Tufts Radical Histories

Radical Histories at…Tufts?


Every place has its historical legacies and, for better or for worse, those legacies are forever its foundational base that can be ignored, but never fully erased if at least one person dares to remember.  It is most likely that you have some understanding of Tufts’ history.  Most likely you toured the campus and had some excited student telling you about all the fun things the institution offers from language program, study abroad opportunities, or the growing interest in the International Relations (IR) major.  Or maybe you browsed through the university website and read that it was the Universalist Church that founded Tufts College in 1852 and a women’s college associated with Tufts, Jackson College, was founded in 1910 and its first dean was a pro-suffrage female scholar.  Upon further investigation you might have learned that the character Elaine from Seinfeld was a Tufts alumni.  While such fun facts hold some historical relevance, institutional memory and pop culture signifiers have a different story telling template from the purpose of this article.  Institutional memory seeks to magnify its laurels and quel parental-based pocketbook fears assuring that their money will be put into good use.  What we want to tell here are stories about people who have crossed through these lands that Tufts sits on.  We also want you to think about the given blood, sweat, and tears–and also an individual’s diminished GPA–when someone or some people decide to allocate their time and effort into challenging something most individuals might not find relevant and/or important.

All land that makes up the U.S. is colonized land.  Like most colonial nations, the marking of boarders had nothing to do with the original people who lived there, but represented the interest of the property owners that laid claim to such land.  The state of Massachusetts is actually named after one group of native people, the Massachusett, who lived around what is now called the Massachusetts Bay, which includes Boston.  Other native inhabitants included the Nipmuck, the Pocumtuc, the Nauset, and the Wampanoag.  All of these native people would experience land displacement, death due to European disease, and cultural colonization.  But displacement of people did not only take place for native people, but for African people as well.  One of the most common myths about U.S. history is that slavery existed solely in the southern states.  As exposed in Complicity: How the North Promoted, Prolonged, and Profited from Slavery written by a group of New England journalists, the North was complicit and so are many of the institutions built from money that profited from slavery.  Near the Tufts gym on College Ave., there is the Royall House.  Now a museum, it preserves an 18th century family mansion, as well as a large slave quarters.  But what is also interesting, according to a 2010 Tufts Observer article, the Tufts family were also slaveowners in the late 1700s.  As mentioned, Tufts is not an anomaly but conforms well with many New England institutions such as Harvard and Brown in its ties to slavery.

Now let’s fast forward to the recent modern era.  As you might or might not know, the 1960s and 1970s were decades of resistance, anti-conformity, and unrest that forever altered aspects of American life.  There is no reason to think that Tufts would be untouched by the political fervor of its time.  While the year 1968 was a pivotal year of rebellion  across the globe and across the U.S., it was 1969 that ended up being a year that shook up the Tufts campus. (If curious about what happened in 1968, please take Prof. Mulholland’s course “1968.”)

The Civil Rights Movement was a movement against institutionalized racism and for the expansion of democratic rights that galvanized people to resist and speak out against racism at a much broader scale than ever before.  U.S. citizens had always known that they lived in a racist society.  What shifted the situation was that a generation of youth, with the help of longtime activists, decided to take action.  This type of action was also seen at Tufts when some students became aware that the construction of a new dorm, Lewis Hall, was being done by a company that practiced racist hiring policies.  Members of the  Afro-American Alliance made their concerns known to the administration but were largely ignored.  Students then began to organize protests at the Lewis Hall construction site which led the school administration to call the Somerville police who arrived in riot gear.  Students  escalated further by organizing a sit-in at the President’s office in Ballou Hall.   According to the Tufts Civil Rights archival site, “The Afro-American Society of Tufts University took the lead in applying this pressure in November 1969, communicating demands for equal employment opportunity at the construction site directly to President Hallowell’s office and liaising with other groups in the Boston area to present a united front to the Tufts administration.”  As support grew and public protests became more frequent, the Attorney General of Massachusetts and numerous university presidents from around the state met to “normalize” the situation, which led to Tufts University taking action by only hiring companies that complied with federal law in equal opportunity hiring, and the University eventually sued the construction company for its non-compliance.

