In May of 1970, a Black students’ association for a small all-women’s college in Chicago issued a set of demands. They demanded the recruitment of more minority students with sufficient scholarships and financial aid; the firing of prejudiced instructors and administrators and a commitment to not hire others; and higher wages and working conditions for Black employees. (Click on the thumbnail to see page one of their demands.)
The Mundelein College United Black Association (MuCUBA) had been founded in the late 1960s to advocate for the rights of Black students at the college.
The president of Mundelein responded favorably to the list of demands, creating a Black Studies program, a Black Scholarship Fund, and a Human Relations Committee that worked to educate members of the university about racism on campus, among other improvements.
In 1991, Mundelein College merged with Loyola University, and the college’s records, including news clippings and the letter from the university president in response to the demands, are maintained by Loyola’s Women and Leadership Archives. In the fall of 2015, the archives drew attention to the parallels between MuCUBA’s activism, showcased in this online exhibit, and the student protests happening across the country—including at Loyola—about better treatment of minority students.
“It is important to place conversations such as these in a historical context,” Ellen, a graduate student, wrote on the archives’ blog. “Knowing that MuCuba successfully advocated for greater attention to their plight on Mundelein’s campus should provide student protesters in the present proper inspiration to continue their fight against racial injustice.”
MuCuba as a Predecessor to the Black Lives Matter Movement
I met with archives Director Nancy Freeman, who mentioned further parallels between MuCUBA’s demands and the demands listed by the Black Lives Matter movement. Among them:
“Reparations for the systemic denial of access to high quality educational opportunities in the form of full and free access for all Black people (including undocumented and currently and formerly incarcerated people) to lifetime education including: free access and open admissions to public community colleges and universities, technical education (technology, trade and agricultural), educational support programs, retroactive forgiveness of student loans, and support for lifetime learning programs.”
Another demand calls for more federal and state jobs programs and “a guaranteed minimum livable income for all Black people, with clearly articulated corporate regulations.”
These demands echo the demands that students were asking for on campus in 1970, just to a much larger scale.
An archive preserves artifacts that contain hidden stories. And if these stories aren’t told—or we don’t pay attention to them—then we don’t get the truest sense of the present as it is. Our present reality was created not just by important people, but by everyday people, through small pieces of resistance and complicity. By remembering these small acts of resistance, like Black students at a women’s college standing up for their rights in the early ’70s, we learn what has changed and what has not. We learn what we’re capable of.
The Women and Leadership Archives preserves the history of individuals who have made a difference in the lives of women in Chicago, Chicagoland and the Great Lakes region.
‘The Quiet Leaders’
“I’m always hot on the quiet leaders,” Freeman said in our interview, “because the vast majority of us are quiet in the sense that we’re not written up in the Tribune. However, many, many folks do utterly fantastic work in their communities.”
As I talked to Freeman, I was reminded of Ta-Nehesi Coates’ Case for Reparations in which he tells the story of racism in the Chicago housing market in the ’60s and how certain neighborhoods became ghettos. He focuses on one man, Clyde Ross, who came from a family of sharecroppers in Mississippi. After serving in the U.S. Army during World War II, he moved to Chicago, where he worked as a taster for Campbell’s Soup. After 14 years, he bought a house, and his mortgage was “‘on contract’: a predatory agreement that combined all the responsibilities of home ownership with all the disadvantages of renting—while offering the benefits of neither.” These were the mortgages available to Black families at the time.
Coates also tells the story of the Contract Buyers League, “a collection of Black homeowners on Chicago’s South and West sides—all of whom had been locked into the same system of predation.” The stories that Coates tells aren’t stories of victims but of activists, resisting against an unfair system. The stories show what work has been done and what injustices still need answered for.
Not every story gets told in a book or online. It’s only what certain individuals prioritize that gets passed on and remembered. And most stories have an expiration date. This is why preserving primary sources matter: because we can’t know what stories that haven’t yet been told will be important years from now.
Primary sources are materials, such as letters, oral histories, or newspaper articles, that provide firsthand accounts of a person’s life or an event.
“Primary sources tell the story both explicitly and implicitly,” Freeman says. “They’ll tell you all the facts sometimes, then they’ll tell you the backstories and will tell you how people interacted with the backstory … and [they] show hidden aspects of history.”
They’re also important, according to Freeman, for fostering people’s critical thinking and analytical skills. Asking students to draw their own conclusions. Whose voices have been preserved and whose haven’t? What is missing?
Listen for Who is Being Left Out
I would say in this era where we are bombarded with news from sites we’ve considered trustworthy alongside news from sources we deem fake, when we are overwhelmed with political and cultural perspectives from experts and friends — in this era we need shrewd analytical skills. But, really, we’ve always needed them, and I daresay I’d be a hypocrite to argue otherwise. “Now more than ever” statements erase history and minimize people’s stories and struggles.
Instead, hopefully we can agree that it is important to listen for who is being left out. And looking to places like Loyola’s Women and Leadership Archives is a great start in seeing who has historically been left out. Is history repeating itself? Can we make a difference? What can we repair by respecting people’s histories?
(Images from the Women and Leadership Archives online exhibit)