The Pratt student strikes in 1968 and 1969 were initially in response to the tuition raise and purchase of Willoughby buildings, but the scope broadened to address the administration’s disregard for students’ and staff’s interests, thus breeding a new desire in students to restructure the Institute as a whole.
The Black Student Union (BSU) played an instrumental role in these strikes as their activism helped propel the movement forward. However, Black students were fighting for additional causes on top of those that the larger student body was addressing. Black representation in students and staff, awareness of the Black community in classes and within the administration, accessibility for Black students, and the protection of Black students from harassment and assault were some of the demands brought forth by the BSU in order to push for the Institute to stop being complicit in racial injustice.
The BSU made five initial demands focusing on Black representation in students and staff, implementation of Black and Latin American studies, and the enrollment and housing of the surrounding Black community. The BSU often called out the fact that Pratt is located in a primarily Black area yet were simultaneously purchasing buildings in Bedford–Stuyvesant while raising tuition, thus excluding many Black community members from attending.
On May 10th, 1969, ten Pratt students were arrested after a confrontation during an action in response to the administration’s delay in acting on the BSU’s list of demands. This occurred in the midst of the general student strike, but showcases how the Black community at Pratt was more affected by certain events than the primarily white student population.This event was specific to the BSU’s cause, leading the organization to demand that the Institute refrain from pressing charges against the arrested students.
Following the arrests, the BSU made fours subsequent demands, which they asked to be met before any BSU representative met with administration. This set of demands focused on police presence on campus and the treatment of BSU members who were involved in strikes.
The Black students at Pratt were outspoken about violence and harassment directed towards Black students by white students and faculty. An attack on a Black BSU member in 1969 fueled outrage towards the treatment at Black students at the Institute.
A letter written by Black students of Pratt on May 7th, 1969 called on fellow students to support the BSU’s demands. The letter brings attention to the variety of injustices faced by Black students on campus, as well as Pratt closing its campus off from the surrounding Black community.
On May 11, 1969 the Black students of Pratt peacefully came to an agreement with President James B. Donovan, which differs from many other colleges at this time that broke into chaos because student demands were not being met. The students received aid from a Black attorney, which they say greatly aided this negotiation process.
In 1972, more strikes erupted at Pratt as a result of continued conflicts with the administration and the treatment of students of color. The Black students of the BSU were specifically advocating for better treatment and more representation in the faculty, staff, and coursework, all of which were demands made by the BSU during the 1968-1969 Pratt student strikes. The failure to maintain the commitments made after the first strikes was arguably the most influential factor in the tension that led to the 1972 strike, as many Black students continued to feel unheard and unsafe on campus.
This document lays out the plan for a meeting between BSU representatives and Dr. Seymour Gang on April 7th, 1972. Some of the issues addressed are the same as those from 1969, such as the lack of Black studies courses and Black faculty members, but this meeting also addressed Black students’ grievances with specific faculty members and housing problems with the new Willoughby dorms.
On May 18th, 1972, Pratt faculty members released a statement expressing support and gratitude for the recent student actions of protest, including the Black Student Union and Puerto Rican Student Union demands and negotiations with the Board.
The Pratt BSU, faculty, Engineering School, and student coordinate were all demanding that Henry Saltzman be removed as president of the Institute. Lack of democracy, lack of consultation with students and faculty, poor use of funds, and failure to maintain the signed commitments made to the BSU in 1969 were some of the various reasons for this unanimous demand.