In 1968 and 1969, students at San Francisco State University (SFSU) and UC Berkeley went on strike demanding the creation of an Ethnic Studies Department at SFSU that led to the first Black Studies Department in the country.  In the midst of the Lewis Hall protests in 1969, students also demanded the creation of a African American Studies and Women’s Studies Departments.  While Tufts University did not agree to administer such departments, instead the Experimental College became the initial home for both.  The Ex College, created in the 1960s, was an experimental project put together by faculty of different disciplines that wanted to give students and faculty more creative space.   As stated in its website, “Almost immediately after convening, the board broke from Tufts’ tradition by including students in the decision-making process of the college. By the spring of 1966, the board unanimously agreed that its four student members be given full voting rights and that a two-thirds majority be required for all major decisions.”  This desire for horizontal decision-making and student inclusion was a growing trend at the time.  There was also a demand for safer spaces for students who experienced various forms of oppression daily within the white-male-heteronormative campus life.  The Africana Center was established in 1969 after much resistance by the administration.  Other such spaces soon followed including the Women’s Center in 1972, the Asian American Center in 1983, the Latino Center in 1993, and the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual Resource Center (now LGBTQ Center) in 1992.

A few weeks before the Stonewall Uprising in NYC, a male Tufts undergraduate came out during the commencement Senior Dinner.  According to a Tufts Daily article about the dinner, tensions were already high between the students and the administration leading up to the event.  Students were upset that “the men at Ballou (or the Trustees in their law firm)” had secretly given President Nixon’s Chief Science Adviser, Lee A. DuBridge, an honorary degree.  The administration had also not given the class poet adequate preparation time to present a poem at the dinner in which, according to him, “They were afraid I might make an obscene poem or something.”  In response, when he reached the podium, the student declared over the microphone, “I AM A HOMOSEXUAL” and then the microphone went dead.  During graduation, a student stopped at the microphone after receiving his degree and declared, “The only really sincere thing I’ve heard all day was said earlier by the official class poet.”  According to the 1969 article, some students had taken off their robes during graduation in protest of the censoring of the class poet and the administration’s deceitfulness in their giving an honorary degree to an individual that they knew would ripple negative reactions from the student body.

Now, what about the cannon?  Surely, that fun tidbit about a mysterious Tufts legacy that students began painting over the cannon–and no one really knows why or how it started–is true.  I am sorry to say that it is not a mysterious antecedent.  It should be noted that the cannon was removed from Tufts property during much of the 1960s and 1970s to avoid the possibility of sabotage due to the growing anti-militarism sentiment in response to the Vietnam War.  The cannon was returned to the Tufts premises once the war ended.  But, even so, it became a foci of sabotage.  In 1977, it became known that the U.S.-backed dictators of the Philippines, Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos, were Tufts endowment contributors and Imelda was to receive an honorary degree from the institution.  The dictatorial couple visited Tufts campus while approximately 1,000 people protested their presence.  In show of their disgust of the Tufts administration, a student or some students  painted the cannon in protest, while another student who opposed the sentiment expressed repainted the cannon to cover their words.  However, the painting and repainting of the cannon soon became a fixture of student tradition.  But things did not end there.  Soon after the visit and cannon protest, some 80 Tufts faculty signed a letter opposing the university’s acceptance of $1.5 million from Imelda Marcos.  In 1981, the Marcos planned on donating $1 million to the Fletcher School to create a chair named in their honor.  As U.S. support of the Marcos regime began to wane, the Fletcher School followed suit.  The Fletcher School did not reject the endowment, but made their relationship with the Marcos a bit chilled.  Marcos eventually decided to discard the project.  Only a few months earlier, agents of the Marcos regime had killed two members of the International Longshore Workers Union (ILWU) in Seattle for their union activism supporting Filipino workers, which was news that ricocheted across the U.S.

The 1980s at Tufts proved to be a period of much resistance and social movement building.  From the Anti-Apartheid movement, the Anti-Nuclear movement, and the growing gay rights movement, they all left an impact on Tufts campus.  The Tufts Political Action Committee (TPAC) maintained an influential and active presence at Tufts in participation in these various movements, as well as involvement in Boston-related social justice issues.  After much building of support, TPAC helped pass a resolution at the Student-Faculty Advisory Committee for Social Responsibility declaring Tufts University a “Nuclear-Free Zone” and planned to ask the Board of Trustees for Tufts to divest entirely from nuclear development and programs.  This project directly affected the Fletcher School due to its Cold War rhetoric and close affiliation with the U.S. Military.

In 1985, Tufts students decided to step-up their struggle to force the Tufts Trustees to divest from Apartheid South Africa.  According to some students, the administration agreed to divest in 1979 but had not followed through.  Students thus decided to build an apartheid-style shanty town on “The Green” and organized an occupation of Ballou Hall to make their struggle public.  Local News WBGH did a story on the occupation and video footage of the occupation can be seen at their archive.  However, divestment would not take place until 1989–around the time of the demise of the South African apartheid regime.

