Morningside Park Protest at Columbia

              In April of 1968, Columbia University made history when it revolted against the University’s institutionalized racism for its construction of Morningside Park. The school was planning to build the park in the Harlem and Morningside Heights neighborhoods, which consisted mostly of black and Puerto Ricans. Columbia’s reputation made it acceptable for many to overlook the idea that in order to expand the university they would have to infringe upon the territory of nearby black neighborhoods [4].

[5] Plans for the Morningside Gym.

 Although, the administration at Columbia hoped that the park would integrate the Harlem community, the preceding decade of construction resulted in more than seven thousand Harlemites being evicted from their homes [4]. The proposed benefits for the Harlem community fell short when the planned expansion eliminated a significant portion of the residents. The Students’ Afro-American Society (SAS) consulted with multiple members of the Harlem community and saw the proposed structure as a broader representation of control over land and as symbol of the existing racism. Within the 2.1-acre gymnasium, no contact would be made between Columbia students and Harlem residents, as Harlem residents had a different entry (in the bottom of the hill). This design sparked controversy because it suggested a community segregation endorsed by the school [1].

[4] Harlem residents support black students.
For members of the Harlem community, Morningside Park had various meanings. Some people referred to it as “the only place you could go to get mugged,” while for others it was a representation of a land untouchable to authority and white institutions [4]. Because of Columbia’s location in the city, it had not been able to acquire recreational facilities that other university’s like Harvard and Yale had, so President Grayson Kirk asked the Parks Commissioner Robert Moses to buy 2.1 acres of the land in Morningside Park [4]. Kirk and the administration hoped that the construction would be profitable for University admissions and enhance its relationship with the neighboring communities.
[4] A view of the excavation of Morningside Park and West Harlem from Columbia (April 1, 1968).
In a poor attempt to endorse the gymnasium to the Harlem community, the university’s publication Columbia College Today suggested that the gym would “positively affect the park by making it into an interracial meeting place full of activity and a safe place in which to play again”[4]. The publication’s subliminal racist rhetoric suggested that as long as only community members of only black and Puerto Rican descent used the park, it would be unsafe.
[2] Front page of The Morningside Citizen Newsletter.
The addition of “interracial meeting place” gave the impression that safety can only be attained when white people came into the mix [4]. By the mid 1960’s strong opposition from community members for the construction peaked as the Civil Rights and Black Power movements gained momentum. By analyzing the gym’s controversy amidst the historical events that were occurring during that year, one can understand the significant role it played for students at the time. The planned infrastructure became a symbol of the overseas events that were occurring, such as the Vietnam War. Black demonstrators protesting the construction referred to the building as “Gym Crow” to suggest its racist nature. Along with this campus organization, the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) also became heavily involved in the protests.
[4] SAS marches through Hamilton Hall (April 30, 1968).
The University’s privileged position in gaining territory did not sit well with student protestors who saw the Columbia on a power-hungry mission to subjugate the vulnerable communities of Harlem and Morningside Heights [2]. SDS leader Mark Rudd, states “…the gym was also symbolic of the whole way in which the University faces the community—its exploitation of the community…” [2]. Many of the student protestors summed up that spring of 1968 as a fight over power. Lead by the SDS and SAS organizations, the protests escalated on April 23 when several hundred students gathered at the sundial while others went to Morningside Park to remove the fence surrounding the gymnasium [3]. Other protestors occupied various buildings on campus, and prevented the dean of the college from leaving his office.

For six days, demonstrations went on around the campus until Kirk involved the New York City police who arrested more than 700 people [3]. The protests were brought to an end, but many members of the faculty along with the students went on strike and the university was shut down for the rest of the semester [3].

We see the goal of the student movement not as the creation of an eventual power base, involving all students around all their concerns, radical and otherwise, which is a very old conception of what we’re up to, but rather, building a radical force which raises issues for other constituencies—young people, workers, others—which will eventually be picked up on to create a broader, solider revolutionary movement.

-Mark Rudd (SDS leader)

What began as a project to enhance Columbia’s aesthetics turned into a battle of power and race, indicative of the troubling year of 1968. The protests that went on that year did serve to give black students a voice and change the hierarchy of power within the institution. The planned construction of the gym became a symbol and testament that white institutions can be stopped by social movements, such as Black Power. On the fifty-year commemoration of the protests, Columbia finally recognized the importance of the rebel students in the history of the school and the nation. This serves to show memory’s partiality; the event is retrospectively analyzed years later for its impact and consequences, but lacks the emotional turmoil that encompassed that time period. To commemorate the site, a tree was planted by Friends of Morningside Park in the construction site where they gym would have been [3]. Since the construction of the gym was a reminder of the racism and social unrest at the time, the planting of a tree on that site can symbolize the restoring of the land. It will also become a place in which people visit or pass through and see the planted tree, possibly without being aware of the history behind the site. In this way, the memory of the Morningside protest has been distanced from the actual location in which it occurred.

 

Works Cited

[1] Slonecker, Blake. “Oxford Journals.” The Columbia Coalition: African Americans, New Leftists, and Counterculture at the Columbia University Protest of 1968, vol. 41, no. 4.

[2] Carriere, Micheal. “Fighting the War against Blight: Columbia University, Morningside Heights, Inc., and Counterinsurgent Urban Renewal.” Journal of Planning History, vol. 10, no. 1, 2010, pp. 5–29., doi:10.1177/1538513210392882

[3] “Columbia University 1968 | History.” Columbia University 1968 RSS, www.columbia1968.com/history/

[4] Bradley, Stefan M. Harlem vs. Columbia University: Black Student Power in the Late 1960s. University of Illinois Press, 2012

[5] “NYC That Never Was: A Gym in Morningside Park Sparks 1968 Columbia University Protests and Shutdown.” Untapped Cities, 9 Oct. 2013, untappedcities.com/2013/10/08/nyc-that-never-was-gym-morningside-park-sparks-1968-columbia-university-protests-shutdown/

[6] RealAgentOfSHIELD. “Columbia University Protests of 1968.” YouTube, YouTube, 3 Jan. 2012, www.youtube.com/watch?v=QTnaEc4ZPys