Growing up in Richmond in the 1970s and 1980s, I knew only a few things about Greensboro. I knew that Greensboro was the home of the ACC Tournament. (I rooted for Ralph Sampson and Cavaliers, like most of my friends and neighbors.) I knew that Blue Bell and Wrangler were there. (My dad worked for many years as a financial analyst, and he kept up with the textile industry.) And I knew about the Greensboro sit-ins, because who hadn't heard of that, right?
When it came to the campus disturbances of the 1960s, I knew about Berkeley and Kent State, the former because it played a central role in the campus speech and anti-war movements and the latter because of the death toll and because some high school buddies turned me on to Neil Young and friends. There were a lot more campus incidents throughout the 1960s than those, but I was ignorant about most of them. Either I wasn't paying attention, or the world had decided to forget about most of them. It was probably some of both.
That's a long way of saying I knew nothing about the National Guard marching onto the N.C. A&T campus in May 1969 until sometime after I moved to Greensboro in 1996. For whatever reasons, it's a story that seems to have been almost lost to history, both to Greensboro residents and everyone else.
I think I first encountered the story on my first reading of William Chafe's "Civilities and Civil Rights," an essential book for making sense of Greensboro's history during the 1950s and 1960s. Because I was writing about K-12 education at the time, I think I paid more attention to his account on the drawn-out process of public school desegregation.
I learned more about the May 1969 events when I covered the higher ed for the first time in the early 2000s. (I'm now on my second tour of the higher ed beat; true story.) In 2000, A&T had gotten money from a state higher ed bond issue to replace its largest but by-now obsolete dorm. Scott Hall had been the home away from home for generations of Aggie men. The sit-ins had been argued about and planned in Scott Hall. And Scott Hall was ground zero for the three-day gun battle that raged on campus in May 1969. By the time I started writing about local colleges and universities, A&T leaders were talking about what they would build in its stead — the four buildings of Aggie Village and a reflecting pool are there now — and how it would preserve the bullet wall.
Wait, what?! What exactly is a bullet wall, and why would A&T have one on its campus? How did it get there? Who put it there? And why is it important to keep it?
I graduated from William & Mary 20 years after the events of May 1969, and I could not imagine the National Guard covering a 300-year-old campus in tear gas and firing at snipers holed up in the Wren Building. I couldn't — and still can't — imagine hiding under the bed in my dorm room and praying not to get shot. I've read the newspaper clippings and seen the newsreels and talked to the survivors of those three days in May 1969, and it sometimes feels that the whole thing happened on a different planet in a separate universe.
I captured a little of the May 1969 story in this feature I wrote about Scott Hall in 2004, right before A&T tore down the old dorm. The longer story, the one I told in Sunday's News & Record, has been rattling around in my brain for the past 15 years. My return to the higher education beat — and the fact that today is the 50th anniversary of the day it all went sideways — gave me the chance to tell a fascinating story that most people no longer remember and a terrible story that no one should ever forget.
A few others have told this story over the years, too, and I relied on some of their accounts to put together my version of events. If you want to dive even deeper into the story, here are some books, articles and a film to check out:
• "Civilities and Civil Rights," by William Chafe, the Alice Mary Baldwin Professor Emeritus of History at Duke University. This detailed and scholarly work, when writing about May 1969, focuses largely on Nelson Johnson, Black Power, an alleged Black Panther conspiracy and the racial animus present in Greensboro long before and long after the events of May 1969.
• "Trouble in Greensboro" is the report compiled in 1970 from two days of testimony in the fall of 1969. UNCG's library has a scanned copy of the report, which you can read here.
• Michael Anthony, the A&T alum and filmmaker, is working on a new version of his thorough documentary called "Walls That Bleed." I'll let you know if he plans to show his updated film in Greensboro.
• "The Black Revolution on Campus" by Martha Biondi, the Lorraine H. Morton Professor of African American Studies and Professor of History at Northwestern University. Biondi devotes only a few pages to the May 1969 events but puts them in the larger context of the rise of both the black student movement and the police response to them. I found a copy of Biondi's book on the fourth floor of UNCG's Jackson Library.
• Wikipedia refers to the 1969 Greensboro uprising as "the most massive armed assault ever made against an American university." It cites Biondi's book as the source for this quote, which appears in a lot of secondary accounts of events. But those aren't Biondi's words. In her book she quotes an account of events from the May 29, 1969 issue of the Village Voice, the former New York weekly newspaper. Thanks to the magic of the Interwebs, that story is here on page 13.
• I want to point you to an excellent 2006 profile of Willie Grimes written by my former N&R colleague Amy Dominello. It's well worth your time.
• Lastly, former Yes Weekly and Triad City Beat reporter Eric Ginsburg caught up with Claude Barnes, the Dudley student at the center at the disputed student government election. That story was published Monday on Teen Vogue's website.
Update, May 28: Here's one more account, published at The Atlantic magazine's website over the holiday weekend.