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Oshkosh WI: SDS remembers ‘Black Thursday,’ anniversary marks mass expulsion of African American students

By Ryan Hamann |
November 22, 2018
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Oshkosh, WI - November 21 marks the 50th anniversary of one of the darkest moments in the history of the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh (UWO). On this day in 1968, 94 African American students and their supporters marched to the administrative offices at Dempsey Hall and occupied the then-university president's office. Angered by the poor living conditions, grading discrimination, inability to sign up for classes, the lack of African American history and art courses and no Black cultural center on campus, these students demanded change.

When 40 of these students set upon his office, President Roger E. Guiles met them, advancing the notion that he had little power himself to change any of the things they took issue with. Unsatisfied by this response, the students tore up the office. Attempting to mitigate their righteous anger, Guiles reiterated that he could do little and told them to wait until a committee meeting concluded later in the day. The committee was meeting to discuss a list of demands that had previously been submitted by the Black Student Union (BSU) a month earlier.

Suspicious of the president's claims, the students decided on an impromptu sit-in until the results of the committee meeting were brought to Guiles. “I can give up a few hours of my life for my future,” one student is purported to have said. What ensued next would change history at UWO.

Cops in plain clothes and a mob of angry white people gathered just outside of the executive offices where the protesting students were assembled. Shortly thereafter, likely at the behest of campus administration, riot police joined the fray. A decision was reached by the students to go peacefully. The police, drawn from nine different municipalities, herded the students into rented Hertz trucks outside and shipped them to jails as far away as Green Bay, 51 miles distant.

In the weeks that followed, other students and sympathetic faculty rallied to the cause of the Oshkosh 94. Even major civil rights leaders from Milwaukee like Father James Groppi traveled to Oshkosh to help lead the campaign for justice. Despite their best efforts, these students were ultimately expelled from the university.

There were victories that came from this defeat. Housing discrimination, at least on campus, came to an end. Unfair grading practices were stopped. A few courses dealing with African American history and culture were implemented. Perhaps most significantly, by the early 1970s, a building on campus had been repurposed to serve as a cultural center for African American students.

Despite the winning of some of their demands, the students who made up the Oshkosh 94 have had a strained relationship with the university since the events of Black Thursday. UWO held a commemoration event on November 14 where the 34 surviving members of the expelled students were presented with honorary Chancellor's Medallions. Not all of the honorees were convinced of the sincerity of this action.

“The Chancellor’s Medallion is an appeasement,” Henry Brown III, a prominent member of the Oshkosh 94, said. “I had to wait 50 years to hear the truth about how I was treated. But I'm happy because I see the lives of my classmates; they turned lemons into lemonade.”

In light of Chancellor Leavitt and his administration’s so-called progressivism, institutionalized racism still lingers at UWO. There are zero African American faculty that currently teach at the university. There is no African American Studies major - and the minor program that does exist has been led for the last year and a half by a white English professor. With the budget cuts, it's likely that this offering could be eliminated as a ‘low-demand program.’ Instances of racist harassment in the campus dorms go unchecked by administration. Also, the name of the campus theater building honors Fredric March, a prominent actor from Wisconsin who was a member of a student chapter of the Ku Klux Klan while he attended university at Madison in the 1920s.

While victories have been won in the struggle against racist oppression in Oshkosh in general, and at UWO in particular, there is still a long way to go. That is why UWO Students for a Democratic Society rallied on November 19, to support Black lives and to remember Black Thursday.

UWO SDS demands the creation of an African American Studies major, or, failing that, an Ethnic Studies major. As a component of this, the university needs to immediately hire African American faculty. Instances of racism need to be handled with the utmost severity wherever they occur and whoever is the perpetrator. Likewise, systems to report racist incidents need to be overhauled, made to be more thorough and accessible. Finally, the name of the campus theater building must be changed.

During their rally, members of SDS asked a very important question with the above circumstances in mind: 50 years later, how much has really changed?