Minority Progress and Expansion at the University of Nebraska: The Afro-American Collegiate Society Demonstrations of 1969

Aden Davis, History 250: The Historian Craft

During the 1960’s the University of Nebraska experienced the most rapid growth in its history. Enrollment more than doubled from 8,711 students in 1960 to 19,618 in 1969. Hundreds more faculty and administrators were also hired to meet student demand as well as an expansion in University funding. However, despite the tremendous its tremendous growth, the black population at the University of Nebraska remained relatively static with less than 150 black students enrolled and no black faculty. [1] The University also lacked a Black Studies department with most black history being taught within the framework of U.S. and European history courses. These realities triggered a reaction by the University’s chapter of the Afro-American Collegiate Society (A-ACS). The group was founded in order to represent the interests of black students on campus and act as an organized voice for reform. [2] As the largest group of minority students, the A-ACS took action in the spring of 1969 to increase diversity on campus and the quality of life for minority students. Their actions lead to long stemming impacts that formed the foundation for minority resources and ethnic studies at the University of Nebraska today.

In 1969 the Afro-American Collegiate Society had become the largest minority student group at the University, comprised of around 90 black students they made up close to 70 percent of the black population on campus. [3] The A-ACS moved to utilize its position to push for changes at the University regarding minority representation.

On April 15, 1969 the group sent a list of concerns to University President Soshnik and other faculty that targeted the largest problems affecting the quality of life for black students. It included new goals for increasing black student enrollment to 200 by the following semester, as well as seeking out more black faculty members. The letter also outlined a new position, a Coordinator of Programs for low income and minority students to prioritize recruitment and act as a student resource in order to meet the different sorts of needs these students have compared to the average student. The group also sought out curricular review regarding the depiction of the black man in history; the goal being to end his position as a subordinate in history and instead show a proud figure. Finally, the creation of a new African-American Studies department that would exclusively be taught by black faculty in order to ensure accurate representation. [4]

After sending the letter, the President of the A-ACS, Wayne Williams, organized a series of demonstrations spanning three days in and around the administration building and student union. On the 16th, 70 black students stood near the administrative building shouting “Action! Action!” and “Black Power!” while constructing a brick wall to block off the sidewalk. On the 17th, 50-70 students carried bricks and a cardboard coffin labeled “the system” chanting “the system is dead!” [5] On the 18th students lined the halls and outside of the building and simply stood there to press their cause as A-ACS leaders met with faculty. Assistant Dean Chatfield noted multiple times the silence of the students participating in the demonstrations³. Before his meeting with the administration, Williams was asked by reporters if he believes he is seen as an agitator by authorities. Williams responded, “I don’t consider myself to be an agitator. That’s one of the things we’re against. If a white person does something to bring about a change in society, they call him a white liberal. If a black person does something they call him a militant.” [6]

Williams went into the administrative meeting with fellow members Lonetta Harrold and Ron Lee to discuss their concerns with Dean of Student Affairs G. Robert Ross, President Joseph Soshnik, and Associate Dean Dr. Russell Brown. All of the concerns were addressed and resolved between the two parties. Soshnik agreed to propose an expansion in the tuition waiver program that assists minority students in order to increase enrollment; he refused, however, to set a definite number for the recruitment of black students. Ross agreed to continue the University’s “active and vigorous efforts” in locating the finances to support a Coordinator of Programs for minority students. [7] The University only made one flat out denial: the creation of an African
American studies program taught exclusively by black people. They approved the creation of an African American Studies program with a curricular review by black students, but the exclusion of teachers from other ethnicities was seen by Soshnik as “inconsistent with our educational ideals and objectives.” Going on to say, “our practice is to treat all persons and subject matter on the basis of equality.” [8] Soshnik’s response to this proposal demonstrates the University’s position regarding race, the goal was equality, not preference. The University would choose faculty and students based primarily on potential, but it would make all efforts to discover talented, intelligent minorities.