While it is impossible to write about everything, to name a few other struggles in passing, numerous labor battles have also erupted on Tufts campus.  This includes opposition to the administration’s decision to make the Tufts janitorial staff a contracted worker rather than university employees which led to these workers losing tuition privileges for their children, as well as worsening of working conditions which continues to be an issue today.  In 1988, students protested the creation of the new Tufts Administration Building as a violation of labor rights and an example of Tufts’ role in the gentrification of Somerville.  Tufts has played a part in gentrifying this largely working-class area, which has led to much antagonism between the community and students (of which many students tend to be aloof of this effect).

The year 2011-2012 turned out to be years of lots of activity on Tufts campus.  It was not clear at the beginning of the Occupy Wall Street movement that it would spread across the country.  Yet, Occupy Boston was one of the first cities to establish an encampment soon after.  Several Tufts students attended the General Assemblies that led to Occupy Boston, as well as involvement in the encampment itself.  Some Tufts students were involved in the various working groups (WG) created at Occupy Boston from the Direct Action WG to the Socialist Caucus WG to the Students Occupy Boston WG to the Spirituality WG.  Very soon after the Occupy Boston encampment was established, a Tufts Occupiers (TO) group blossomed to support Occupy Boston, as well as seeking to establish a space where student could address many of the social issues affecting their campus.  It soon became clear that TO became a space for students to find others interested in social justice issues.  During the school year, TO organized support for actions carried out by other groups including a labor rally supporting janitors at Tufts organized by their union and the Jumbo Janitors Alliance.  Another important action was (yet another) occupation of Ballou Hall spearheaded by the Pan-African Alliance in their 40-some year struggle for an Africana Studies Department.  Tenured positions were promised during negotiation, and in May a full faculty voted for Africana Studies and Asian American Studies to be included in the Tufts curriculum! Direct Action gets the goods.

While this short article can only offer a glimpse into the social justice histories at Tufts, we encourage you to make your own inquiries and maybe write another fuller article, research paper, or thesis on the subject.  As the saying goes, the struggle wouldn’t be called the struggle if it was easy.  Let’s not forget that the struggle is ongoing and it is up to you to pick up the mantle and add another chapter to the radical histories at Tufts.


Lewis Hall Protests, 1969: Tufts Civil Rights Protests Archive
Occupation of Ballou, 1969: Sit-in in President Hallowell’s office, 1969
Jackson College Sit-in, 1969

The History of Tufts Experimental College, 1969-1979: ” The university’s African American Studies and Women’s Studies programs were started in the Experimental College during this period, as was one of its most successful innovations, Explorations, a student-led seminar program that combines advising and academics for entering students, initiated in 1972.”

Anti-Vietnam Protests at Tufts, 1961-1975: Vietnamese Conflict Tisch Digital Archive

Radical photography by Don T. Young between 1965 and 1981.

Imelda Marcos protest, 1977: “During the Fall semester of 1977, the cannon was painted as a protest, perhaps of the visit and conferral of an honorary degree on Imelda Marcos of the Philippines, in October 1977.It was quickly repainted by a student who objected to the defacing of the historic monument. Thus, the tradition of painting the cannon began and became an almost nightly activity.”
-The Harvard Crimson, Tufts Faculty Members Protest Philippine Grant (1977)
-The Harvard Crimson, Marcos Cancels Funds for Tufts Endowment (1981)

Occupation of Ballou, 1985: Apartheid protest at Tufts University

Nuclear Divestment effort in the 1980s:
-Tufts Daily, Supports Divestment (1982)

Tufts Political Action Committee was a student group in the 1980s that was active in divestment from Apartheid South Africa, divestment from Nuclear technology, and pressured to keep ROTC off of Tufts and Harvard campuses.

Tufts Administration Building Protest, 1988: labor rights and gentrification

Occupation of Ballou, 1994: Students protest against the administration’s refusal to divest from Hydro Quebec
-Tufts Daily, Hydro-Quebec discussion continues (1993)
-Tufts Daily, Trustees decide on university investments (1994)

Radix: Radical & Liberal Journal, 2001-2005: Tufts Radix Archive
-Tufts Daily, ‘Radix’ gets radical
-Tufts Daily, Tufts student liberal magazine Radix de-recognized by TCUJ

Black Solidarity Day, Nov. 7, 2011:
Occupation of Ballou, 2011: Students Demand an African Studies Department

Tisch Library Black Power Archive: History 191: The Black Panther Party


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