A recent report conducted by a Northwestern University task force found Black student satisfaction lags “behind that of every other racial/ethnic group,” a metric that also “is on the decline.” It also found that many Black students encounter discrimination or harassment on a daily basis.

“Let me tell you, many of the experiences that exist now existed then,” said Vernon Ford, a student athlete from the Northwestern class of 1968. He sees continuity in the Black student experience, even before the Bursar’s Office Takeover of 1968, when Black Northwestern students occupied the office in pursuit of equity on campus.

Kimya Moyo in the Bursar’s Building in 1968, discusses with her father, George Malone, who flew in from Cincinnati, on why the building takeover was necessary. Credit: Eleanor Steele

Ford said he was among the Black alumni who worried that the historical impact of the takeover would fade.

“We were all concerned – are we just going to let the university forget what had happened?” Ford asked.

In fact, more than a hundred current students gathered at The Rock, a major campus landmark, on April 18 to ask the university to fulfill still unmet demands from the takeover that happened 55 years ago. Those demands include Northwestern officially acknowledging systemic racism’s historical presence at the school and hiring a Black counselor for Black students.

Imani Billups (foreground) joins Northwestern University students at a rally on campus. Credit: Richard Cahan

In recounting their experiences during interviews with the RoundTable, Black Wildcat alumni from the 1960s reminisced on university life at the time – and the loneliness, hostility and isolation they felt. Below are stories highlighting four Black students who were on campus in the years before and after the takeover.

Kimya Moyo

Kimya Moyo, a class of 1969 Black Northwestern alum, says her time at the university changed how she perceived the world. In particular, the experience allowed her to see how people who didn’t look like her lived.

It wasn’t easy. When she first came to Northwestern and moved into Allison Hall, her white roommate moved out “because she was not gonna live with a Black person,” Moyo said.

From left: Eleanor Steele, Kimya Moyo and Michael Smith at a Northwestern football game at Dyche Stadium in 1966. Credit: Eleanor Steele

At the time, Moyo recalled feeling like a friendly, sociable person but not being welcome in white spaces. Despite the difficulties she encountered in seeking a social sphere on campus, she paved her own way, founding Northwestern’s chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha, the university’s first Black sorority.

“I know I wouldn’t even have a home to go to if I had joined a white sorority,” Moyo said.

She first pledged AKA in Chicago during her sophomore year before pushing to have a Northwestern chapter. Due to a slow administrative process, the chapter was not officially instituted until Moyo was a senior.

“I don’t think they ever said, ‘We don’t want to have a Black sorority.’ They weren’t that blunt, but that was the underlying impression,” she recalled.

During Moyo’s sophomore year, roughly 30 new Black students enrolled, thanks to the school’s new Chicago Action Program. With this influx of Black students, Moyo became heavily involved in Evanston’s evolving Black community.

Eleanor Steele

Before the Chicago Action Program students arrived on campus, the attention given to the handful of Black students on campus “was more like benign neglect,” said Eleanor Steele, class of 1968. With their arrival, the new students made the Black student body more visible to their peers.

“That’s when we started to have racial incidents on campus,” Steele said. “One I remember was a plantation party that a fraternity had.”

Steele grew up in the segregated south. Hailing from North Carolina, where towns closed public schools and opened private ones to avoid integration, Steele arrived in Evanston with the expectation that her time at Northwestern was not going to be easy.

“I came with a view of the world that I was there for a purpose,” Steele said. She was enthralled by the amount of resources offered to students. Her appreciation of the educational benefit of Northwestern alone made it worth the challenge.

“A lot of Black alums would not say the same thing. A lot would say it was the
worst four years of their lives,” Steele said. “I balanced the social isolation with the
educational fascination.”

Eleanor Steele at the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences Class of 1968 Graduation. Credit: Eleanor Steele

That scholastic experience took Steele a long way: She now practices geriatric medicine in Maryland. But her burning desire to learn did not quell those feelings of loneliness.

“I was on campus for seven days before I saw another Black student,” Steele said.
She called her parents to tell them “I wasn’t going to be the only one.”

Steele found the social life, especially when compared to the experiences of her Black peers at state schools, to be artificial.

“It felt like I’m here for an education,” Steele said. “I’m getting a great education, but it’s not a real-life situation. This is not really college, not real college.”

In navigating the university social strata dominated by the institutions of white Greek life, Steele, Moyo and many other Black people on campus said they found solace at the home of Doc Glass, a Black Evanston resident who opened his home to Black students.

