Students help capture campus protest voices from 50 years ago through public history project

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UW–Madison students Yiqi Yu, left, Laura Huff, right, and Avery Pilot, foreground, helped campus archivists undertake a public oral history project tied to the 50th anniversary of the Dow Chemical Company protests on campus. (Photo by Doug Erickson)

When UW–Madison Library & Information Studies graduate student Laura Huff took to the streets earlier this semester for a national march against gun violence, she carried with her voices from another protest many decades earlier.

Huff was among several UW–Madison students who helped university archivists this academic year with a public history project tied to the 50th anniversary of the campus Dow Chemical Company protests. The team of students and archivists captured live interviews with alumni connected to the events of Oct. 18, 1967, a day police officers forcibly removed Dow protesters from the Commerce Building using billy clubs.

“As I was participating in the anti-gun violence march, I was thinking about the differences in the two protests and asking myself whether I would be as committed to my cause if I knew police violence was a possibility,” says Huff, of Peshtigo, Wisconsin.

Over two days last fall, UW–Madison Libraries, in partnership with Madison Public Library, invited people to drop by recording stations at the Central Library in downtown Madison and share stories of the Dow protests. Two dozen people did. Audio recordings of those interviews are now available at go.wisc.edu/dow-recordings.

A Madison police officer raises his nightstick during the violent melee that ensued on the UW–Madison campus after officers forcibly cleared anti-Dow protesters from the Commerce Building on Oct. 18, 1967. (Photo by John Wolf and Heiner Giese)

The protest on Oct. 18, 1967, injured dozens of students and police officers and propelled UW–Madison to the forefront of the anti-Vietnam War movement. