A group of Black students who were part of Cornell’s Afro-American Society — now Cornell Black Students United — staged a takeover of Willard Straight Hall beginning on April 18, 1969. The demonstration started peacefully, though its participants later acquired weapons, and ended after two days without any actual violence.
The goal of the takeover was to protest the punishment of students who had demonstrated against the lack of a Black studies program at the University, rather than to protest the lack of the program in the first place.
“There was a small group of Black students that, for the past 18 months, had conducted numerous disruptive demonstrations for the previous eighteen months — including dancing on the tables in Willard Straight during meal time — in response to the University’s lack of a Black studies program,” said Thomas Jones ’69 M.S. ’72, who participated in the takeover.
Jones noted that the small group’s intentions may be confused with the motivation for the Willard Straight takeover.
In reality, the University had already agreed upon instituting a Black studies program months prior. However, the small group of students — who considered themselves to be the revolutionary vanguard, according to Jones — had received disciplinary punishments from the student judicial board for breaking the student behavior code.
As a member of this board, Jones removed himself from voting during these disciplinary trials.
The African-American student association decided to take over Willard Straight Hall to protest the punishments against those students, but Jones had voted against this. He believed that those students deserved the punishments, but he ultimately joined the takeover in solidarity once the majority vote had been reached in favor.
Jones said he felt it was his generation’s responsibility to act in the face of the civil rights movement.
“My personal feeling was that the random wheel of history through all the hundreds of years had fallen on my generation,” Jones said. “And my personal decision was that I am going to fight. I will be one of those that says I’ll fight. I may die, but I’m not going to be subjugated, and I’m not going to be a second-class citizen anymore.”
The takeover was originally unarmed and peaceful, but a group of white Delta Upsilon fraternity brothers broke into the building in an attempt to kick out the demonstrators.
“It just snapped in my head that we have an occupation of a building going against the administration, and here comes the vigilantes to decide that we don’t belong here,” Jones said. “And it just flashed through my mind, and I walked up to the lead guy, and I said, ‘We are not talking about this anymore,’ and I punched him in the mouth.”
The demonstrators were able to kick out Delta Upsilon, and largely white groups like Students for a Democratic Society surrounded Willard Straight Hall as a show of support. SDS also informed the Afro-American Society of the rumor that Delta Upsilon would return with weapons, so Jones was sent out to procure some for self-defense.
By then, the police had begun assembling in downtown Ithaca and calling for backup help, but the situation was defused without any actual violence. The students came to an agreement with the administration that resulted in the students’ leaving the building, the cancellation of judicial sanctions against students who had been originally protesting and amnesty for those involved in the Straight takeover.
Although the administration had agreed, the faculty had to vote to approve the agreement as well. However, in a meeting three days later, they failed to affirmatively vote.
Following the faculty’s meeting, SDS called students to gather in Bailey Hall to discuss the faculty vote. The strong attendance at this meeting forced a move to Barton Hall for more space.
Jones became a leader in this subsequent chapter in Barton Hall, telling the Association that he wanted the white students to help them against the faculty.
“You need to authorize me to go speak to [SDS] because the ideology was that Black students have to do this by themselves,” Jones said to fellow involved Black students. “I was saying the only way we are going to get out of this, the only way we are going to win this is if we get the white students between us and the faculty.”
The Association reluctantly agreed. Jones said he felt confident as a leader in this moment, since he was well known on campus and could make an appeal to the white students. He delivered a speech in front of the thousands of white students gathered in Barton Hall, persuading them to get involved in this fight.
Under the influence of Jones, the students decided to join the fight. They did not end the occupation in Barton Hall until the faculty changed their vote, which they ultimately did.
“I would like to think that guns at Willard Straight actually had an effect on the national psyche,” Jones said. “I would like to think that the shock value of what happened there had some positive impact in terms of the consensus that developed in the country to move towards the ideals that the country had always claimed that it stood for, but to actually make it happen in practice.”
However, the takeover had an extremely emotional taxing effect on Jones, whose parents were also extremely concerned for his safety and livelihood.
“I had made a personal decision, as I had come to do a deep dive at Cornell into what had happened in American history and through the various Black studies courses and so on,” Jones said. “I had come to the personal conclusion that some generation of African Americans in America had to be the generation that was going to stand up and fight and say, ‘We will not tolerate this. We may die in the process, but we are going to resist.’”
Not sure of what to do next, Jones found guidance with Prof. Barclay Jones, regional and city planning. Prof. Jones convinced him to get a masters’ degree under his mentorship, which he ultimately obtained in 1972.
“That changed my life, and then when I finally left Cornell in 1972, I had a sense America was trying to open up,” Jones said. “I said to myself, the toughest fight is going to be in the business world. So I said to myself, you need to go and fight where the toughest fight is.”
After leaving Ithaca, Jones received his M.B.A. degree in 1978 from Boston University, and he has become an esteemed leader in the business world, which he called a testament to his perseverance and determination. Jones said he is committed to staying at his office until he is certain he has completed high-quality work, adding that empowerment comes through being proud of one’s own work.
“You’ve got to empower yourself,” Jones said. “And the way you empower yourself is that you focus on what you can control — and the only things you can control are how hard you work, your attitude as you interact with other people and the quality of what you do.”
This content was originally published here.