I was surprised when I read that the Swarthmore Afro-American Students Society (SASS) chose to end their sit-in at Swarthmore College in 1969 before the administration had met their demands, mainly related to increasing black enrollment, because the President of Swarthmore, Courtney Smith, died of a sudden heart attack. Reading this astonished me because the death of a college’s president, in the middle of protests over demands he was refusing to meet, seemed so unlikely, both in its timing and its unforeseen impact on SASS’ sit-in, that I had a hard time believing it happened.
But while this individual turn of history is surprising and tragic and important, what it got me thinking about more is the various levels on which history can play out. In the case of BCM, there’s individual campus movements–as documented, for example, on Black at Bryn Mawr and Swarthmore’s Black Liberation 1969 archive–and then there’s looking at the overall trends of BCM movements on the national level, which Ibram H. Rogers does effectively in The Black Campus Movement. Obviously the individual and national, micro and macro, levels of history are not at all separate, but I do wonder about the complexities of having conversations about individual change on individual campuses when those campuses exist in a national context, and having conversations about movements on a national level when individual cases can be so idiosyncratic.
The course of Swarthmore’s black campus movement was altered by the surprising death of its president; understanding how President Smith’s death affected SASS’s activism is key to understanding Swarthmore’s history, but probably wouldn’t make it into any book on the scale of Rogers’. When compiling resources for projects like Black at Bryn Mawr and Swarthmore’s Black Liberation 1969 archive, how can one balance the need for national context with the attention to individual turning points? How can campus activists advocate for change on their campuses that is rooted both in their individual campus’ history and a national or international context? If one is looking to archive student activism at a specific college or university, like Jarrett Drake is at Princeton, what role can archives play in mediating between the micro and the macro of history? Should college archives just document materials relating to their college, or should they attempt to archive materials that help illuminate a broader context?
Some of these questions feel like they should have simple answers, but the more I think about the readings for this week, the complicated interconnectedness of the national BLM movement and specific cases at Swarthmore and Bryn Mawr with their specific contexts and turning points, I’m not so sure where the line can be drawn between one college’s history and the history of a national college movement.