Our story starts with a T-shirt.
It was January 2019, and a Wagner College group had flown to Kenya for an Alternative Winter Break, a tradition involving community service activities in an interesting location.
The group was primarily made up of students, but a Wagner alumnus, Lonnie Brandon ’78, had gone along. They had spent 17 hours together on the flight from Newark to Nairobi via Dubai, but it wasn’t until they were checking in to their hotel that Lonnie noticed a photo printed on one student’s T-shirt.
“Winona walks by, and she’s got on this T-shirt,” Lonnie recalled, “and I see the scene on the back, and I’m like, ‘Whoa, come back here! Do you know anything about this picture on your back?’ ”
The photo showed a group standing on the front porch roof of Wagner College’s Cunard Hall on April 17, 1970, during the building’s occupation by Black Concern, a student group pushing the college to become a more welcoming and diverse institution.
The student wearing the T-shirt, Student Government Association President Winona Scheff, who is White, did know something about the photo — but only a little.
“I said, ‘Well, that’s me, right here,’ and I pointed to myself in the photo,” Lonnie said. “I was floored!”
Right there in the hotel lobby, the group settled down, and Lonnie told them his story.
Alonzo Brandon Jr. was born in early 1950 in Montclair, N.J.
“My mom was born in the same hospital I was born in 22 years later,” Lonnie said.
Both of Lonnie’s parents came from Virginia families who had moved north as part of the Great Migration. Lonnie’s mother’s family had settled in Montclair. His father grew up in Philadelphia, and came to New Jersey after serving in World War II.
Lonnie, the eldest of the four children born to Alonzo and Naomi Brandon, went to the same public schools his mother had attended as a child. Early on, he idolized Chuck Berry — but he exchanged his guitar for a baseball bat when he joined Little League at 10.
Baseball — and later, football — gave Lonnie his entrée into the world of Montclair High School sports, which is a kind of secular religion in his home town.
While sports gave Lonnie a platform upon which he could excel in high school, it did not completely insulate him from Montclair’s legacy of segregation.
“The schools were not segregated,” Lonnie said, “but the neighborhoods were — and you had to go to your neighborhood school.”
And those neighborhood elementary schools Black children attended weren’t teaching the same curriculum as White schools. Black students who then went on to attend Montclair’s high school found that their previous education hadn’t prepared them.
A 1966 lawsuit filed with the help of the NAACP resulted in Montclair being put under a desegregation order. But it would come too late to significantly improve Lonnie’s educational experience.
At one point, Lonnie discovered that he and other Black student-athletes were being subjected to the tracking that was common in Montclair public schools, where it was assumed that students of color were suited only for vocational training, not college careers.
The discovery was made only by accident.
The strength of the Montclair High School football program drew lots of college football scouts — and, naturally, lots of scholarship offers for Montclair football players. Colleges often sent their recruiting letters directly to Montclair head football coach Clary Anderson, assuming that he would proudly pass them along — but, in the case of Black students, that was not the case. Lonnie found this out when he bumped into a student manager for the football team, who took the mail each day from the high school office to the coach.
“By 1967, the number of Black students attending Wagner College rose to about 20 — and a year after that, in 1968 (when Lonnie enrolled), the number nearly quadrupled.”
“He asked me if I had seen this letter from Southern Illinois University,” Lonnie said. “I said, ‘No, what letter?’ He said, ‘Oh, Clary has it.’ So I go to Clary. He tells me, ‘Yeah, you got a letter, but you can’t get into that school, so you really don’t need a letter.’ He was making decisions like that for a lot of African American students.”
Lonnie mentioned all this to Jeanne Heningburg, one of the few African American teachers at Montclair.
“She went ballistic. She went and got hold of one of our history teachers who she knew she could confide in and told her, and they marched down to the boys’ gym and demanded that Clary give up every letter that he had.
“That was another catalyst for starting the Black Student Union at Montclair High School,” Lonnie said. He became a leader in that group his senior year, and was also elected captain of the football team.
“By the time I got to Wagner in September 1968, I was well on my way to becoming fairly radical,” he said.
Another football coach entered Lonnie’s life during his senior year at Montclair: Ralph Ferrara from Wagner College, who had been scouting Lonnie from nearby Staten Island.