“But there was an oddity or sort of a schism,” Steele said. “You know, my whole social life revolved around a few athletes and at Doc Glass’ house.”

Vernon Ford

Vernon Ford, class of 1968, played basketball at Northwestern after being recruited from the West Side of Chicago. Like Moyo and Steele, he saw the campus blossom with an uptick in Black student life after further implementation of the Chicago Action Project.

“We dealt with breaking barriers because some barriers had to be broken,” Ford said.

He was heavily involved in campus activism, from protests outside of the Northwestern
president’s house to supporting Black Greek life in his letters to student publications.

“The university and sorority-fraternity systems were intimately related,” Ford said. “If you have that kind of structural thing, aside from token things, you create a different kind of environment.”

That environment allowed racism to embed itself in most aspects of life at Northwestern, according to Ford. He said white members of the university’s chapter of Phi Gamma Delta, colloquially known as “Fiji,” became repeat offenders.

Roger Ward and Vernon Ford at The Rock after graduation in 1968. Credit: Eleanor Steele

“When they had the ‘Fiji Island’ parties, they put on blackface,” Ford said. “And then at some point they must have been walking down the street and they just touched a sister on the butt.”

Believing that the institution would be above this behavior, Ford went to the dean of students to complain on behalf of the Black woman who was harassed. He was met with a “rigid” response.

The dean made an arrangement for an apology to be made. The woman targeted and others involved met at the Fiji house, he said, but the fraternity members acted as if the harassment had been romantic in some way.

“It kind of threw me off … because they’ve insulted this girl from a race point of view, but their response is as if they were wooing her – the very girl that they’ve assaulted,” Ford said.

Madelyn Coar

Madelyn Coar came to Northwestern in 1962 to study biology. She was one of two Black women in her class. The other Black woman, who lived in the same dorm, transferred after Thanksgiving break. She did not see another Black woman on campus during her first year.

A native of Birmingham’s Dynamite Hill – named for dozens of racist bombings against Black people – Coar grew up in segregated schools, a life immersed in Blackness.

“The robust Black identity went with me, so I didn’t feel less than, I didn’t feel other than,” Coar said. “It just was slow for me to recognize that maybe other people thought that way.”

Young and naïve, Coar believed racism was only a Southern affliction.

“It took a while for me to notice that if I went to class early and sat down,” Coar said, “the seats beside and front and behind me would stay unoccupied.”

Coar said her time at Northwestern weakened her self-confidence.

“I left Northwestern thinking that I wasn’t smart, that maybe white people really were
smarter than Black people because they seem to excel so effortlessly,” Coar said. “It wasn’t until I went back to graduate school that I realized that the difference was preparation, that I was in fact as good a student as anybody else, if we started on equal footing.”

The community at Doc Glass’ house was what kept Coar tethered to Northwestern.

“Had the Glass’ house not been there, I probably would’ve transferred, because there was so little else for me as a Black woman,” she said.

Bigger than Northwestern

For Black students navigating predominantly white institutions, Coar suggests finding a good support system and communicating any frustrations.

“I think talking to each other about what’s going on will help you recognize when it’s not you, it’s the culture.” Coar said. “It’s Northwestern, it’s America. Because certainly, I was so naïve that I never thought of it being the outside world. I always wondered, ‘What was wrong with me? Why did I feel like that? Why was this so hard for me?’”

Moyo and Steele also considered transferring. They were in the transfer portal but eventually decided to remain.

Nonetheless, Steele said she would recommend Northwestern to those, like her, who can take advantage of the resources it affords, and who know what they’re getting into.

“I would tell a [Black] student to go to Northwestern University, but [they need] a great sense of self-advocacy,” Steele said.

Steele and Moyo behind Northwestern apartments on Sheridan Road, 1970. Credit: Eleanor Steele

Years later, all four of Moyo’s children attended historically Black colleges and universities, which she encouraged them to do.

“When I graduated from Northwestern, I sort of left Northwestern. Period,” Moyo said. “Even though I was friendly with a lot of white people from Northwestern, I never got close like that.”

Coar, too, believes the Northwestern experience falls short for Black students.

“When you’re in college, you’re at such a point to start ideally recognizing who you are,” Coar said. “For some students – some Black students – it may really be hurtful to look around and see that this place does not relate to me, to my people, to what I want to do in life.”

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  1. We moved to our house near campus in 1971. Eva Jefferson, as I remember, was Northwestern Student Council President who lived 2 doors north of us. There was no mention of her in this article. I’m encouraged seeing many more Black students in my neighborhood recently. I hope this trend continues.