1971: When Racial Tension At UNR Boiled Over

Oct 30, 2019

This fall, there’s been a lot of talk and media coverage about the campus climate at the University of Nevada, Reno in light of several incidents of hate and bias on campus. Those have included graffiti of swastikas and flyers for a white nationalist group. A visit to campus by controversial conservative speaker Charlie Kirk also created an emotional stir

This week, for KUNR’s segment of Time & Place with Alicia Barber, we travel back to 1971, a period of the university’s history that was fraught with racial tension, when a group of students took a stand by sitting down. 



Only 33 Black students attended the University of Nevada, Reno prior to 1960. That number more than doubled in the sixties thanks to new federal support for minority and out-of-state students, and increased recruitment of Black athletes. Inspired by the founding of Black Student Unions, or BSUs, at other universities, a group of Nevada students formed their own BSU in 1968. Over the next few years, they brought in prominent speakers, met with area high school students, and hosted campus events. They also pressed for greater minority representation on campus, as former BSU president Stan Davis explained in 1972. 

“Blacks were not in any legislation bodies, they were not in any judicial councils, they were not in any policy-making committees at all,” said Davis. “Blacks are in no fraternities, there are no Black faculty members to speak of on this campus, there is no place where a Black or Blacks or ethnic people can go and call their own, was the way I put it.”

The BSU had been asking for years for office space on campus without success, so in October of 1971, Davis and more than 20 other members decided to peacefully occupy one of the offices of the Associated Students of the University of Nevada, or ASUN. It was agreed that they could use it for a week while attempts were made to find them a comparable one.  But when the week was up, the BSU had only been offered space off-campus or in an unfinished basement, and they refused to leave. Davis later explained why:


Police cars line the street alongside campus during the 1971 occupation.
Credit Photo from the 1972 edition of the University of Nevada, Reno yearbook, Artemisia. Courtesy of the Special Collections Department, University of Nevada, Reno Libraries.

“So it all boiled down to—really—the social, economical, and political conditions of the campus that decided to make us be so stubborn in keeping the office, because the office was really irrelevant. We can always get an office somewhere. But the mere fact of having an office in the ASUN and on this University symbolized to many Blacks that they are part of the University.”

Administrators called in the police and tensions ran high as students, faculty, and about 45 law enforcement officers surrounded the building. Some of the protestors escaped through a trap door to the roof, but the sixteen who had remained inside—most of them well-known student athletes—were arrested. They were released that night, and the BSU did eventually get a campus office, but the incident had clearly brought to light some of the simmering racial tensions that the university needed to address.  

This segment first aired on KUNR in the winter of 2018. As a note of disclosure, the Board of Regents for the Nevada System of Higher Education owns the license to this station. Also, oral history clips for this segment were provided by the Special Collections Department of the University of Nevada, Reno Libraries.