Timeline of Stanford community activism added to Activism @ Stanford exhibit

January 6, 2021
Dinah Handel
The front page of the Colonist publication, reads "The real news motherfucker"


The Stanford University community has a rich history of resistance to the status quo, with the archives to prove it. Activism @ Stanford, an exhibit from the University Archives with a newly published timeline, shows how the Stanford community protested, marched, and demanded more through the ages. I was pleased to learn about students’ efforts, dating back to the early 1900s, to challenge the status quo and resist injustices on the Stanford campus and throughout the world. Depending on your impression of Stanford, this may come as a surprise. However, if you take even a cursory look at the Stanford community through the ages, you will see countless moments of timely activism, as well as long standing struggles against University practices. Adding the activism timeline into the overall Activism @ Stanford exhibit was an opportunity for me to learn more about the history of Stanford and the community’s actions through the years. 


In the early days of Stanford, countering the status quo of the era came in the form of enrollment of 130 women in the first class, and graduation of students of color from the school. The Pioneer Class of 1895 included one African-American student, Ernest Houston Johnson and a small number of students of Asian heritage. The first graduate of Native heritage was John Milton Oskison in 1898. Although these figures may seem paltry today, at the time it was more progressive than many other peer institutions. In 1911, Alan Hart (documented as identifying what current language would describe as trans) enrolled in Stanford as a junior year transfer alongside his partner, and later would attend the Medical School for one quarter in 1916. Hart went on to be a radiologist and he published a novel in 1936 featuring a homosexual character. 


In the 1920s, issues like Women’s Suffrage came to the forefront, and throughout the 30s, 40s and 50s, more changes took place on the campus to remove restrictions based on gender. In the 1940s women made up a majority of the students on campus due to the war, and assumed leadership positions in the ASSU and at the Stanford Daily. Despite the records we do have, it is also important to identify some of the silences or gaps in the Archive’s collections and history of the institution. Although there are fewer digitized resources and less information available in the timeline and overall exhibit for these decades, it is probable that there were activist ideas forming on campus during this time, based on the changes in society at large. These three decades saw the rise of facism and World War II, during which Stanford students of Japanese descent were incarcerated in internment camps, as well as the beginnings of the Homophile and Civil Rights movements in the 1950s. For example, in 1930, Harry Hay attended Stanford and in 1931 came out as a homosexual to his “nonplussed dorm members.” Hay would go on to drop out of Stanford in 1932, and become one of the founders of the Mattachine Society, a foundational group in the homophile movement. In 1953, Jane Rule, who would later write Desert of the Heart, a classic lesbian novel, submitted lesbian-themed short stories to her professor, Wallace Stegner. More queer history can be found in the Queer @ Stanford exhibit timeline. A cursory search in the Stanford Daily archives suggests that in the 1950’s, students held lively debates on civil rights and segregation in public schools. During these years, Stanford students were likely discussing, debating, and organizing around these issues more widely than documented in the Archives. 


The 1960s at Stanford saw a burst of activism, as society continued to grapple with increasingly politicized and complex ideas around race, gender, sexuality, equality, and labor rights. The student body also became more diverse, forming student groups like MEChA and the Black Student Union. The decade also saw protests against Stanford’s complicity in the military industrial complex, a boycott of California table grapes in solidarity with striking California farm workers, and the issuing of 10 demands from the Black Student Union in the wake of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assasination. 


In the decades that follow, the timeline continues to highlight the work of the Stanford community in the long and never-ending fight for justice. Over the years, the Stanford community continued to rally against discrimination and repression locally and abroad. Some of my favorite portions from the 1970s to the present are the campus movements for feminism and gay liberation in the 1970s, student publications like The Colonist, Humming Arrows, and Miquiztli, protests to remove the Western Civ requirement, the Rainbow Agenda in the 1980s, the Chicano Hunger Strike in 1994, and the demands of student activists to better fund student groups in the 2000s. The timeline is a living document, and as the community continues to respond to current events, University Archives will continue to collect and add materials. 


As I reflect after working on the exhibit, I am struck by the interconnectedness of the Stanford community to local politics and liberation movements. It is clear that Stanford’s location in the greater San Francisco Bay Area informed the involvement of students in social movements. The proximity to hubs of activism like San Francisco and Oakland appear to have influenced campus activism around issues like Gay Liberation, the Black Panther Party, and the occupation of Alcatraz and Native American activism. 


Alongside the crash course in Stanford history, this was also my first attempt at contributing to an exhibit using Spotlight. I had a lot to learn! After a session with service manager Cathy Aster, I was on my way to adding digitized resources from the digital repository to the exhibit and building out each decade in the timeline with corresponding primary source material from the archives. The process wasn’t always straightforward, however, and caused me to reflect on the importance of metadata, the balance between an imperative to share and the necessity to describe, and how to bridge gaps between repository systems, library catalogs, and finding aids. Whenever I would look for topical images to add, I had to figure out: has the item been digitized? What collection is it part of? Has it been released into the library catalog? I am left feeling an increased sense of purpose to better understand how we make decisions about digitization of archival collections relating to the lives and activities of students, as well as motivated to continue exploring issues around archival discovery and delivery with the Lighting the Way team. 

I hope that our community finds affirmation, validation, inspiration, and a greater appreciation for student-led activism through this exhibit. In addition to the timeline, the exhibit has an interactive map, and the Stanford Historical Society’s Oral History program has numerous interviews that touch on the same subjects shown in the exhibit. If you have material that would compliment the exhibit or help fill in some of our collection gaps, please get in touch with the Archives at universityarchives@stanford.edu. They would love to hear from you.