1971: When Racial Tension At UNR Boiled Over

Mar 4, 2018

We close out Black History Month with the story of one of the first Black student organizations at the University of Nevada, Reno. Historian Alicia Barber takes us back to 1971, when a group of students took a stand by sitting down, in this week’s segment of Time & Place.

Police speak with one of the student members of UNR's Black Student Union in 1971.
Credit Photo from the 1972 edition of the University of Nevada, Reno yearbook, Artemisia. / Courtesy of the Special Collections Department, University of Nevada, Reno Libraries.

Only 33 Black students attended the University of Nevada, Reno prior to 1960. That number more than doubled in the sixties thanks to new federal support for minority and out-of-state students, and increased recruitment of Black athletes. Inspired by the founding of Black Student Unions, or BSUs, at other universities, a group of Nevada students formed their own BSU in 1968.

Over the next few years, they brought in prominent speakers, met with area high school students, and hosted campus events. They also pressed for greater minority representation on campus, as former BSU president Stan Davis explained in 1972.

“Blacks were not in any legislation bodies, they were not in any judicial councils, they were not in any policy-making committees at all. Blacks are in no fraternities, there are no Black faculty members to speak of on this campus, there is no place where a Black, or Blacks or ethnic people can go and call their own, was the way I put it," Davis said.

The BSU had been asking for years for office space on campus without success, so in October of 1971, Davis and more than 20 other members decided to peacefully occupy one of the offices of the Associated Students of the University of Nevada, or ASUN.

It was agreed that they could use it for a week while attempts were made to find them a comparable one.  But when the week was up, the BSU had only been offered space off-campus or in an unfinished basement, and they refused to leave. Davis later explained why.

Police cars line the street alongside campus during the 1971 occupation.
Credit Photo from the 1972 edition of the University of Nevada, Reno yearbook, Artemisia. / Courtesy of the Special Collections Department, University of Nevada, Reno Libraries.

“So it all boiled down to—really—the social, economical, and political conditions of the campus that decided to make us be so stubborn in keeping the office, because the office was really irrelevant," Davis explained. "We can always get an office somewhere. But the mere fact of having an office in the ASUN and on this University symbolized to many Blacks that they are part of the University.”

Administrators called in the police and tensions ran high, as students, faculty, and about 45 law enforcement officers surrounded the building. Some of the protestors escaped through a trap door to the roof, but the sixteen who had remained inside—most of them well-known student athletes—were arrested. They were released that night, and the BSU did eventually get a campus office, but the incident had clearly brought to light some of the simmering racial tensions that the university needed to address.

Oral history clips for this segment were provided by the Special Collections Department of the University of Nevada, Reno Libraries. The complete oral history volume containing Stan Davis’ interview and other perspectives on the office occupation can be found here.