The Rise and Fall of “Ethnic Centers” at UW–Madison (1968–1974)

By Edward Frame

The research in this blog post was completed as a part of the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s Public History Project. The three-year project aims to reckon with the university’s history of racism, exclusion, and discrimination. The project will culminate in an exhibit in the fall of 2021, an interactive online website, and curricular tools. By sharing research before the opening of the exhibit, we hope to begin conversations about the history of UW–Madison and discuss how we can all work towards building a more equitable campus community. The nature of historical research is that it will always be incomplete. It is impossible for us to know everything that happened in the past. Therefore, the research in this post is imperfect, as all history is. Our student researchers have completed the research below with all of the historical documents available to them at the time of publication. There will be alternative perspectives to those detailed below. We believe that the discussions that arise out of these differing perspectives are an integral part of the process of reckoning with our history. We welcome responses and discussion. Responses submitted by email will be posted in a response and discussion post within one week after the original publication date. Responses with vulgar or offensive language will not be posted.

In October of 1968, an Afro-American and Race Relations Center opened at 929 University Avenue. Its mission was to “encourage Afro-American studies,” a new field at the time, and to sponsor events, such as “lectures, black theatre productions, art exhibits, [and] conferences on Afro-American art and culture.”[1] The center quickly became a source of pride for students and, among administrators, proof that the Madison campus supported “programs of interest and relevance to Afro-Americans.”[2]

African American students stand on the front steps of a building under a sign that reads "The University of Wisconsin Afro-American Center, 935 Univ. Ave."
1970: Four students stand on the porch of the former Afro-American Community Center at 935 University Avenue. Photo courtesy UW Archives

Less than five years later, however, on August 8, 1973, campus officials announced that the center would close, permanently.[3] John Weaver, the President of the UW system, justified the decision by saying he didn’t think Wisconsin’s flagship university had any business subsidizing what, by then, he described as “ego-satisfying, identity segregating, cultural rap centers.”[4] He complained that the center’s emphasis on black culture and community uplift looked to him now like “segregation,” and he called for more “academic” and “multi-cultural” alternatives.[5]

How had such apparently strong support for the center in 1968 hardened into such staunch opposition by 1973? And why?

The center, like most things in academia, was the product of a committee. In May of 1968, shortly after Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, William H. Sewell, Chancellor of the Madison campus, convened an emergency “Committee on Studies in Instruction and Race Relations” to “consider what this University can appropriately do to help its students become better informed on problems of race relations.”[6] Against the backdrop of an increasingly self-confident black student movement at UW, and a burgeoning Black Power movement across the country, one of this committee’s first recommendations was to establish a “black cultural center.”[7]

Sewell stepped down as Chancellor in June and was replaced by H. Edwin Young, a labor economist with a reputation as an administrative hardliner. Young acknowledged that he saw little educative value in the demands percolating across the nation for “Black Studies.” In fact, he told colleagues that his own views on “black education” aligned with those of the St. Lucian economist W. Arthur Lewis, who counseled black Americans to “use all the normal channels of advancement” to “become top members of the establishment.”[8] A separate Afro-American Center therefore made little sense to Young, but he threw his support behind creating one anyway almost certainly because doing so would present his administration in a positive light and would “help separate moderates from others,” as another official later characterized Young’s basic approach to neutralizing protest movements as Chancellor.[9] Thus, on October 23, 1968, the Afro-American and Race Relations Center opened its doors with Suzanne Lipsky, the wife of Michael Lipsky, Young’s Special Advisor on Race Relations, as its acting interim director.[10]

Unfortunately for Young, the collective self-assertion of black students at Wisconsin—and throughout the country—only grew louder in the months to come. In November, students at the Wisconsin State University at Oshkosh (now UW Oshkosh) occupied their campus to demand, among other things, a “Black Cultural Center.” Hundreds of protestors were arrested and ninety expelled.[11] Then, in February of 1969, thousands of students, black and white, participated in a “Black Student Strike” in Madison to agitate for thirteen “non-negotiable” demands, including the insistence that “full control” over the existing Afro-American and Race Relations Center be placed in the “hands of Black students.”[12]

With National Guardsmen occupying Bascom Hill and angry, often ugly letters flooding his office to complain about the presence of “black militants” at UW, Chancellor Young repeatedly pointed to the center as evidence of progress.[13] “We have assumed that the [center] would change and grow,” he announced in the midst of the strike, “and we hope and intend that black students will continue to have a major role in its development.”[14] Young’s words of calm and reassurance sounded a somewhat incongruous note when arsonists set fire to the fledgling center on February 18th, forcing it to be relocated to a new location at 935 University Avenue.[15] But the Black Student Strike galvanized support for the center’s existence—at least temporarily.

