Protestors at UW-Madison carry signs and yell into a megaphone in the evening.
News Opinion

An ongoing demand: Black Americans fight for equity at UW-Madison for generations

Generations of Black students attending the University of Wisconsin-Madison have been dedicated to their demand for equality and space, while fighting against racial discrimination and inequality in Wisconsin.

Generations of Black students attending the University of Wisconsin-Madison have been dedicated to their demand for equality and space, while fighting against racial discrimination and inequality in Wisconsin. 

UW-Madison alumni Dr. Hazel Symonette, Deshawn McKinney and Dequadray White highlighted the discrepancies of being a Black student at the university in times of social change and racial disparity. Their perspective on current protest culture and the Black Lives Matter movement, in comparison to their efforts for the Madison community in the past, reflect a cycle throughout generations of students. This cycle is contingent upon the university’s lack of space and neglect of Black students since 1875, according to UW Communications, in addition to the racial disparities faced by Black students at UW-Madison. 

Symonette, a 1969 Black Student Strike activist, began her graduate career at UW-Madison during a time of protest and boycotting within the African American undergraduate student body because of the lack of representation, resources and consideration for Black students on campus. 

“You don’t come heavily armored…if all of us had the memories and experiences that I’ve had, it would leave you in the cycle that keeps on happening,” Symonette said. 

Symonette emphasized loss during the 1969 Black Student Strike, specifically the loss of educational opportunity for students like herself. Symonette left campus for nearly a year after losing her doctoral fellowship in social psychology. She says she then experienced racial discrepancy and tension within her department when she returned to the university. As a result of the 1969 Strike, the African American Studies department was developed and Symonette was able to become a teaching assistant within the department as a segway into finishing her education.  

The primarily undergraduate-led strike had been the first UW-Madison had seen its Black students carving out space on an ungiving campus. In 1969, Black students presented 13 demands to UW-Madison that spoke to their need for space and inclusion. Symonette referenced the return of Liberty Rashad and Wahid Rashad, formerly known as Willie Edwards, for the fiftieth-anniversary celebration in 2019. 

View the 13 Demands here: https://news.wisc.edu/black-student-strike/story/.  

After the Black Student Strike of 1969, Black students at UW-Madison have had a continuous fight against racism at the university. Despite the development of the African American Studies department, the Wisconsin Black Student Union and the admission of more Black students, the larger population of campus and faculty lack consideration for Black people in Madison. The population of Black students continues to fall below the statistic of 2 percent of the university’s population of more than 40,000 students, according to Fall 2020 university enrollment data. Additionally, the voices of these students met resistance from the university. Nearly 18,000 of Madison residents are Black, according to 2018 census.gov population data, of the city’s total population of 258,040. 

“I believe people have little consciousness of what it takes to actually make it happen, they need to transform the design district of the system in this place and not send the message that you are a guest at best in this place,” Symonette said. 

Since the 1969 Black Student Strike, Symonette has resurfaced on the campus of UW-Madison to serve the current community of students on campus. 

McKinney spoke to Black students having to endure finals and a shadowed existence on campus amid a major racial conflict in society and at the university, after the murder of Eric Garner in 2014. As an alum of First Wave, a scholarship at UW-Madison focused on urban arts, academics and student activism, McKinney described a complicated existence and experience on campus. McKinney used activism to interrupt the campus culture despite the rupture of racial violence and police brutality. 

“You walk around, much like you do in regular society, and you wonder why somebody is looking at you,” McKinney said. “What are you doing? How are they feeling? You end up in classes being the spokesperson for your race, what you do is imposed upon other Black folks.”

The continuous cycle of racial discrimination and the lack of acknowledgment of Black students on the campus of UW-Madison depends on how much space the university makes for its Black population. The Black Lives Matter movement is an outlet and platform for students to vocalize their experiences within a racist society both on and off the campus of UW-Madison. White, another First Wave alum, expressed the effects of capitalism on how the university handles and commends Black people, including the exploitation of Black students for capital and promotional gain, even amid protest. 

“This capitalist society that we live in continuously has necessitated how we can commodify Blackness, Black pain and trauma,” White said. 

White said his motive for the 2019 Langdon Street Protest was because of Black students dealing with displacement and discomfort on the campus of a university that does not serve them. White responded to the disservice of the university by creating posters that read “4 Whites Only” and other expressions that to him described a shared experience among Black students at UW-Madison.  Ultimately, this created a lot of controversy and drew the media’s attention to the university’s racist history and culture. Students of color on the campus of UW-Madison have met the racism and discrimination perpetuated against them with resilience and resistance since 1969.  

“This is just a facade and the fact that we as students of color come to this campus on a full-tuition scholarship for activism are subjected to things like that – they don’t foster a community where you can flourish,” White said. 

Amid the different civil rights-based movements and continuous systematic racism Black people endure everyday, generations of Black students at UW-Madison have fought within the university to demand their need for resources, space and equity through various protests over the years. Symonette said her commitment is transforming UW-Madison into a place that is more congruent with its rhetoric and promises to all students. Like Symonette, many others on the campus of UW-Madison have fought for generations for Black students to have equal opportunity and space on campus. However, that fight has been met with silence and ignorance from the university. Non-Black and white students on campus have contributed to the largely maintained discriminative and exclusive culture students of color are subjected to as a minority population.

In 2016, students protested at UW-Madison in reaction to a doll of former President Barack Obama hung with a noose around its neck, which was said to be a costume worn at a UW-Madison football game. This incident is an example of the torment Black students and other students of color have endured throughout years of scholarship at UW-Madison. 

“Every generation, all of us who are present in life with a reasonable portion of a sound mind and body, from my youth and up to the elders, have a responsibility because the baton is in our hands,” Symonette said. 

Symonette and McKinney both said that to exist as a Black student on UW-Madison’s campus surrounds a search for identity, a demand for equality and an attempt to gain higher education despite the barrier of racism on a campus that has not made space for its Black population. Black students throughout generations of UW-Madison alumni have been fighting for justice, and feel as though it is their responsibility to support the community before and after them. 

Within the history of Black liberation at the university, there is a cycle of protest culture that has manifested itself within the Black community at UW-Madison. This cycle of protest culture throughout generations of Black students at UW-Madison is consistent with the demand for equality and space despite the racism against Black people on campus and within the wider community of Madison.

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