Following the meeting, both sides expressed positivity in regards to the topics discussed. Williams commented that there is still a lot of progress to be made, but that it was important that lines of communication were made. “We’re not asking for miracles, we realize that time is needed and money is scarce. But we just want to see some concrete progress.” In order to ensure this progress, the parties scheduled public review sessions of minority student interests to take place every two weeks for the rest of the academic year. The sessions were to be attended by black students and administrators. Williams said that “if progress is not satisfactory, we are going to scream all over them.” In holding the University accountable with these sessions, the A-ACS ensured continued efforts on the concerns they listed³. Their consistent efforts to improve the state of minorities on campus sparked a rapid expansion of minority resources, studies and programs.

The A-ACS meetings in the spring of 1969 were at the root of a tremendous amount of progress for minorities at the University of Nebraska in the following years. The University hired its first Black Student Coordinator in the summer of 1969 to lead the recruitment of minority and low-income students and to develop programs to meet the special needs of minorities. [9] One of such programs was the hiring of minority advisers in 1972. Joe Renteria, Estell Collins and John Arbuckle were hired as advisers for African-American, Latino and Native American students. The University displayed the value it placed on the retainment of minority students through the hiring of these advisers. Arbuckle emphasized that the job was not to recruit minorities (that is in
the jurisdiction of the Coordinator), but to ensure that they thrive academically and graduate. The advisers also expanded outside of the University by starting the Educational Planning program in which they helped minority high school students prepare for college. This included house visits to talk with parents and students about the value of higher education, college financing and the application process.⁷ The curricular review by the A-ACS and administration led to the creation of the Black Studies Program, officially formed in 1971. [10] It included classes like “Slavery and
Antislavery in America” which focused on black and white relations across America as well as the origins of slavery.⁹ In the spring of 1972, after realizing the need for the study of other minority groups, the University of Nebraska approved the Institute for Ethnic Studies. The Institute emphasized the study of American Indian, Black, and Chicano history and culture. The stated goal was “to give authentication to classes that taught a minority perspective in various disciplines and to recruit teachers, especially minority faculty, as role models and as individuals willing to present a cultural approach to the various university disciplines.” [11] The Institute’s establishment lead to more courses on Black, Native American and Hispanic history and culture.

The A-ACS demonstrations in the spring of 1969 was a movement that displayed both
the democratic spirit of black students at the time as well as the progressiveness of the University. The speed at which additions were made to curriculum and minority resources might not have been possible without the consistent push for reform from the A-ACS. That being said, if it was not for President Soshnik’s open-minded response and reasonability the push for these reforms might have been met with resistance and consequently, conflict. The result of the A-ACS’s list of concerns was the creation of not only resources for Black students, but a better quality of life for all minorities through specific, ethnicity-based counseling and outreach. The curricular review created a foundation for the Institute of Ethnic Studies which would eventually
expand to cover both African and Latin studies. The demonstrations orchestrated by Wayne Williams and the A-ACS were the critical events necessary for the University to expand in its diversity, recognize the need for minority resources, and dedicate a department to the study of minority histories and cultures.


  1. “Soshnik’s response to the A-ACS” April 1969
  2. Dvorak, John. “NU students protest administration’s inability to provide relevant programs.”
  3. The Daily Nebraskan 16 Apr. 1969. Nebraska Newspapers. Web.
  4. Dvorak, John. “Black students, administration meet; Regent talk scheduled for Saturday.” The
  5. Daily Nebraskan 18 Apr. 1969: 1. Nebraska Newspapers. Web.
  6. “Reporters interview with Wayne Williams before he met with administrative officials.” April 17, 1969.
  7. “1960-1969: The University Expands”, Guillermo Godfrey and Kathryn Pauley, Nebraska U Collaborative Exhibit, Fall 2011.
  8. “Black student coordinator position is being filled for summer”, Summer Nebraskan 24 Jun. 1969: 1. Nebraska Newspapers. Web.
  9. Kalkowski, Shelly. “Advisers work for minorities’ success.” The Daily Nebraskan 6 Oct. 1972: 1. Nebraska Newspapers. Web.
  10. “Our History”, Marcela Raffaelli, Barbara Chesier and Ahati Toure; University of Nebraska-Lincoln Ethnic Studies Department; 2012
  11. “History course studies slavery.” The Daily Nebraskan 22 Oct. 1971: 5. Nebraska Newspapers. Web.


Minority Progress and Expansion at the University of Nebraska: The Afro-American Collegiate Society Demonstrations of 1969