Karla Spurlock-Evans ’71 is the dean of multicultural affairs at Trinity College.
The Class of 1971 Oral History Project preserves Barnard history from a perspective often lost to the community at large—stories shared over Reunion dinners, laughed about on the phone, but rarely recorded for future generations. Among the stories newly captured by the project, housed in Barnard’s Digital Collections and available to students and alumnae, is that of Karla Spurlock-Evans.
In her oral history, Spurlock-Evans tells of the seven days that she says changed her life: the week she spent barricaded inside Hamilton Hall during the Columbia protests of 1968.
The experience spurred her to pursue a career in higher education. Spurlock-Evans has been an assistant professor of African and African-American Studies at the University at Albany and a dean at Haverford College, Lake Forest College, and Northwestern University. Since 1999, she has been the dean of multicultural affairs at Trinity College—the first person to hold the position—as well as the senior diversity officer. Here is her story.
The year 1968 was cataclysmic. In New York City, students at Barnard and Columbia protested the University’s involvement in the Vietnam War and the proposed construction of a gymnasium for Columbia on city-owned land in Morningside Park. A major step in the “Awakening” came the fall of my first year, when H. Rap Brown, the chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), a tall, caramel-colored “brotha” sporting a big bush and dark glasses, came to Columbia’s Dodge Hall. “Violence,” Brother Rap proclaimed, “is as American as cherry pie.”
The truth of H. Rap Brown’s revelation became all too clear on April 4, 1968, the day Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. I was at home for Easter, but when I returned to school, the world we knew seemed to unravel. By mistake I took a train to East 116th Street instead of West 116th. I came up out of the subway station to police and police dogs all around, smoke wafting through the air.
Two weeks later, on April 23, I was in my dorm room when word reached me that I should head over to Hamilton Hall for a demonstration where the Soul Syndicate, a campus R&B group that included some black Columbia students, was playing. After I arrived, the doors were locked. Unwittingly, I was swept up in the protest. Initially distraught, by week’s end, I was all in.
Approximately 100 students from Columbia’s Student Afro-American Society (SAS) and other groups were involved in the takeover at Hamilton Hall, which held the administration offices of Columbia College. SAS separated itself from Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the largely white, new left group with whom SAS had taken the building. We released Dean Coleman, who had been barricaded in his office by SDS, and proceeded to establish a community.
Our grievances against Columbia focused on the University’s proposal to take public land to build a gym in Morningside Park. Our allies in Harlem kept us fed and protected—and we understood that Harlem’s physical proximity to Columbia would require a nuanced and strategic response from the University and city authorities.
Graduate students led the charge and served as role models for younger protesters like me. We hunkered down, eating meals donated by Harlem community supporters and holding hours of SNCC-inspired strategy sessions that were only resolved by consensus.
A week into the protest, in the early hours of April 30, police officers, some with tears in their eyes, peacefully removed us from Hamilton Hall through underground tunnels and delivered us to The Tombs, the municipal jail in lower Manhattan. By afternoon, we were released without posting bond and, over the summer, most charges were dropped.
The outcome of the protest was ambiguous, our reaction to it bittersweet. But I left Hamilton Hall with a deep conviction that all things are possible when people with pure intentions and common goals come together to support each other. I gained a belief in the power of listening to others, compromise, and—hokey as it may sound—politics infused with love.
After Barnard, I entered a Ph.D. program at Emory, but before finishing, took a detour into student affairs, which has given me the opportunity to focus on helping students find themselves, hit their academic stride, and achieve—and, in the process, change the nation.
I serve as a bridge between students and schools, working with both sides to accomplish goals that will not destroy institutions, but make them stronger. It was, after all, a certain institution that encouraged me toward what would become my life’s work. Barnard gave me tools and provided experiences that set me on my path. •
To hear more, attend “Activism in Context: An Intergenerational Dialogue on Organizing in the Shadow of the 2016 Elections” on Tuesday, Nov. 15 at 6:30 p.m. in the James Room, 4th floor Barnard Hall.