Johnathan O. Williams ’88 was studying late at night in Currier House when four white students catapulting oranges from a neighboring breezeway shattered the plate glass window next to him. Not long after, Williams received a mysterious phone call.
“Negro hit squad strikes again,” the stranger said.
The incident, which occurred in January of 1987, seized the attention of the student body and brought racial attitudes to the forefront of campus discussions. That fall, Jack C. Patterson ’88—the student who made the racially charged call—was forced to withdraw from the College for a year.
Although the Administrative Board ruled that the breaking of the window was a separate incident and not racially motivated, the four students found responsible were also asked to withdraw from the College for a year.
But the disciplinary sanctions failed to resolve simmering racial tensions both on Harvard’s campus and in the city of Cambridge. Although incidents of overt racism among the student body were rare, white students and students of color at the College still sometimes felt uncomfortable in each other’s presence, and complaints of racism in the city of Cambridge were frequent.
In addition, although cultural organizations gave undergraduates a forum to raise concerns about racial attitudes on campus, students at the time said that a perceived racial divide among the student body made open discussion of such issues difficult.
RACISM ON CAMPUS
In the fall of their sophomore year, Kenneth W. Johnson ’87 and two other members of his rooming group moved into their new upperclassmen dorm, a Leverett House suite they shared with two white students.
By the end of the semester, their rooming situation had fallen apart. One white roommate had moved out. The other went to their housing administrator, now Dean of Freshmen Thomas A. Dingman ’67, and told him that he felt threatened by the black students in his room. Dingman moved the three black roommates to a room next to the dining hall.
Although he was unsure whether his roommate’s dorm reassignment request was racially motivated, Johnson said that there was a tendency among students to self-segregate.
“Did I have someone openly calling me ‘nigger’? No,” said Johnson, a former president of the Black Students Association. “Were there people who were uncomfortable in my presence? Yes.” Johnson acknowledged that he also felt uncomfortable sometimes in the presence of white students.
“There was almost a natural segregation that happened,” said Brenda J. Walker ’88.
“Certain finals clubs would not have students of color ever,” Walker added. “We all accepted it as what it was...there were certainly groups of people who were just not going to be social with people of color.”
According to Walker, students of color found themselves the victims of racial bias both outside the classroom and within it. Walker recalls that one professor asserted in his class that African-Americans were genetically inferior to Caucasians.
Walker said that many black students effectively cut off their ties to Harvard after graduation in response to the racial bias they experienced as undergraduates. “There were people...bothered a great deal, to the point where they have no alumni affiliation at all,” Walker said. “They didn’t want anything to do with the University after they left.”