Finding a full-time director to succeed Suzanne Lipsky remained a challenge, however. In September of 1969, the Board of Regents approved C. Elrie Chrite for the job.[16] But Chrite, a former director of the Washtenaw Office of Economic Opportunity in Ann Arbor, quickly resigned. His departure was bitter. “I am sick and tired of this faculty’s martini circus liberalism,” he thundered in the Daily Cardinal before leaving town, “to say nothing of the non-career threatening radicalism around this place.”[17] In response, Stephen C. Kleene, Dean of College of Letters and Sciences, convened a committee to seek Chrite’s replacement; in the meantime, Eugene Parks, a city alderman, filled in the center’s next interim director.

By November of 1970, the committee had found its man: Kwame Salter, 24-year-old graduate of UW-Whitewater and doctoral student in the Department of Educational Policy Studies. A self-described “outsider,” Salter was initially labelled “bourgeois” because of his penchant for wearing suits instead of dashikis or camouflage jackets.[18] He also encountered resistance at one of the first meetings he ever attended at the center for insisting that, in his view, access to the building should not be restricted, particularly to white people. “To stoop to the level of the people who have oppressed you and do the same thing,” he pleaded at the time, “is not progress.”[19]

Kwame Salter walks through Van Hise Hall with others, one holding a protest sign.
September 17, 1973: Kwame Salter marches through Van Hise Hall in protest over the University’s decision to close the Afro-American Cultural Center. Photo courtesy UW Archives

Salter’s arguments—and his iconoclasm—eventually won out. He pushed students to think of center as much more than just a “hang out” and pledged that, as director, he would transform the small, underfunded institution into “an advocate of change, a visible mechanism to represent and articulate the needs of blacks … [as well as] the hard hats, blue collar workers, [and] poor whites of Appalachia.”[20] Administrators balked, but facing pushback from stakeholders and students who backed Salter’s appointment, the Board of Regents eventually approved Salter’s hiring on November 20, 1970.[21]

Over the next two years, Salter fulfilled his promises. He and his skeletal staff published a variety of handbooks to help black students adjust to life at a predominantly white university; they created a student newspaper called The Black Voice and a Black News Radio Show; and they established a Malcolm X Memorial Library designed to curate and disseminate black history and literature. Under Salter’s leadership, the center also sponsored several public-facing events, including a Black Arts Festival and a Free Clothing and Food Drive, and it sought to provide neglected basic services to the local black community, such as job and housing referrals or, if necessary, bail bonds. “Our involvement in the above-mentioned areas,” Salter explained in a “functional analysis” of the center from June of 1972, “reveals a larger societal failure.”[22]

In the fall of 1972, no doubt inspired by Salter’s success, Native American and Latino students at Wisconsin appealed to administrators for “ethnic centers” of their own. “They felt isolation, they felt marginalized,” Salter remembered, “and they saw the [Afro-American] Center thriving.”[23] A Native American Center was temporarily established at 931 W. Dayton Street with a budget of $67,000, but the requests for the new centers proved fateful—and, ultimately, fatal.[24]

The operating budget for the existing Afro-American Center was roughly $90,000; if the university granted the demands for two additional centers, its expenses would triple.[25] “With the prospect of other groups making the same demand in the future,” a journalist for the Capital Times correctly surmised, “the University must make up its mind how it intends to spend money earmarked for the education of minority and disadvantaged students.”[26]

Fearing an endless proliferation of splinter centers, the Board of Regents hastily released a statement reaffirming “its support for the education of minority and disadvantaged students,” while cautioning that its members would only support “a multicultural approach” to “supportive programs” and would reject “a segregated or separatist approach for any such program.”[27] The initiative was spearheaded by Edward E. Hales, a lawyer from Racine and the only black member of the Board, who stated that it was his “strong feeling that there has been too much time, too much effort, and too many lives lost, to develop a system of integrated education in this country.”[28]

Salter leapt to center’s defense, insisting, yet again, that “the Center is not segregated. We don’t spend any energy excluding people from the Center.”[29] But his appeals did little to deter officials from their decided course.

