Former Students Remember The Swarthmore College Sit-Ins Of The ’60s

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Written by Ann Brown
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“Seven Sisters and a Brother: Friendship, Resistance, and Untold Truths Behind Black Student Activism in the 1960s” Black activism at Swarthmore College.

During the 1960s, many college campuses across the nation were hotbeds for social change. A new book called “Seven Sisters and a Brother: Friendship, Resistance, and Untold Truths Behind Black Student Activism in the 1960s” chronicles how eight Black undergraduate students brought about change at Swarthmore College, a predominately white, elite liberal arts college just outside of Philadelphia, Penn.

The group of students staged an eight-day sit-in in 1969 protesting decreased enrollment and hiring of African Americans at Swarthmore College. The students demanded a Black Studies curriculum. 

“Seven Sisters and a Brother” was written together by the former students. They are Marilyn Allman Maye, Harold Buchanan, Jannette Domingo, Joyce Frisby Baynes, Marilyn Holifield, Myra Rose, Bridget Van Gronigen Warren, and Aundrea White Kelley.

The book gives readers an inside view of the lives of college students during the Civil Rights era.

Swarthmore was one of several elite colleges that enrolled Black students at the same time as the passage of the Higher Education Act of 1965, which banned discrimination in education.

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The group of eight along with like-minded students launched the Swarthmore Afro-American Students Society (SASS).

The former Swarthmore Eight and authors of “Seven Sisters and a Brother” told their story to Moguldom.

Moguldom: What prompted you to want to tell this story?

Marilyn Allman Maye: We had read many stories about our actions, but our stories were not being told. We needed to correct the record officially, while we were still able to. We heeded the African proverb, that the history of the hunt will be written to glorify the hunters if the lions don’t have their own historians.  

We are not aware of any other published first-person account from the hundreds of Black student organizations and protests on predominantly white campuses during this period.

Moguldom: Why is this an important story to tell?

Aundrea White Kelley: The book brings to light the struggle for respect for African Americans as a people, Black history, and Black Studies, and the college students who, in the words of Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, “risked their futures to make a difference.”

Our demands for respect focused on securing the sustained, proportional representation of African Americans among faculty, administration, students, and on the creation of a Black Studies curriculum and concentration or major. 

Moguldom: What do you want people to take away from this book?

Harold Buchanan: In exploring our experience, we realized how much Black families matter. We found the courage to resist the status quo of disrespect for African Americans because of the strong families that raised us to stand up in the face of adversity. Our families also modeled the value of friendship and trust and faith, which enabled us to remain united despite opposition. 

We want young readers to know that strong family-like bonds can overcome other disadvantages. We want them to see that reaching out to the community outside the institution provides opportunities for valuable, often unexpected, support.

We want all readers to understand that everyone benefited from the struggle for civil rights and Black representation in academia — other ethnic groups, the college as a whole, and American society as a whole. Four decades later, college officials acknowledged our struggle as “the single, most consequential event in its 150-year history.” Many of the outstanding leaders in our nation today are beneficiaries of the opening up of American colleges in the 1960s in response to Black student demands.  

Moguldom: What led you all to become activists?

Bridget Van Gronigen Warren: One factor is the times during which we came of age. Students had been fighting to desegregate public places in the South, and the Civil Rights Movement as a whole was fighting for across-the-board human rights.

Moguldom: In your opinion, do elite colleges give Black students a sense of inclusion? 

Jannette Domingo: Elite colleges reflect American society, which has unresolved racial issues, with varying degrees of intensity. Elite colleges are not immune to America’s unresolved racial issues although some attempt to confront these issues more forthrightly than others.

Moguldom: How did the Swarthmore Afro-American Student Society (SASS) start?

Myra Rose: SASS evolved from social, cultural, and educational activities spearheaded by the Seven Sisters and a Brother and other black Swarthmore students. We ultimately petitioned the college to formalize the organization as the Swarthmore Afro American Students Society in to take advantage of the wealth of resources the college made available to student organizations.

Moguldom: Do you feel there is still activism on college campuses today?  

Marilyn Holifield: Numerous news stories in the past two years show activism at both high school and college levels, around issues such as gun violence, gender harassment, racism, religious intolerance.

We recognize that there is still much work to be done if there is to be real diversity on predominantly white campuses. Despite Black administrators and those who specialize in overseeing diversity, real diversity remains elusive on predominantly white campuses. There is disproportionate under-representation of blacks in higher education and over-representation of Black young adults in prison. under-representation in STEM, underrepresentation of men, over-representation in for-profit educational institutions and community colleges, a low percentage of Blacks among full-time tenured faculty, administration and trustee boards and educational leadership roles

Although we built a foundation, as Black alumni, we want to tell our story and help financially support today’s and future students to engage social justice work around issues that remain and will persist into the future.  We also want to make a positive statement about Black philanthropy.

Moguldom: As you have moved onto your professions, how has your activism continued?

Joyce Frisby Baynes: Seven women and one man, all eight of us completed advanced degrees at prestigious universities, earning eleven masters and six doctoral degrees, from Columbia, Harvard, McGill, Temple, Tufts, and University of Massachusetts Boston. We are a medical doctor, a lawyer, a biologist, four educational leaders, and a computer scientist. Most of us became the first African Americans in high-level positions in our workplaces, creating innovative programs and policies and pushing them forward despite resistance.