“I had never even heard of Wagner, and it was only 20 miles away,” Lonnie said. “I had been recruited by Rutgers and the University of Dayton, but Wagner was offering a full ride. … I went over for a visit, and when we got to the dining hall, they told me you could eat as much as you want — and that sealed the deal.”
Lonnie would not find out what being a Black student at Wagner College was really like, however, until classes began in the Fall 1968 semester.
As most Wagnerians know, Wagner was founded in 1883 in Rochester, N.Y. as a combination high school and junior college to prepare young German Lutheran men for the seminary. In a 1929 study commissioned by the United Lutheran Church in America of the growth potential of Lutheran colleges, one of the key factors considered was the size of the White population living within a certain radius of a given school, because Lutheran churches and their colleges were ethnically based institutions.
But federal legislation passed in 1965 as part of President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society agenda started transforming the complexion of American higher education by providing money for disadvantaged young people to go to college.
By 1967, the number of Black students attending Wagner College rose to about 20 — and a year after that, in 1968 (when Lonnie enrolled), the number nearly quadrupled.
“All of the 20 or so African American upperclassmen at Wagner were dancing in the streets because there were 50, 55 African American students in my class,” Lonnie said. “For them, that was like heaven.” But most of Wagner’s 2,400 undergraduates were White.
“There was quite a bit of backlash, socially,” Lonnie recalled. “A lot of the students that were here felt they were being invaded, and we never really felt a part of the campus.”
Lonnie remembers that Black students faced great challenges at Wagner, from fights on campus to low expectations from faculty. Those challenges led to the formation of Black Concern during the 1967-68 school year.
Early in the spring 1969 semester, two joint meetings of the (mostly White) Students for a Democratic Society with Black Concern served to emphasize the distinct goals of the two activist organizations.
“The problem [of racism] is purely a black problem which affects only blacks,” said Black Concern spokesman Bob Coles to the Wagnerian student newspaper. “We want to handle the situation ourselves, it’s something we have to do by ourselves. If we want support from any whites, we’ll ask for it.”
Shortly after these meetings, a spark touched off a political brush fire that roared across campus: The trustees voted for a 20 percent tuition increase, leading to a weeks-long student strike and the occupation of the Sutter Gymnasium, North Hall (including the office of Dean Harold Haas) and a portion of Cunard Hall. (The strike was directed by a group of mostly White students; Black Concern members, per se, were not a part of the strike’s leadership.) A list of 53 student demands was generated for presentation to the administration. And when it was all over, life at Wagner College returned to normal.
“That kind of set the stage for the following year,” Lonnie recalled.
Black Concern’s first step in the 1969-70 school year, with Lonnie as its chairman, was a test of its ability to organize and execute a plan. The goal: get a Black woman elected Homecoming queen that fall. It would be a first at the predominantly White college — and, strategically, very difficult to pull off.
“We couldn’t win with just the Black students’ votes,” Lonnie said. “We enlisted a group of White students who otherwise wouldn’t have voted for anyone. You’d probably call them ‘hippies.’ ”
Black Concern’s winning candidate was Sharon Richie, a junior nursing student from the projects of South Philly. Her Wagner education was being underwritten by the U.S. Army, which commissioned her as an officer upon graduation. She later became a White House Fellow, chief nurse for the Army Recruiting Command, the youngest full colonel in the Army (at age 36), and the director of the School of Nursing at Norwich University, a private military college in Vermont, before her death in 2018. (You can read more about the remarkable Sharon Richie in “Compassionate Command,” the cover story for Wagner Magazine’s Fall 2009 issue.)
“The administration assumed we had instigated that demonstration,” Lonnie said. “On Monday morning, they informed us that they were reneging on all of the commitments they had made to get us out of [Cunard Hall].”
With that victory under their belt, the members of Black Concern began considering their next move.
“We started to look at our lives and the things that we felt would be more relevant for us and to make the campus more inclusive,” Lonnie said. “We developed a list of demands and presented them to the administration.”
The biggest ask, issued at the beginning of April, was to increase the number of Black students at Wagner from 83 to more than 500. Doing so would require raising additional scholarship money, adjusting of admissions requirements and recruiting staff familiar with Black communities. And to support Black students after enrollment, the college would need more Black faculty members, administrative staff dedicated to creating programming that was relevant to Black students and adaptations to the curriculum encompassing Black and African studies.
