rights Coalition, filed the complaint and accused both houses of "racial litmus testing" when students applied to live in these race- based dorms. Both houses required an application process reviewed by the house residents and argued that they accepted all students on the strength of the application, not the color of their skin. The charges were subsequently dropped.

President Bennet attests that the events at Wesleyan in April of 1996 were not prompted by Cornell, the changed Charter was modeled on Cornell own process of race blind admission.

As of December 1999, Malcolm X-House is still a black house on a private institutions campus that does not discriminate but has not integrated. Regardless of the Charter, it is still a house steeped in controversy because of its occupants. The same segregation arguments are made of black students who sit together and live together but these inquires are no different from those made of the first black students thirty years ago. As a resident of Malcolm X-House my sophomore year in 1997 and one of the Resident Advisors in 1998, I truly believe that there needs to be a Malcolm X-House for those who need a comfort zone or a place to identify with. Additionally, it should always provide programming to allow Wesleyan students inside and outside of the house to relate to the black experience and realize that thing means something so much more.

I spoke to the Reverend Ed Sanders ‘69 in the spring of 1999 outside of Malcolm X-house. He said that he’d come by the day before just to marvel at his contribution to Wesleyan. At the time, white students were living inside of the house during the summer as boarders.

He said that a white student let him in and he really didn’t think much of it but he decided to show him who he was so he motioned to a Vanguard 1969 plaque inside of the CAAS lounge. The white student seemed completely un-phased by the gesture so the Reverend asks how he can get into the dormitory to speak to the residents. The white student replied, "I’ll let you in, I live here." After the visit, Reverend Sanders drove back to his hotel subsequently depressed. After I explained the housing situation for the summer, a second alumni vocalized her sentiment, "you know, we look up to you guys as gods, and no one wants to be known as the Anti-vanguard class." Truthful laughter broke out between all of the alumni and the one awestruck undergraduate.

Everyone can acknowledge the contributions of the Vanguard Class of 1969 but its difficult to see the following decades since then when little improvements have been made on their contributions since that time. The following decades usually consist of attempts to tear down what they initially built and hoped other would maintain. To me, one of those symbols is Malcolm X-House. I wouldn’t keep it around because it’s what they’ve given us and what other classes have struggled to maintain. I’d want it because of the inherent potential the house has always possessed to be so much more than it is every year and for those who believe we deserve just as much as anyone else on this campus.


Works Cited

1. Al Young, "History of Malcolm X- House" Ankh, Vol II. Winter 1987, p.1&2

2. ibid, p.2.

3. Alan Miller, "Black and White at Wesleyan: An Historical Perspective," Argus, 16 April 1976, p.5.

4. Al Young, "Revolt of the Privileged: The Coming Together of the Black Community at Wesleyan University," 1998, p. 26

5. ibid, p.25.

6. ibid, pg. 46

7. Anita Cook, " Memo to Dean Ed Shanahan," March 11, 1976

8. Bill Holder, "Special Interest Housing," Bill Holder, Public Info

9. Residents of the Malcolm X-House, " Proposal for the maintenance of the Malcolm X-House,"

10. March 31, 1976

11. Alan Miller, "Black and White At Wesleyan: Individual Perspectives," Argus, 7 May 1976, p.7.

12. Interview with Professor Jay Hoggard, 11/18/99

13. Matthew L. Wald, "Wesleyan Ponders Race Relations In Wake of Incident," New York Times,30 Novemeber 1980, pg. 1.

14. Report of The Task Force on Residential Life, Spring 1987, Wesleyan University, pg. 7

15. Report of The Residential Life Group, July 31, 1992, Wesleyan University, pg. 31

16. Matt Fogelman, "Students Meet to Protect Black Housing Option" Argus, 23 April 1996, p. 6

17. Interview with Alexander Alexander 12/18/99

18. Matt Fogelman, "Students Meet to Protect Black Housing Option" Argus, 23 April 1996, p. 6

19. Internal Memorandum, " Chronicle of Higher Education article on ethnic dormitories," 25 September, 1996, pg. 1

 

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