A silenced history; Hampton’s legacy of student protests

(daily press)
(daily press)

Arriana McLymore | Editor-in-Chief

Students at historically Black colleges and universities (HBCU) are known for playing key roles in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s and now the Black Lives Matter movement. Through protests, demonstrations and networking students have worked to make their voices heard throughout the country for social change. 

Hampton University has a long history of using protests to counter discrimination and racial injustices against students. Dating before the 1920’s when it was known as Hampton Institute, the Hampton University student body routinely sang Negro spirituals during the Sunday evening Chapel services for White audiences who found the melodies amusing. The all White administration and Board of Trustees used the Sunday services to attract more publicity for the school and to entice potential donors. The students, however, found the songs to be objectifying .

Disdain for the performance of Negro spirituals grew until 1925 when the members of Hampton Institute’s choir protested during a recital in Washington, D.C. The choir members walked off the stage in the middle of their performance, leaving a segregated audience angry and confused. Hampton’s administration quickly responded with disapproval of the students’ actions and threatened to expel the participants.

The administration insisted “that [the students] adhere to the rules and traditions of the institution,” according to James E. Alford Jr.’s 2013 dissertation “For Alma Mater: Fighting for Change at Historically Black Colleges and Universities.” 

Hampton Institute received much backlash for the students’ actions. 

One of the few people who supported the protest was R. Nathaniel Dett, Hampton’s musical director. Dett continuously encouraged students to break away from the expected drudge of Negro spirituals and to explore a more “sophisticated style of the new Negroes of the 1920’s.”

Two years later in 1927, students began protesting the strict rules given by Hampton’s administration. “During Sunday chapel service, students at Hampton stood united in protest against what they deemed to be unfair school policies and a paternalistic administration,” noted Alford. Students again refused to sing the Negro hymns in objection to Hampton’s management. 

In an attempt to regain order on campus and persuade students to continue attending their classes, Hampton’s administration called a meeting with the Student Protest Committee. The committee presented 17 grievances that ranged from better food in the cafeteria, longer holidays and a student-lead council.

Hampton students used the protests to demand respect and have their voices be heard by the institute’s leadership. However they were shocked when their peers were heavily punished. 67 students were sanctioned, suspended or expelled as a result of their participation in protests at Hampton Institute.

“The spirit of student activism had been crushed under the weight of a no-nonsense Board of Trustees who simply would not allow for any rebellious thoughts or actions to take place at Hampton,” commented Alford in his dissertation. 

However the spirit of activism did not die with the punishment of those 67 students. Hampton student activism reared its head again in 1960 when Hamptonians began staging sit-in demonstrations at local diners. 

Following the notable Greensboro sit-in’s at Woolworth’s diner by North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University (NCATSU) students, members of Hampton’s Committee for Human Dignity decided it was time to make their mark in Virginia. On February 10, 1960, three of Hampton Institute’s students journeyed to a local branch of Woolworth’s, sat at the diner’s counter and requested meals. This made Hampton Institute the first school in Virginia to stage a sit-in demonstration. More than 200 students joined another sit-in at Woolworth’s diner the following day. 

Hampton’s largest demonstration, boasting more than 700 students, took place on the morning of March 26, 1960. Students deemed the march “Operation 26” and used the day to raise awareness on the injustices of discrimination and segregation throughout the Peninsula area. 

Over fifty years later, Hampton students continue to have a drive for social change. In December 2014, the Gamma Iota chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, incorporated at Hampton University organized a march in protest of a St. Louis County Grand Jury’s decision not to indict Officer Darren Wilson in the death of 18-year-old Michael Brown. More than 300 students marched to Hampton’s City Hall and participated in a lay-in at the doors of City Hall.

(daily press)
(daily press)

The students marched with posters printed with the words “#BlackLivesMatter” and “Justice for Mike Brown.”

Recently, Hampton University students protested mass incarceration at the Newport News jailhouse and courthouse. 

Students held posters with statistics about how African Americans and other minorities are affected by mass incarceration, police brutality and racial profiling.  

Hampton University students are continuously searching for ways to counter racial injustices on and off campus. There is a legacy of student activism that is to be remembered and honored on Hampton’s campus. 

Without the students’ actions of the past, there would be no appreciation for the today’s students’ struggles. 


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