Examining Ferris’ Black history

The story of the riots of 1969 and racism that led up to it

Editor’s Note: The Ferris State University archives were searched for photos from the riots on campus in 1969. There are no official photos, according to University Archivist  Melinda Isler, who speculated none were allowed to  be taken by the administration at the time, for fear of bad press.

During the spring of 1969, Ferris State University was not exempt from the racial tensions that raged nationwide. 

White students carried signs that read “White Power” while shouting, “We shall overcome.” This was the boiling point on campus, and riots broke out soon after. It was believed they started right outside of Miller Hall during a fire drill, when about 75 policemen from four organizations swarmed campus.  At the time Ferris had an enrollment of 8,200 students, including 300 students identifying as people of color. 

These actions were a cry for help and to show there was change needed, and according to  history professor Gary  Huey the riot made national news. 

Racial tensions were rising much before that, though. 

Two weeks prior to the riot, a group of 70 Black students set up a sit-in at the student center, which rose tensions on campus. This sit-in was to protest the administration handling of a situation involving a Black student and a resident advisor in a dorm. 

Former Ferris student John Matlock recounted one of the sit-ins that took place on campus. He said that they took over Starr auditorium with “all of the Black students from campus except a couple” and at 9 p.m., the protestors were met by state police who arrested all of them on the charge of trespassing, loaded them onto a Ferris bus and took them to the local Armory.  

According to Matlock, University of Michigan professor and head of the Michigan NAACP Albert Wheeler contacted the then President of Ferris the next morning and convinced him of how bad this would look for the university. The protesters were then released.  

“This was a major sense of empowerment for students, it was recognition that there were some problems and it put them on the table,” Matlock said. 

Huey is currently conducting research on the racial unrest at Ferris in 1969 with history professor Christian Peterson and English professor Sarah Rescoe — though this has been stalled due to COVID-19  In their research thus far, they have detailed many instances of racism on campus leading up to the riots. 

“My thoughts are I am surprised it didn’t happen sooner, I am,” Huey said. “All three of us were shocked by the level of racism, I guess maybe we shouldn’t have been. I think what was maybe most disturbing, was the level of racism among some of the administration at Ferris. And those I think, are very troubling aspects. Then just the harassment, that the Black students were forced to put up with on a daily basis, both men and women.” 

Huey said in their research they found the racism on campus was “obvious” in both verbal and physical harassment. One English class had a required reading of an article that was “blatantly racist” and made claims about “the inferiority of African Americans,” according to Huey. 

The overall curriculum at the time lacked Black culture, which was another reason for tension between the students of color and the administration.  The physical abuse was “standard practice” according to Huey. In one instance, a Black couple was coming back to the dorms, which were separated by men and women at that time. After dropping his date off, the man was sprayed with an early version of mace, for no reason “other than that the young man was Black,” Huey stated. 

“They would push black students off sidewalks, they would follow young women down the hall and they would raise their skirts with a broomstick handle just again, just things such as that, which ultimately led to a great deal of violence,” Huey said. “I think the main takeaway was the students finally stood up, I think the Black students finally stood up and took the stance, and that they just simply were not going to be willing to take this kind of treatment anymore. 

“They were putting pressure on the administration to do something about the racism that existed.”  Part of the escalation was due to a reactionary administration at the time, according to Huey. He believes that some of the violence could have been avoided, had the administration been more proactive about addressing the racism on campus. 

When Huey was hired  at  Ferris in  1986, he said there were still very few Black students. This is something he has seen change over his years, and part of that was due to Ferris’ increased effort to enroll more Black students. 

“I think where we need to see more change is continuing to look to the minority students to bring them into campus here,” Huey said. “And you know, it’s a tough sell sometimes when you come to a predominantly white, rural area in the state of Michigan. But I think what we can do to make things better, is [hire] more Black faculty and more Black administrators.” 

As a Black faculty member, business professor  Kasey Thompson said in order to be sensitive to issues of race, Ferris  has to be intentional. 

“It’s something that not just Ferris State University, but all of us, bringing this acknowledgment that racial injustices still occur,” Thompson said. “So, from my perspective, I think it’s first having a universal acceptance and acknowledgment of the fact that, you know, there are racial injustices that occur in this country. 

“And from that acceptance, also taking accountability, and what we can do personally to address it, what Ferris can do to overtly put forth effort in saying that there is an intolerance of racial injustices and setting forth an intentional effort in ensuring that all of the staff, all of the faculty, all of the students feel safe, they feel welcomed, and they feel as if they’re an equal part of the Ferris State University community.” 

Cora Hall contributed to the reporting of this story.

For a profile on John Matlock, check out our Black History Month insert in the Feb. 24 issue.