May 29, 2009
'Do I have to die for this? Maybe I will': An alumna recalls the Straight takeover
This is the second in a series of articles about the four-decade legacy of the 36-hour student takeover of Willard Straight Hall in April 1969. The third in the series, on the 40th anniversary of the Africana Studies and Research Center, will appear on Chronicle Online in September.
Photographs of young men holding rifles and draped with bandoliers have come to symbolize the 1969 Willard Straight Hall takeover.
But at least half of the takeover participants were women, says Juanita E. Goss '72, although few of their stories have been told. "And we were some opinionated women," she remembers. "We questioned. We even confronted brothers who we felt had too much rhetoric and didn't have the action to back it. We were out there. In no way did we feel that [the men] were doing it all. We were in it."
Today many of the alumnae who participated are leaders in their fields. Andree Nicola McLaughlin '70 is the Dr. Betty Shabazz Distinguished Chair in Social Justice at Medgar Evers College, CUNY. Janis Willis '69, M.A. '71, is a professor of religion at Wesleyan University. Others are doctors, authors, lawyers and high-level executives.
Few alumnae want to talk about the takeover now. But Goss, a counselor in Smyrna, Ga., who is pursuing a Ph.D. in African-American studies to teach, calls the takeover "one of the most important things I've ever done in my life."
When Goss came to Cornell in 1968, she says she felt both ignored and harassed because of her race. People shouted racial epithets from cars, and male friends escorted her and other women across campus for protection. And despite the university motto, "Any person ... any study," Goss and her friends resented the lack of courses that focused on African-American history and culture.
Yet she felt she belonged at Cornell. The Class of 1972 had the largest number of African-Americans to that date, many of them sought out by university recruiters. "They came to Harlem. They came into South Bronx. They came into Bed-Stuy. They said, 'We want your brightest and your best.' Lots of us came from average families," Goss remembers. "We had daddies who made sure we did our homework … and we were about excellence."
A resident of Harlem, Goss earned excellent grades and a scholarship to Convent of the Sacred Heart, a private girls school on Manhattan's Upper East Side. She was the school's first student of color in an upper-crust student body that included Caroline Kennedy and diplomats' daughters. She felt she always stood out because of her race. "By the time I graduated, I was ready to be a number, to tell you the truth," she says.
At Cornell, she joined the Afro-American Society, a small group of students of color. "A lot of us had a lot of hurt and disillusionment about the assassinations of Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.," Goss recalls. "Society was going out of its mind. We were in the middle of it, and we had some idealism that we could effect some change."
Feminism, as white Cornell women knew it, didn't factor into the AAS hierarchy. The men stood out in front as leaders, while the women took on a nurturing role, Goss says. "We were about putting our men forward and giving them the respect of their manhood that society was not [giving them]."
During the takeover, the women cooked for the group in the Straight kitchens and made makeshift beds using blankets and pillows from the Straight hotel. When fraternity brothers attacked the men on the first floor, the women stayed upstairs, overhearing screaming and tussling. After the fighting, Goss says the women bandaged the men's bloody heads.
"It was then that it hit me that this was past serious," Goss says. "There was no panic. Mentally we were prepared for anything. We were so committed, we felt, 'Do I have to die for this? Maybe I will.' Looking back, that seems like it might have been a bit extreme, but we really to the core felt that at the time. We felt we were ready."
The takeover, she says, was a significant experience that taught her the importance of working with, not against, political and legal systems to promote social change. It gave her, she says, "a feeling of empowerment. It also helped me to help others feel empowered."
Although Goss hasn't stayed in touch with many women from Cornell, she attended Reunion in 1989 and 1997 and visited with former housemates from Wari House.
"Seeing them again was just wonderful," she said. "It was a beautiful sisterhood."