Less than a week later, the administration issued a generally positive response. The main problem the college had with the demands of Black Concern, it seemed, was financial.
“As has been stated before, there is no impediment to minority group students attending Wagner College, if they have the financial means,” the college said in its reply. “The crucial question is how many without adequate means can be accepted by the college.”
Black Concern found the college’s apparent unwillingness to fully fund financial aid for Black students unsatisfactory.
“That’s when we decided we were going to occupy Cunard Hall,” Lonnie said. “It was the heartbeat of the campus; all the academic records were there, the business office was there, so we felt that if we occupied that building, we could get their attention.”
Lonnie knew that timing was critical.
College Day was scheduled for Saturday, April 18. It was the biggest event of the year for Wagner’s Admissions Office, a day on which the college wooed accepted students to enroll for the coming year.
“We scheduled [the Cunard occupation] for the week before College Day,” Lonnie said, “and we knew they would want to resolve this before that.”
On the afternoon of Wednesday, April 15, a couple of Black Concern members went into a ground-floor men’s bathroom in Cunard Hall to unlock a window. That night they returned, ready to seal the building’s entrances and wait for the administration’s reaction. About 90 students were inside the building: a dozen or so from the Puerto Rican student group called Alma, the rest from Black Concern.
Young civil rights activist Julian Bond, an early leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and at that time a Georgia state legislator, was the only person from outside the group of occupiers allowed into Cunard Hall during the sit-in. Bond had been speaking at nearby Notre Dame College when he heard about the occupation and walked over to the Wagner College campus. His visit buoyed the spirits of the students in Cunard.
“It showed that we didn’t stand alone,” said Ray Hodge, one of the occupiers.
(Forty-four years later, Julian Bond returned to the Wagner College campus as the featured speaker for our 2014 commencement program.)
Over the next day and a half, the students and the administration went through round after round of telephone negotiations.
“Finally, Thursday night, the administration made a commitment to meet with us the following week and to recognize our concerns and to address them,” Lonnie said. “We decided that was good enough — and so, in good faith, we left the building on Friday.”
Most of the Black and Latinx participants in the Cunard occupation went home or elsewhere off-campus for the weekend as soon as the matter was, as far as they knew, resolved.
What they did not know was that a group of about 200 White student activists (who considered themselves allies but did not coordinate their actions with Black Concern) had planned their own demonstration for Saturday, disrupting Wagner’s College Day event and forcing the school to send its guests home.
“The administration assumed we had instigated that demonstration,” Lonnie said. “On Monday morning, they informed us that they were reneging on all of the commitments they had made to get us out of [Cunard Hall].”
The students tried several times to contact Wagner College President Arthur Ole Davidson to negotiate directly with him, but Davidson was unavailable — resting after a visit to Wagner’s study-abroad center in Austria.
On Thursday, April 23, a group of about 30 members of Black Concern went to see Davidson’s second in command, Dean Harold Haas, staying in his office for about eight hours.
The Black Concern members referred to the confrontation as “a meeting.”
Dean of Students Bill Maher, however, interpreted it differently. When he came to Haas’ North Hall office, located in what is now the library of Reynolds House, he saw a large group of Black students who he believed were holding Haas hostage.
“Dean Harold Haas was not permitted to leave his office,” said a statement issued the next day by President Davidson’s office. “He was permitted to use the telephone only at the direction of the students.”
Black Concern, however, issued a counterstatement claiming that “at no time did anyone in the conference physically abuse and/or physically restrict Dean Haas from leaving if he wanted to.”
At 12:50 p.m., Dean Maher gave the students 10 minutes to vacate Haas’ office; two or three students complied. Maher then suspended the remaining 27 students for the rest of the academic year — and told them that “if Dean Haas is not freed … in one hour, all students in the room will be expelled,” according to a news report. By 2 p.m., nobody had budged, and Maher’s expulsion order went into effect.
We don’t know exactly what Dean Haas made of the situation. He died in 2016. But it’s possible he sympathized with the Black students. He had marched in civil rights demonstrations in the South and spent over 20 years as chief of the United Lutheran Church’s Board of Social Missions before becoming dean.
