Few students are aware of it, but the race course required by the core curriculum with the intention of promoting racial understanding has its origins in a violent incident of racial conflict.
One April night 15 years ago, white members of the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity and several black students started a fight that eventually turned into a brawl of some 600 students. The actions of the Temple police, who handcuffed only black students, incensed some student groups, and the protests and hearings that followed sparked tidal changes in not only the curriculum but the practice of spring festivities on campus and the overall air of the Temple community.
At that time, Spring Fling was held on a Thursday, and when the afternoon street festival ended, students headed to parties on or near campus. On April 26, 1990, Sean Patrick Anderson was sitting with friends outside Johnson and Hardwick Halls between 8 p.m. and 9 p.m., planning what to do later that night, when a group of fraternity brothers approached him.
The fraternity members, wielding bats, sticks and two-by-fours, told Anderson they had asked several black students to leave a party at the fraternity house on Broad Street and Susquehanna Avenue. One of those students broke a window as he left, the fraternity members said, and more specifically, they believed Anderson was the culprit.
Anderson, an African American, was incredulous.
“Some [black] guys went to fraternities, to parties or whatever, but if stuff was going on, it wasn’t going on at that fraternity for me,” he said. “If I was going anywhere, it would be to a black fraternity. I’d have no reason to even be in the neighborhood of their house unless I just happened to be walking by or something.”
From there, things happened fast. Anderson could not remember who threw the first blow, but suddenly he was being struck from all sides. He remembered being hit with a bat, which he wrenched away from the attacker, before someone else broke a two-by-four across his back. Several black football players, who had been across the street when the fight began, came to Anderson’s aid.
The Philadelphia Inquirer and the Philadelphia Daily News reported police arrived as students poured out of the dorms after someone pulled a fire alarm. Two other students said the real problems began when the police used excessive force against Anderson and Tiffany Adams, a black female student, while all but ignoring the fraternity brothers.
Those who witnessed the melee described a surreal feeling.
“It looked like the films you see from old civil right demonstrations, whether it be Birmingham or Chicago, in the ’60s,” said Jason Neuenschwander, an undergraduate at the time.
Ron Ardon, another undergrad, cited the riot-like final scene of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing.
“If I can’t describe how it felt by words, that scene gives the feeling of how it all went down,” Ardon said.
Edwin Harron, the president of the Temple chapter of Phi Kappa Psi at the time, has no contact information listed on the fraternity’s Web site.
Temple police beat eight black students, according to an Inquirer report, and when Peter Liacouras, president of the University at the time, arrived at the police station, he saw only black students in handcuffs.
“I got a phone call at about 11 o’clock at night, and I got up right away and went down to the station [on 12th and Montgomery],” Liacouras said. “There were all these kids in handcuffs, including the son of the associate vice president, Sean, who I knew since he was almost a little baby. So the first thing I said was, ‘Get these cuffs off.'”
Liacouras met with students in the residence halls at 2 a.m. and announced the suspension of the fraternity. But many students, many black and some white, remained angry at what they deemed unnecessary behavior by the police.
“They endangered students with the way they handled the situation, and it was definitely a racial situation,” Anderson said of the overall police response. “Nobody really knew what was going on, and over the next few days it was like everyone wanted to use the incident to advance their own agenda.”
The following Monday, 400 black students sat down and blocked traffic on North Broad Street from Cecil B. Moore Avenue to Diamond Street for an hour in protest of Thursday’s events. Though newspaper reports are jumbled, students held similar protests over at least the next two days. Classes continued as scheduled, with the exception of a few instructors who supported the demonstrations.
The number of protesters exceeded 1,000 by Thursday when Eddie Glaude, a graduate student who had become the spokesman for the protest, had a confrontation with Liacouras by the Bell Tower, and the two arranged a meeting at the Berean Presbyterian Church on Broad and Diamond streets.
During the week, black students had united in a group called Concerned Black Students and formed a series of demands to be presented to the University.