In August, administrators announced that they had decided to close the centers for good and create three new positions in the Dean of Students office to assist minority students: one for Native Americans, one for Latinos, and one for African-Americans. Funds for these positions would be drawn from the existing Afro-American Center budget; Salter would be reassigned and guaranteed his existing salary for one more academic year. Paul Ginsberg, Dean of Students at the university, explained that these decisions would “extend the commitment we have to all racial and ethnic groups … while at the same time being sensitive to their cultural heritage.”[30]

Dozens of students are shown holding signs protesting the closing of the Afro-American and Native American Culture Centers.
September 1973; Students protest the closing of the Afro-American and Native American Cultural Centers. Photo courtesy UW Archives

In an echo of 1969, students marched on UW President Weaver’s office and adopted the rallying cry “the beat goes on” to channel the revolutionary energy of the Black Student Strike.[31] But September of 1973 was not like February of 1969. The renewed protests attracted far smaller crowds than they had years earlier, and although Salter continued to report for a job that no longer existed and a group calling themselves the Open Centers Committee (OCC) occupied the center for months, the administration was no longer in an accommodating mood.[32] In April of 1974, after months of negotiating, the Afro-American and Race Relations Center was officially closed; Salter left shortly thereafter.[33] In his stead, the university hired Truman T. Lowe, a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation, as the new Assistant Dean of Students and Coordinator of Multi-Cultural Programing. (Lowe, who earned his MFA at Wisconsin, initially struggled to appease students who understood that he was, in effect, the centers’ replacement. Ultimately, however, Lowe managed to thrive in the position and eventually became a full professor in the Art Department and the coordinator of UW’s Native American Studies program in 1975.)

Salter charged that, by closing the centers, the university had succumbed to a “white supremacist mentality.”[34] State representative Lloyd Barbee, a Democrat from Milwaukee who had defended the expelled Oshkosh students as a civil rights attorney back in 1968, agreed and characterized the shift towards “multicultural” programing as nothing but “bigotry in liberal clothing.”[35]

Administrators denied such accusations, of course. Chancellor Young defended closing the centers by saying it was “inappropriate that we should develop and support with state funds the separatism we for so long denied” while President Weaver channeled Regent Hales and stuck to their agreed-upon script, insisting he was “for integration, not segregation.”[36]

1973: Students hold up signs in protest over the elimination of the Afro-American and Native American Cultural Centers in 1973 at a Board of Regents meeting. Photo courtesy UW Archives

But these justifications don’t stand up to scrutiny, as Salter himself pointed out in a local newspaper shortly after the university announced that the centers would close. He again reminded readers that the Afro-American Center was never segregated and in fact “geared all of its programs to the education and enlightenment of whites to the culture, genius, expression, and moods of our people.”[37] Moreover, he noted that the “Wisconsin Idea” testified to a long-standing tradition of working within local communities. “There was an old saying,” he elaborated:

that the “boundaries of the UW campus are the boundaries of the state.” … Now we live in times where the urban communities of the state are crying out for some assistance. An undeniable part of that urban community is made up of blacks and other people of color. We are asking that the enormous resources of this great university be used not just to “study” us but also to help us. We are asking that we be included in the official academic mission not just as “bright individuals” who made it in spite of the odds but as citizens of this state who have been excluded for decades. We want to be allowed to do some “sifting and winnowing” without being accused of being “racist in reverse” or practicing “reverse discrimination.”[38]

“Segregation” had nothing to do with why Salter wasn’t allowed to do some “sifting and winnowing” of his own. Quite the contrary. The problem, which he recognized immediately, was that the centers were never seen as essential institutions within the larger university. Their value, not only as oases to marginalized students, but as beacons of cultural difference that made the university more representative of the state’s real-world diversity, was invisible to officials like Weaver, Young, and Hale whose own thinking tended to universalize a particular vision of meritocratic, color-blind liberalism that was more congenital to Wisconsin’s predominantly white, middle-class majority. Or, as Salter himself put it, “you know, the University of Wisconsin was, really, an Anglo-American Cultural Center. They just didn’t see it.”[39]

With such ideological blind spots so firmly entrenched on Bascom Hill, university officials decided to close the centers just liked they’d opened them—by fiat, according to expedience—thereby exemplifying, however unconsciously, what Salter called a “supremacist mentality.”