Eric Devlin, a Wagner College senior working as a reporter for the weekly Staten Island Register, wrote in a May 6 recap of the situation:
Members of the College community have overwhelmingly voiced support for the demands of the Black students and have expressed doubt over the administration’s official interpretation of the incident. …
Many feel that Dean Haas’ true stand is not being expressed, but that the incident, in the words of one faculty member, “is a convenient tool for some reactionary administrators who have trapped Haas, as a fellow administrator, into supporting their point of view. The students involved have never lied to me, and neither has Dean Haas, but some administrators have.” …
Only rarely was support for the expulsion order expressed. When it was, it was phrased in words similar to those of a freshman co-ed from Brooklyn: “If the College had started doing something to keep these n——-s [spelled out] in their place four years ago, this never would have happened. They ought to kick every one of them out and never let another one into the College.”
On May 13, about 120 White students began a new occupation of President Davidson’s office, demanding that the college reinstate the 27 expelled Black students. The occupation continued until the college board of trustees met on May 20, without taking action on the case of the North Hall 27. No penalties were imposed on the White organizers of that occupation.
Finally, on May 21, the nine-member Faculty Council began a two-day meeting to consider the expelled students’ appeal. Dorothe Dow, head of Wagner’s special nursing program and faculty adviser to Black Concern, testified about what she witnessed that day.
According to an article in the Staten Island Advance, Dow stated that she went to North Hall about two hours after the Black Concern students arrived, and an hour after their suspension. She spent most of the next five hours in Haas’ office with the students. She testified that Dean Haas “never asked to leave while she was there, and that she thought nothing was wrong so she did not ask the students to leave.”
The same article reported the testimony of Philip Straniere ’69 M’73, who was one of a group of 200 students who occupied all three floors of North Hall during the Spring 1969 campus strike. A smaller group of 30 to 40 students had then held an hour-long conference with Dean Haas.
“Straniere said that the people filled the office, doorway and hall in an atmosphere of ‘polite hostility’ on that occasion, in effect preventing Haas from leaving,” the Advance reported. “He further indicated that no disciplinary action was taken at that time and that no one in the administration tried to ‘free Haas or contended that he was a hostage.’ ”
“None of these were true game changers; they were only first steps on a long path toward greater equity at Wagner. But they were hints that better things were possible for the college on the hill.”
In his summary, NAACP attorney Jonathan Shapiro said “that he felt there had been a misunderstanding between Haas and the students April 23 and that he actually was not held hostage … [but] that the dean was fearful because he was confronted with a roomful of blacks, whereas he didn’t interpret similar action [the previous] year in the same way.”
But the Faculty Council was unmoved. It upheld the expulsions of all but two students (who the council determined had left before the expulsion order took effect).
Another student, senior basketball player Ray Hodge, was granted clemency. Hodge had been drafted by the New York Knicks and, recognizing that an expulsion could endanger his career, the council allowed him to graduate that June without penalty.
The remaining 24 students, including Lonnie, had their expulsion converted into a suspension at the recommendations of deans Haas and Maher. As a result, they would lose all the credits they had earned during the spring 1970 semester but could continue with their college careers at Wagner if they so chose. According to Lonnie, about half of them never returned to Wagner.
But the actions of Black Concern had borne fruit.
Over the following summer and fall, Wagner College fulfilled every one of the pledges it had made to the minority students to end the Cunard Hall occupation. Black administrators were hired; admissions recruiting worked to bring more minority students to Grymes Hill; new Black scholars joined the faculty, and new courses about the history and experiences of minority communities in America were added to the curriculum.
None of these were true game changers; they were only first steps on a long path toward greater equity at Wagner. But they were hints that better things were possible for the college on the hill.
Would the members of Black Concern have gone forward with their protests if they had known the cost to their academic careers?
“It was a lofty idea, trying to turn Wagner around, but the cost was just too high and no one seemed to care,” said Toni King Whitlock, one of the students who was suspended.
But Sharon Richie, a member of Black Concern who had not participated in the meeting with Dean Haas, said, “We had just enough light for the step that we were on … and it was one step at a time.”
“At 19, 20 years old, we weren’t projecting that far ahead,” said Lonnie. “We just figured we would go through the process and, at the end, they would say yes or no, and then we would have to reassess where we were, based on those responses — but we never anticipated that part of the consequences could have been so life-changing.”
And what lesson should today’s Wagner students learn from the events of 50 years ago?
