A participatory project to collect and preserve the histories of the City University of New York

Puerto Rican Studies at Brooklyn College

The fight for the creation of Puerto Rican and Black Studies programs across a number of campuses in the City University of New York (CUNY) system in late 1960s and early 1970s is one of the singular academic and political achievements of the student and community movements in these years. Stories of unity and solidarity between Puerto Rican and African American student populations and local communities were central to the struggles at many of the campuses throughout the City University. The battles for a Puerto Rican Studies department at Brooklyn College were directly connected to the larger Open Admissions movement that fundamentally reshaped CUNY after 1969. This was especially true at Brooklyn College, as this collection on the history of the fight to create a Puerto Rican Studies department at the college reveals.

The efforts of a mostly Puerto Rican and African-American student-led struggle within CUNY in the years after 1968 contributed to the establishment of the larger field of U.S.-based Puerto Rican Studies (PRS) programs. As a pioneering discipline, PRS also contributed to the emerging fields of Latino Studies and Ethnic Studies, helping transform the curriculum in higher education institutions across the nation. Brooklyn College was one of several CUNY campuses at which students and faculty engaged with each other, alongside community residents, to achieve a more equitable, responsive, and integrated public education system. Influenced and supported by national organizations such as the Black Panther Party and the Young Lords Organization, the Civil Rights Movement, international struggles including opposition to the Vietnam War, and the pro-independence movement in and for Puerto Rico, student-activists at Brooklyn College engaged in various forms of protest in their efforts to transform the university system.

When Puerto Rican and African-American students began to arrive in small but significant numbers at Brooklyn College (BC) and CUNY during the late 1960s, they encountered a campus that did not reflect the Brooklyn neighborhoods they knew and had grown up in. By 1968, 96 percent of the undergraduate student enrollment at Brooklyn College remained white, middle class, and largely Jewish. In that same year Puerto Rican students established the Puerto Rican Alliance (P.R.A.) at Brooklyn College, signaling the presence of pioneering Puerto Rican student-activists on the campus.

The early cohort of predominantly Puerto Rican and African-American students who began integrating the Brooklyn College (BC) campus in the late 1960s became active members of the Puerto Rican Alliance and the Brooklyn League of Afro-American Collegians (B.L.A.C.)--both student clubs at BC. In April 1969 the student members of P.R.A. and B.L.A.C. presented BC President George A. Peck with a list of 18 demands that included: active recruitment and admission of more Puerto Rican and Black students into the university; establishment of Puerto Rican and Afro-American Institutes; and an end to biological and chemical warfare research and C.I.A. activities at the campus. These demands were modeled after the Black Panther Party’s 21 national demands. The 18 demands were also supported by Students for a Democratic Society (S.D.S.), a student club composed of a mostly white radical students on campus. This phase of the student-led struggle at BC is described in oral histories with pioneering student-activists included in this collection as a racially, ethnically, and linguistically inclusive movement.

Later in the spring of 1969, in response to student demands and student and faculty activism on campus the BC administration approved the creation initially of the Puerto Rican and Afro-American institutes, both of which opened on the BC Campus early the following year. One of the biggest and earliest demonstrations in support of these demands at Brooklyn College became known as the “BC19” event. In May 1969, after weeks of campus protests, 19 students were arrested in their homes during a pre-dawn raid by NYC police. Pioneering student-activists faced charges for their on-campus demonstrations and were held on Rikers Island, in Queens, NY for three days. BC student and faculty activists, as well as members of the surrounding Brooklyn community (including BC alum, Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm) raised funds for bail to allow the arrested students to be released. Oral historical interviews conducted with two of the “BC19” students, Antonio Nieves and Dr. Orlando Pile are included in this collection. Finally, in January 1970, with continued support from BC faculty and staff, the Departments of Puerto Rican and Afro-American Studies were established and began operating on several CUNY campus, including Brooklyn College, Hunter College, Borough of Manhattan Community College, and City College, contributing to the longterm transformation of CUNY through new and progressive curricula and a growing and integrated student body.

The initial few years after the establishment of the Department of Puerto Rican Studies (PRS) in 1970 remained fairly quiet on the BC campus. Led by students, faculty, and staff, the new academic department and the separate PRS Institute (which continued) developed courses, programs, and community-driven partnerships between Puerto Rico and the diaspora in the United States. The 1973-74 academic year marked the next major phase in the Puerto Rican struggle at Brooklyn College. Student-activists organized and mobilized to defend their right to self-determination of and control over the Department of Puerto Rican Studies. Shortly after the founding director and chair of the department resigned the BC administration organized a search committee, chaired by President John W. Kneller. In an unexpected move, President Kneller defied the decision of the search committee and in Fall 1974 chose a candidate as the new chair of the department who students, faculty, and staff opposed. Students then engaged in a series of protests demanding to have Prof. María Sánchez, the search committee’s choice, as the department’s next chairperson. Students rallied on campus and at President Kneller’s house and the gym he frequented. The protests escalated into a multi-day take-over in October 1974 of the BC Registrar’s office, ending with the arrest of 41 students and 3 faculty members. This incident became known as the BC44. Oral history interviews conducted with arrested students and one faculty member are part of this collection.

This Puerto Rican Studies at Brooklyn College Collection (PRSBC) focuses on a mostly Puerto Rican led student movement at CUNY during the late 1960s and early 1970s. The collection includes oral history interviews with pioneering student-activists, photographs of participants and important events, and archival materials. The oral history interviews were recorded for a documentary film, Making the Impossible Possible (2021), directed by Tami Gold and Pam Sporn and produced by the Alliance for Puerto Rican Education and Empowerment (A.P.R.E.E.), an organization founded by several of the pioneering Brooklyn College student activists. Antonio "Tony" Nieves, student member and liaison of the Puerto Rican Alliance and the Brooklyn League of Afro-American Collegians contributed the photographs in this collection, which captured the racial and ethnic solidarity on the campus during the late 1960s. Archival materials found at Brooklyn College’s Archives and Special Collections fill out the story of institutional, pedagogical, cultural, and linguistic transformation that occurred across the CUNY system and at Brooklyn College as a result of the actions of a formidable, mostly Puerto Rican and African-American student-led, movement. The collection was curated by Gisely Colón López, a doctoral student in the Graduate Center’s Urban Education PhD program.

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5 Featured Items:

Student Drawing Depicting a Brooklyn College Student Protest at Brooklyn College to Determine Who the Chairperson Would Be

A drawing illustrating how Puerto Rican student activists at Brooklyn College (BC) imagined themselves guarding the Department of Puerto Rican Studies in protest of President John Kneller's decision in 1974 not to hire María Sánchez as the [...]

Black Power Salute at Brooklyn College during 1969 Malcolm X Day and Memorial

This photo, taken by pioneering student-activist Antonio "Tony" Nieves, member and liaison of the Brooklyn League of Afro-American Collegians (B.L.A.C.) and the Puerto Rican Alliance (P.R.A.), shows members of both P.R.A. and B.L.A.C. at [...]

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Puerto Rican Studies at Brooklyn College