“There was no discussion,” Salter would remember years later. “It was a decision.”[40]


Individuals are not often taught to think of themselves as sources of historical knowledge, but they are. Individuals hold intimate knowledge of their campus, their neighborhoods, and their communities. That is why we want to hear from you. We believe that this project will be the most successful when it deeply engages all of those in our community. If you have a story to share, an event you think should be researched, or a person you think has been overlooked, please contact us.

[1] UW News Press Release, 23 October 1968, Series 5/52/1/1, Folder 1, University Archives (hereafter UA).

[2] Ibid.

[3] “News Conference Statement by UW–Madison Dean of Students Paul Ginsberg,” 8 August 1973, Series 5/52/1/1, Folder 1, UA.

[4] “Ethnic Center May Close on University Campuses,” Beloit Daily News, 20 July 1973.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Letter from William H. Sewell to Bernard C. Cohen 15 May 1968, Series 4/21/1, Box 18, UA.

[7] Memorandum from the Subcommittee on the Afro-American Center, 30 August 1968, Series 4/21/1, Box 1, UA.

[8] Letter from H. Edwin Young to Gordon R. Walker, 1 May 1969, Series 4/21/1, Box 15, UA; W. Arthur Lewis, “Black Power and the American University,” Princeton Alumni Weekly, 18 March 1969 (Vol. 69. No. 21), 16.

[9] Handwritten note to H. Edwin Young, undated (circa December 1968), Series 4/21/1, Box 20.

[10] UW News Press Release, 23 October 1968, Series 5/52/1/1, Folder 1, UA.

[11] On Oshkosh, see the online public history exhibit, “Black Thursday Remembered”

[12] “Thirteen Needs Explained,” Series 5/52/1/1, Folder 1, UA.

[13] Letter from Douglas B. Morris to H. Edwin Young, 10 March 1969, Series 4/21/1, Box 212, UA. Young received hundreds of similar letters.

[14] Statement by the University of Wisconsin Administration, 12 February 1969, Series 7/52/1/1, Box 1, Folder 3, UA.

[15] “Investigate Fire at Afro Center,” Watertown Daily News, 22 February 1969; Statement by Chancellor Young, 21 February 1969, 5/52/1/1, Folder 2, UA.

[16] UW News Press Release, 6 September 1969, Series 5/52/1/1, Folder 2, UA.

[17] Elrie Chrite, “The University: Chrite Speaks Out,” Daily Cardinal (undated).

[18] Kwame Salter, oral history recording with author, 20 March 2020.

[19] Ibid.

[20] UW News Press Release, 26 January 1971, Series 5/52/1/1, Folder 2, UA.

[21] UW News Press Release, 20 November 1970, Series 5/52/1/1, Folder 2, UA.

[22] “Functional Analysis: Afro-American Center,” Series 5/52/1/1, Folder 2, UA.

[23] Kwame Salter, oral history recording with author, 20 March 2020.

[24] On the additional centers and their initial budgetary requests, see Diane Sherman, “UW Ethnic Centers: A Clash Over Priorities,” Capital Times, 21 May 1973.

[25] Letter from Kwame Salter to Paul Ginsberg, 9 June 1971, Series 7/52/1/1, Folder 20, UA.

[26] Diane Sherman, “UW Ethnic Centers: A Clash Over Priorities,” Capital Times, 21 May 1973.

[27] Education Committee Resolution 352, 8 December 1972, Series 5/52/1/1, Folder 1, UA.

[28] Minutes of the Regular Meeting of the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin, 8 December 1972, Board of Regents Collection

[29] Quoted in “Afro-Center Status Getting Reassessed,” Wisconsin State Journal, 17 March 1973.

[30] “News Conference Statement by UW–Madison Dean of Students Paul Ginsberg,” 8 August 1973, Series 5/52/1/1, Folder 1, UA.

[31] “300 March on Weaver’s Office,” Capital Times, 27 August 1973.

[32] “Sept. 17 Closing Set for UW Afro Center,” Wisconsin State Journal, 8 September 1973.

[33] “Afro Center Cleared by UW,” Wisconsin State Journal, 10 April 1974.

[34] “Salter Blasts Center’s Closing,” Milwaukee Sentinel, 9 August 1973.

[35] Ibid.

[36] “Chancellor Young Defends Closing of Afro Center,” Wisconsin State Journal, 11 September 1973.

[37] “Let the Public Decide on Ethnic Centers,” Capital Times, 1 September 1973.

[38] Ibid.

[39] Kwame Salter, oral history recording with author, 20 March 2020.

[40] Ibid.