“If you believe in something, follow your gut,” Lonnie said, “follow your heart and do whatever you feel is necessary to accomplish your goals. You need to be able to think it through, and be willing to deal with the consequences — because there are going to be consequences for any action you take. …
“It’s something I would have done all over again; I wouldn’t change a thing.”
Lonnie’s football scholarship carried him through two more years of full-time student life at Wagner — close to completing his degree requirements but, due to his loss of credits from the Spring 1970 semester, not quite enough for his B.A. He would not earn his degree until the summer of 1978, when he took the pair of courses he needed to finish.
But in the meantime, Lonnie and his then-wife Janice had a growing young family to raise. He had married Janice the summer after his freshman year, and their daughter Nikki was born that same summer, followed by Alonzo III and, in 1975, youngest daughter Kendra. Lonnie had to find a job.
In 1973, Lonnie started working for the municipal government of his home town of Montclair, N.J., initially as an activities director at the recreation department. He went on to serve as parks superintendent, and he was instrumental in starting the Montclair African American Heritage Parade and Festival, which is now a fixture in the town’s summer calendar. That led to the creation of a “rites of passage” mentoring program for the town’s youth. In 1991, Lonnie became director in the Department of Parks, Recreation and Cultural Affairs — the first African American department head in the city’s history.
But it would take 37 years after his last regular semester for Lonnie to finally re-engage with Wagner College.
Understandably, he carried a lot of resentment — “big time” — about the way he and other members of Black Concern were treated after the Cunard occupation and the Haas incident.
“A lot of my contemporaries still hold tremendous resentment,” he said.
It took an August 2009 visit from his old mentor Mike Kelly, who’d become a Wagner College trustee, to get Lonnie Brandon back on Grymes Hill.
Mike, a former Wagner football player, graduated in 1966. But in 1970, he was spending his evenings coaching Lonnie and the rest of the football team.
“I was the only Black coach and, as such, became unofficial mentor to the Black players,” Mike said.
He hadn’t known anything about the planning for the Cunard Hall occupation, but he was part of Black Concern’s demands: They wanted Mike to serve as the administrator for Black student programs.
That demand was accepted. Mike started working at Wagner on July 1, 1970, and he and Lonnie have stayed in touch ever since.
During his 2009 visit, Mike asked Lonnie to join him as he dropped by the football team’s annual Green & White scrimmage and talked to the players. Afterward, Mike took Lonnie to lunch with his friend Provost Devorah Lieberman.
“Mike started telling Devorah my history at Wagner,” Lonnie said, “so right away she starts thinking, ‘Well, next year it’s gonna be the 40th anniversary [of the Cunard and Haas incidents]. We have to do something big!’ ”
Mike reconnected Lonnie with Brian Morris, a 1965 Wagner alumnus and then a board member of the Alumni Association. Brian had known several Black Concern members, including Homecoming Queen Sharon Richie. Brian, who had gone on to a highly successful career in public relations, suggested using the 40th anniversary of the events to focus on what racial progress Wagner had made since 1970.
“We came up with a plan,” Lonnie said, “and then I went and called 20, 25 people who had been involved.”
Lonnie dove into the college’s archives, reading old news clips about the events of 40 years before, looking through the mimeographed statements distributed by Black Concern and the college, and piecing together an accurate, well-documented picture of what had really happened all those years ago.
Brian Morris, using his connections as a publicist, sat down with a film producer and created a 27-minute documentary using interviews with key players from the 1960s and ’70s. In addition to Mike and Lonnie, “Seeds of Change: Reflection of a Year of Student Activism, 1969-1970” (available on Wagner College’s YouTube channel) featured alumni Milfred Fierce ’60 M’67, Black Concern 1970 co-chair Joan Thorne Manning, Philip Straniere, Toni King Whitlock, Ray Hodge, Marilyn W. Jackson ’73 and Linda Dominguez ’73.
The documentary was screened April 10, 2010, at Wagner’s Spiro Hall, during an alumni seminar Lonnie organized to bring many of the first-hand participants in the 1970 activities back to campus.
“For many of the people who attended the program,” Lonnie said, “it was the first time they had been back on campus.”
For Lonnie, it was far from the last time he was to visit Grymes Hill.
