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Divestment and the Occupation of College Hall (1987)

Divestment and the Occupation of College Hall

The practice of apartheid in South Africa, the racist segregation and discrimination against the native black people by the white Europeans who shared the land, was enforced under South African law from 1948 to 1994. The ruling party, called the National Party, was a white minority who subjugated the rights of the majority, who were black natives. Economically, South Africa was fairly well-developed and host to many international corporations such as IBM, at which many investors from the United States held stock.

In the mid to late 1980’s, the apartheid had been in place nearly 40 years, and was recognized as a social ill. A number of shareholders with South African stock, including many universities, came to see divestment as a non-aggressive form of protest against the system, and began withdrawing their investments. In 1985 these universities included Hampshire College (the first to withdraw investments in the 1970’s), UMass Amherst, Colombia University, and Amherst College, out of 26 institutions total. 1)

Active students at Smith College urged their trustees to consider a similar proposal, requiring total divestments of all holdings in South Africa. However, after the February 24 Board meeting, the trustees announced their divestment policy only included a partial divestment—they would divest from companies that have not signed the Sullivan principles (a set of anti-discrimination principles for US corporations in South Africa), and avoid purchasing stock in banks that are in cooperation with the South African government. 2)

Students, who had been anticipating the publication of the board’s decision ever since November, were outraged at the trustees’ refusal to consider their proposal, claiming that the board had not made a powerful enough statement. Quoted in the February 24th issue of the Sophian, Suzinne Pak ’86 thinks that the recent decision, “is a big step for [the trustees] but means little for the people of South Africa. Anything less than total divestment is support of institutional racism and murder.” 3)

With this attitude, protestors seized College Hall shortly after the decision and barricaded the entrances from February 20th to March 6th, 1986, successfully preventing administrators from entering the building. Participating were about 200 Smith students, a number of faculty members, and supporters from the other 5 Colleges, Dartmouth College, and the endorsement of senator John Kerry. 4) Protesters were equipped with red ribbons and white armbands and some kept makeshift journals out of scrap paper stapled together, items which can be found in the College Archives.

From the spare documents, photographs, artifacts, and oral histories that surface in this collection, one can become familiar with the nature of student protest and activism in the 1980s. There were a number of student groups promoting awareness of ethical issues, specifically the Ethical Investment Committee, of which Suzinne Pak (quoted above) was chair. Prior to the demonstrations in February, students spread awareness about South Africa in the fall through well-attended films and discussions, led by the Ethical Investment Committee and other active students and groups 5)

The student “diaries” from the time of the occupation give insight into the experience of living out a protest for several days. Student protests have been an intrinsic part of residential undergraduate life in the twentieth century since the 1960s, and personal documentation such as student journals provides both the detail to study the dynamics of a specific event, as well as the means to conduct a comparison between distinct protests. The photographs offer a good visual of what the occupation looked like, as well as an image of College Hall as a building brimming with social activism.

Submitted by Alexandra Ghiz ’12 as part of IDP 140, Exploring the Archives

1) Proposal, Smith College Sophian 7 November 1985
2) Smith College Sophian, 24 February, 1986 “Trustees Announce Divestment Plan”
3) Ibid
4) Smith College Sophian, 27 February 1986. Patty Healy “Protestors Continue to Barricade College Hall”
5) Smith College Sophian. 7 November 1985. Louise Arkel “Trustees Weigh Divestment”

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