BOWIE – Students are beginning to demand equality in their education on campuses around the nation and are letting their voices be heard on the heavy topic by staging sit-ins, rallies and protests. For Bowie State University alumni and protestors who remember Apr. 4, 1968, the circumstances bring to mind the fear of being arrested, […]
BOWIE – Students are beginning to demand equality in their education on campuses around the nation and are letting their voices be heard on the heavy topic by staging sit-ins, rallies and protests.
For Bowie State University alumni and protestors who remember Apr. 4, 1968, the circumstances bring to mind the fear of being arrested, taken to jail, and being attacked by dogs.
On that day, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, Washington, D.C. burned in anger at the loss of one of the nation’s most effective civil rights leaders, and earlier that morning students from Bowie State College protested the inequality of their education.
The tragic events were recently mastered into a play at Bowie State called “The Fourth of April.”
“Compared to being at other schools, we felt we were getting the short end of the stick,” said Roland B. Smith, Bowie State alumnus and 1968 student protestor. “We wanted richer curriculums, more embedded facilities, and greater opportunities for our students. We were very socially conscious as a group of students and were serious about how to get our results without tearing the place up.”
The play debuted on Nov. 20 at Bowie State University’s Fine and Performing Arts Center and represents the fourth largest protest in history. The play conveyed the steps taken by the student protestors to get what was rightfully theirs: equal education for all schools including historically black college or universities (HBCU).
“We were pretty much told not to go to class and we didn’t because our buildings were 100 years old with no vision for getting any new ones,” said Patricia Wheeler, Bowie State 1968 student protestor.
On April 4, 1968, 227 students from Bowie State College, now Bowie State University, marched into the Maryland State House demanding a meeting with Governor Spiro Agnew. According to the university, the student protestors marched into history that day.
They requested increased state funding to renovate aging academic buildings and student housing. When Governor Agnew refused to meet with the students, he ordered that they be sent to jail.
“It was scary because we were young. The fear really kicked in for me when they said they have dogs and were willing to sick them on us,” said Darlene Collins, BSU alum and 1968 student protestor. “We wondered what would be the repercussion of being a survivor of this because we were still students.”
The student protestors were fingerprinted and photographed, but didn’t know about whether they would be jailed or even make it out of the situation alive. Later on, all of the student protestors had the alleged arrest expunged from their records.
“We didn’t have buildings. We didn’t have programs compared to the white schools. We didn’t have a great library or academic buildings and the library always closed at 9 o’clock,” said Alvin Pindell, Bowie State alumnus and 1968 student protestor. “This play gives our students contacts and perspective and it gives them encouragement that they too can affect change.”
The Fourth of April play, written by BSU assistant professor Bob Bartlett, is a part of Bowie State’s yearlong 150th anniversary celebration as Maryland’s oldest HBCU and will run from Nov. 19 through 22. The play is directed by the Helen Hayes Award-nominated Psalmayene 24 and features a small cast of student who portray the activities of the protest and video responses of BSU alumni who participated in those protests.
“The feedback about the play was overwhelmingly positive and quite moving,” Bartlett said. “Just imagine for the alumni from 1968 seeing their college of 600 people turn into what it’s become today. That would not have happened without the heroic actions of those student protestors in 1968.”
The play debuted a week after two racial symbols were found on the university’s main building on campus.
“I think this is going to be one of the most attended plays that we’ve had this year with everything that is going on in Missouri, Howard University, Towson University and here,” Bartlett said. “These are difficult times, like the times the students who protested in 1968 were living in.”
Bartlett believes everything that is going on across the country is a wakeup call for all colleges because those voices need to be heard and addressed.
“I was shocked at what happened at our university, but I guess we shouldn’t be surprised given the world that we live in. My first thought when I heard was who would come onto this campus to do that and why,” Bartlett said. “I think ultimately it will be something that empowers students to take action and be ready if something like that happens again. Hopefully it won’t.”
The play also focuses on the unpleasant living conditions on the university’s campus during 1968 and how each student dealt with it differently.
“We knew there were issues with the dormitories because they had three of us sharing a room in one of the halls. We made do with what we had,” Collins said.
Wheeler agreed with the play’s historical accuracy.
“The play was pretty accurate. I would say four busloads of students are more accurate and I don’t remember seeing any bugs, rats or mice,” Wheeler said.
All three alumni said the Fourth of April play and events should be mandatory for every student at the university to learn about and should be mentioned in the curriculum. The alumni and 1968 student protestors applauded the cast and their efforts to bring the actual events to life in this play.
“I thought the play was excellent. It portrayed exactly what we went through. I think the students that are coming here should know the ground that was laid before them so I applaud them,” Collins said.
The play even brought some people to tears.
“Seeing the play brings back memories and it brought me to tears,” Wheeler said. “I don’t know why that day is not talked about more.”
Following the 11 a.m. performance, the alumni and cast members participated in a talkback session with students and play attendees. The students who were part of the cast shared how the play is relevant to what’s happening on their own campus today.
“The play showed me some of the tactics and attitude that we as young adults have to use in today’s times,” said Tamyra Lewis, cast member and student. “This play has touched me to the point where it is not always about fighting power with power, it is about fighting power with love, fighting power with hope, and faith that everyone has good in them.”
The other cast mates agreed.
“I am proud that I stand on the same footsteps these students (alumni student protestors) did because they did something epic that day and I want to do the same exact thing,” said Dorian Elie, cast member student. “There are fights to still fight and I believe this play will encourage a lot of people to open their eyes to the problems in this world and realize you can’t just shrug it off.”