Lonnie would go on to serve two 3-year terms on the Alumni Association board. He also mentored some of the current generation of Black students at Wagner.
When a promising student and football star got into some trouble, Lonnie and Mike asked the college’s dean of campus life for leniency — provided Lonnie agreed to mentor him. Lonnie met regularly with the student — and his roommate — to guide the young men through the rest of their undergraduate careers. Both students graduated in good standing.
A couple of years ago (2018-19), the leaders of Wagner’s Black Student Union took an interest in the history of Black Concern, digging into the archives and watching the “Seeds of Change” documentary. That led to a visit from Lonnie.
“Each meeting with him is always wonderful,” said Deyja Gentile, co-president that year of BSU. “He is one of those people who leaves you feeling motivated and validated.”
That visit inspired the new T-shirt designed for the Black Student Union in November 2018, which featured an April 17, 1970 photo of a group of students standing on the roof of the Cunard Hall porch — with a young Lonnie Brandon at the center.
And that brings us full circle to the beginning of our story, when Lonnie and his wife Jackie accompanied a group of Wagner College students on a January 2019 Alternative Winter Break service trip to Nairobi, Kenya.
“… organizations are really ongoing conversations. It’s not about brick and mortar, or even people — it’s about conversations.”
Winona Scheff, who wore that BSU T-shirt in Nairobi with Lonnie’s picture, remembers well the impression Lonnie and his wife Jackie made on everyone during that trip.
“They both exuded kindness in every word they spoke,” Winona said. “They became our grandparents on that trip, providing comfort in moments of vulnerability and laughter in moments of joy. They both are inspirations; we at Wagner are lucky to have them in our family.”
During a Wagner history class held online in April 2020, half a century after the Cunard occupation, Lonnie was asked by a student if he had seen any changes at Wagner College as a result of the sacrifices he and his fellow members of Black Concern had made.
“Sometimes I’m a little disappointed that more hasn’t happened in the last 50 years,” Lonnie said, “but it’s a different place. I’m a firm believer in how organizations change when the people in them change. I think Wagner is a very different place than it was 50 years ago, primarily because the players are different.”
The composition of Wagner College’s student body and faculty has changed dramatically. In 1970, less than 4% of all students and none of the faculty were people of color.
That increased to 30% of all students by October 2018, and 20% of faculty members by August 2020.
And in July 2021, as this story is being written, people of many racial, sexual and gender identities are serving and leading on the board of our Alumni Association and throughout our administrative staff.
Is it enough? Is everything fixed now? Of course not. Did the sacrifices of the North Hall 27 make a difference? Yes — and this story is one indication of how the conversation at Wagner was changed by the stand those students took in 1970, and how it has continued to evolve in the years since.
“Has it gone as far as we would have liked to have seen it going, 50 years ago?” Lonnie said. “Probably not — but, again, there’s a whole lot of different circumstances.
“One of the things I try to live my life by now is an idea that was presented to me at one of my professional development programs at Rutgers … that organizations are really ongoing conversations. It’s not about brick and mortar, or even people — it’s about conversations. Organizations change when conversations change.
“That’s one of the things I tried to sell to my contemporaries in trying to get them re-engaged at Wagner — that it’s a different place,” Lonnie said. “Those people that we had issues with are long gone; the institution is different. And the conversation has changed.”
This story was the winner of a Grand Gold Award for feature writing in the 2022 Circle of Excellence competition conducted by the Council for Advancement and Support of Education, the leading professional organization for university fundraising, alumni and communications departments around the globe. Wagner Magazine bested Boston College, Notre Dame, Yale, Holy Cross, Stanford and Portland State in the competition for this year's Grand Gold Award. Read more about the CASE award in Wagner College's online Newsroom.
Read the original research document that was heavily (and skillfully) abridged for the Fall 2021 Wagner Magazine article, "Lonnie Brandon and the North Hall 27." It goes into depth on both Lonnie Brandon's personal story and the details of the events surrounding Black Concern's actions in the spring 1970 semester. Now more than 50 years after those events, it seemed especially important to record that story. Extensive interviews and documentary research are employed and referenced.
And to find out more about Wagner College Dean Harold Haas, the administrator at the center of the conflict with Black Concern, read Lee Manchester's reflection on Haas's memoir, written for the Winter 2022 issue of Wagner Magazine.