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Brown's Black Student Protest Story

This narrative details the history of protest at Brown University. This narrative is not contain every detail, nor is it finished; this narrative is simply meant to serve as an informational tool for our readers.


Brown’s history of black student protest takes us to the infamous year of 1968, when 23 Pembroke students warned that they were going to walk out of Brown’s campus on December 3. The walk out found its roots in a series of conflicts and negotiations with President Ray L. Heffner, who had refused to meet the students’ demands. The students proposed 12 demands; specifically, they demanded that 11% of the Pembroke class of 1973 be black. The Brown Daily Herald article, “Black ‘Brokers Threaten Walkout” notes that President Ray L. Heffner was strictly against quota systems and that according to the students, Heffner did not address 11 out of the 12 demands. These Pembroke students were met with opposing faculty and students, some of whom claimed that the Pembroke students had been “too quick to walk out” and had not made a thorough decision.On December 5, in their “Blacks Set To Leave University” article, the BDH published statements made by Black students. One such statement reads as follows:


“Because President Heffner has not seen fit to commit himself to the demands as they are presented, the black students of Brown find it necessary to walk out until he publicly commits himself to the demands as presented, or until he reveals this institution to be the racist institution that it is.”


The article also reveals that the conflict between the students and administration was centered on the number of students admitted to Brown annually; the Afro-American Society wanted 11% minimum goal in black representation. On December 6, the students were all set to walk out. Approximately 65 Black students congregated at the Faunce arch and walked to Congdon St. Baptist Church. The students brought luggage and bedding into the church, although students left the church throughout the afternoon. This walkout, a pivotal point in Brown’s student protest history, precedes more racial tension and conflict in the coming years.

Throughout the following year (1968-1969), Brown added courses in Black history and Black literature, which culminated into approval for an interdepartmental, interdisciplinary Afro-American Studies concentration. This concentration was formally approved as a stand-alone program in 1971. While this was a large victory for those who pushed for this addition, tensions arose again on December 13, 1969, the Afro-American society boycotted classes for two days before negotiating with the University. The Faculty Policy group subsequently recommended the hiring of 12-15 black professors for the 1970-71 academic year and the Advisory and Executive Committee passed a statement on minority hiring. According to the administration, academic department heads made plans to deliberately seek out minority candidates.


On April 23, 1970, controversy erupted over potential admission bias against black applicants to Pembroke College. According to the BDH, Dean Brown had made a decision to “cut back the number of black acceptances” that year. Additionally, Rose Pierrel (Dean of Pembroke) wrote a letter to Acting President Merton Stolz, asking for an investigation into the admissions process executed by black Pembroke admissions officer Tiajuana Mosby. As a result, Mosby and three other admissions officers resigned in protest. While Pierrel did admit that less black students had been accepted that year, she blamed this on the fact that Brown could not provide adequate financial aid for the students, given that most black students needed financial aid. As a result of this situation, a general dissatisfaction with the decisions made by the admissions committee arose, although there was no direct evidence for racial discrimination.

In 1971, the Afro-American Studies becomes a stand-alone program and placed in Churchill House. In 1972, the Third World students protested in support of the 1968 demands, showing continuity throughout Brown’s black student protest movement. In 1975, the Third World Coalition took over University Hall and issued new demands. These demands, created by the Organization of United African People, issued March 14, 1975, reads as follows:

  1. The number of black students stay the same or become more than the black population in the US

  2. Financial aid for black students maintained at the “same rate and composition” that it was in the year 1974-1975. In the future, 80% of black students receive financial aid

  3. 10% of students accepted from Providence must be black and must have attended secondary schools in Providence

  4. The Admissions office must make minority candidates a “primary responsibility.”

  5. A committee of minority representatives be put in place to make recommendations for black candidates and recognize black student needs

  6. There should be no cutbacks in Supportive Services, because this program is crucial for black students at high academic risk

  7. The administration’s acceptance of the Afro-American Studies Program proposal

  8. The number of black faculty be maintained and increased over 5 years.



In 1981, CIA Director William Casey’s speech is disrupted by a reading of “Jabberwocky.” The “Jabberwocky 13 are brought to the University’s Council of Student Affairs, but were given minimal discipline.



