by Lee Manchester
In the last issue of Wagner Magazine, we ran an in-depth story about a crucial period in the college’s history: the occupation of Cunard Hall in April 1970 by a group of Black students, and the retribution taken upon them by the college. (You'll find it here, if you want to refresh your memory.)
Central to the entire episode was a little-known administrator, Harold Haas, a 1939 Wagner graduate and the recipient of an honorary doctorate from the college in 1958.
The historical record is clear: During a tense standoff between Haas and a large group of Black students in his office, he believed that the students were holding him hostage (though both the students and their faculty adviser, who was present during the confrontation, said otherwise). This resulted in the students’ expulsion from Wagner — despite the fact that, a year earlier, a similar group of White student activists who had confronted Haas in his office under very similar circumstances faced no disciplinary measures at all.
But I knew nothing more about Haas himself than what was reported about him in the newspaper coverage of the day — and he died in 2016, so I couldn’t ask him any questions.
And I had a few.
What was Harold Haas taught about race as a child? Did he actually march with Martin Luther King Jr., as several stories said? And what did Dean Haas, himself, think about the issues that were so important to our students back then?
Then, after the Cunard story ran, I received a surprising email: Harold Haas’s daughter, Carolyn Haas Henry ’66, had a copy of her father’s memoirs — and she wondered if I would like to read it.
My response: You bet I would!
Carolyn’s father was a man of his time, for good and for bad, and was deeply committed to his Lutheran faith. Born in 1917 in Union, New Jersey, his world was a strictly segregated one. While growing up, virtually the only Black people Harold ever met were the two Black men who graduated with him from Wagner College in 1939.
“In spite of my limited racial contacts,” Haas said, “I found myself growing beyond my background.”
Harold wrote about an incident burned into his memory from the mid-1950s, when he was pastor of a Lutheran church in Jersey City. A Black guest had worshipped with his congregation during Lent.
“I suspect this had been the first time in the long history of that congregation that a Black person had attended (or wanted to attend) a church service,” Harold wrote. “The general reaction was curious but friendly.”
But not everyone welcomed this guest.
“One of the church council members informed me that the minute a Black person became a member, he and his family would leave,” Harold recalled.
“I informed him that the minute a Black person was refused membership, I would be gone.
“ ‘So, I hope the time comes soon when one of us will leave,’ ” Pastor Haas said.
After serving in Jersey City, Harold became executive secretary of the Lutheran Church in America’s Board of Social Ministry, a position in which he served from 1962 until 1966. It was in this capacity that Haas attended both the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where he heard Martin Luther King Jr. deliver his “I Have a Dream” speech, and a 1965 Selma, Alabama, march with King from the Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church to the local courthouse.
“I don’t want to give the impression that we were leaders in this struggle,” Haas wrote. “But we were participants. Some of the real heroes were the bishops (then presidents) of the southern Lutheran synods. They had to live with the struggle every day amid competing claims and anger.”
This was the Harold Haas who, as a top Wagner administrator in 1970, was faced with responding to our Black students’ demands for greater access and support from the college.
“The impact the whole thing made on me,” Harold concluded, “was because I was emotionally divided in myself: the College could not run with such tactics; I felt I had some understanding of the injustices that had motivated the students.”
Harold Haas’s memoir provided me with greater insight into the previously undisclosed conflicts of a man of goodwill — and of his time — who struggled to do the right thing for his college as well as his students at a moment when those two things appeared to be mutually exclusive. He was neither a hero nor a villain — just a human.
To learn more about Dean Harold Haas's encounter with our students in 1970, read "Lonnie Brandon & the North Hall 27," written for the Fall 2021 issue of Wagner Magazine.