“We really tried to get the students to think in broader terms than just getting the officers fired or get sensitivity training,” said Glaude, now a professor at Princeton University. “We wanted to affect larger changes, like those in the curriculum.”
In the meeting, Liacouras agreed to some demands and rejected others. He said he would not fire head of campus security Charles Bush or any of the other officers involved in the fight, and refused to permanently suspend Phi Kappa Psi, which consequently surrendered its charter in April 1994 and is no longer present on campus. He announced five campus police officers and 10 students faced disciplinary action, though no records of the final rulings were available.
Though Liacouras declined the students’ demand to add mandatory race relations classes, the issue was one that had already been floated around for the upcoming core curriculum, Liacouras and then-Vice Provost Julia Ericksen said.
“Events around those demonstrations precipitated the ideas to set in motion the discussion that summer of a race course being involved in the core curriculum,” Ericksen said.
Concerned Black Students originally demanded the core require one of two classes, Introduction to African-American Studies or African-American History Since 1900. That demand became the more general race requirement, and was allowed to be “double-counted” as another requirement.
Neuenschwander, now a Ph.D. candidate in the department of African-American Studies, was critical of the University’s diluting the initial demand.
“There’s even a way you can satisfy your composition and your race requirement with one class, so you don’t even have to take a class that specifically focuses on race,” Neuenschwander said. “You can just view it from an angle of a composition class. Plus, I took American Ethnicity, and [the race courses] struck me as very broad because they want to look at as much of American history and contemporary America from every racial and ethnic vantage point. In reality, that’s not why the race requirement was implemented.”
Rather than a dilution, Liacouras said, the courses’ broadness represents a success.
“That was the thing, that if I were to make a requirement like that, I would make a point that it’s not limited,” Liacouras said.
The new general education curriculum that will take effect in fall 2007 will not allow the race course to be double-counted.
A few students seemed jaded by the issue in general. Steve Leopold, then an undergrad, said he heard a student at the Bell Tower admit to throwing the rock, though the protest continued.
“I couldn’t understand why the organization that organized the protest kept trying to impress their will, even after the student stood up,” Leopold said.
A friend who was with him at the Bell Tower did not recall hearing that.
Anderson, who was actually caught in the fray, said the race requirement was a good addition, but the wrongdoing in the incident got overshadowed by the agenda.
“Temple pretty much wanted to get this handled because it had escalated to a point that they didn’t want it to escalate to,” Anderson said. “They sat down with students and asked for strategies from the standpoint of the students as to what was needed. They talked about cultural awareness classes and possible suspensions for the officers involved, maybe putting them on desk duty.
“To me, that was a lot of wallpaper just to appease the situation. Time has healed a lot of things, but a lot of the things that were implemented at that time didn’t do much to address that one isolated situation.”
Glaude and Neuenschwander both noted a heightened sense of involvement by students. Interest was particularly high in matters of alleged police brutality, a hot-button issue nationally in the early 1990s.
“Temple at that time was an interesting sort of place,” Glaude said. “Grad students were striking over their status as workers, faculty striking over their contract with the institution, and students who had experienced a violation on their persons and dignity. This all happened in the short period of time [two years] that I was there. It was an intense political time.”
Though not every former student was eager to discuss the incidents of April 1990, they were unanimous about its impact, which included incidentally helping create awareness on other minority issues like women’s studies, plus moving Spring Fling to Tuesday to cut down on four-day marathon binges.
But for every eager source, there is one reluctant to recall the memory. Two professors and a campus police captain claimed to have no memory of the incident; upon further questioning, one professor and the captain admitted to remembering the incident but denied comment.
“Unless someone really does their homework, the University isn’t going to put old news blots out there of what happened,” said Ardon, now a senior tech support specialist at Temple. “That’s just not good business.”
The University does not have to publicize the incident, Neuenschwander said, but simply answer questions honestly when they are asked.
“I think it’s disingenuous of Temple not to talk about it,” he said. “That fact that Temple’s not discussing the history of this, it’s kind of perpetrating a fraud.”
Benjamin Watanabe can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.