The year of 1985 saw many protests, including those about minority faculty hiring, against apartheid, and against CIA and defense contractor recruitment. On April 17, 1985, students organized an occupation of the John Carter Brown library and a sit-in at the Faculty Club. The occupation of the John Carter Brown library was predicated upon the family’s connection with the slave trade. In addition, the students wanted to commemorate the Third World community’s 1975 movement. In order to contain the walkout, a University attorney obtained a restraining order from the RI Supreme Court stating that the students had to leave the building by 5, although an agreement was reached by the time it was issued. Black and Third World students reached an agreement with administrators, which ended their stay in the library. The agreement includes:

  1. Creating a task force for creating a Third World Center

  2. Providing an explanation of University’s response to original April 5 demands

  3. An investigation of Director of Police and Security John Kuprevich’s decision to hire plainclothes officers to watch the Third World Center

  4. Creating a student/faculty committee to investigate Brown security’s treatment of minority students

  5. Recruiting a Blue Ribbon Committee of outside experts to look at the quality of minority life at Brown

Despite the promise of this agreement, the University did not address most of the April 5th demands for more faculty, admissions, financial aid, support services and a less Eurocentric curriculum. However, President Howard Swearer appointed a visiting committee to investigate the conditions of racial harmony and minority life on campus.

In 1986, four students engage in a hunger strike in Manning Chapel, and were disenrolled by the University. In 1988, protests lead to the creation of the Ethnic Studies department and the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity. Later in 1996, the Ethnic Studies concentration was approved.



In 1989, rumors of the Klan’s presence on campus circulated and major concerns arose concerning police harassment of Brown students and violence on and near campus. Overall, there were 20+ assaults and allegations of racial profiling in the fall of that year. In the fall, racial slurs were shouted at students and parents during Orientation. Physical and verbal abuse was reported by both white and minority students during the first 2 weeks of the fall semester. These  tensions rose to the point where Brown Police advised African-American males to carry their IDs at all times. In January, a fight between a black student and white student occurred at a Delta Phi fraternity party. Douglas Hann’92, the white student, was found guilty of using racial epithets and disrespecting others. Hann was put on probation for a semester and had to attend a race relations workshop. In March, 13 black students wore white to an audition to protest the lack of opportunity for Third World actors in Brown theatre. On April 29, white supremacist posters were found in West Andrews, advertising the Brown chapter of the KKK. As a result of this, President Vartan Gregorian publicly promised to persecute racists via the University disciplinary system, brought up the possibility of FBI intervention, and created a 24 hour hotline for students to use for crime reporting. He also redefined harassment in the Student Handbook.



In 1992, there was a second occupation of University Hall, by a group named Students for Admissions and Minority Aid. More than 250 students were arrested during the event. The following year, Harambe house was established.


In 2001, the African American Studies became departmentalized and was renamed Africana Studies. Also in this year, students destroyed a BDH run, which included an advertisement against reparations by conservative activist David Horowitz, called “Ten Reasons Why Reparations for Blacks is a Bad Idea for Blacks - and Racist, Too!” The fact that BDH published this ad was significant, because other colleges had chosen to reject it. On July 1, 2001, Brown’s first African-American president, Ruth J. Simmons, was appointed, becoming the first black president of an Ivy League Institution.



On September 13, 2006 campus marchers against police brutality chant “Brown is brown” after a CS graduate student is racially profiled and arrested. This man was arrested after two women called DPS claiming that two black men were trying to enter Keeney. After the man refused to provide identification, DPS called Providence Police Department and arrested him. The man was injured from this interaction and subsequently charged with resisting arrest and assaulting a police officer. After recognizing their error, DPS stated that they would work to improve communication and provide transparency. In addition, the Third World Center established an orientation program to facilitate conversations between POC students and DPS officers, and to provide diversity and inclusion training with Providence Police. In October of this year, a report of the Committee on Slavery and Justice is released. A diversity action plan released under President Simmons set diversity goals with the help of the Office of Institutional Diversity, including instructions for the Provost to begin need-blind admission. In 2007, the University released its official response to the Slavery and Justice report. The University released a follow up document on this report to show what has been done since 2006.



In May of 2012, the BDH claimed that Slavery and Justice report has been forgotten, or that it is “dead,” which suggests that progress on Brown’s campus may have seemed to have stalled, or that it had taken a backseat to other issues. In October 2013, Ray Kelly, the longest serving Commissioner of the NYPD, was scheduled to give a lecture at Brown. This lecture was cancelled after students mobilized in protest. As a result, the sitting president, Christina Paxson, sent a message to the campus community. In November 2014, students and activists shut down  Route 95 after Ferguson non-indictment. In December 2014, students staged a “die-in” on main green after the Ferguson grand jury decision. In November 2015, students led an uprising against President Paxson, as well as organizing a campus “blackout.” In December of 2015, students occupy University Hall as part of a “Day of Reclamation”; they also published a list of demands. In March 2019, Brown students protest a guest speaker, which results in the lecture getting cancelled.

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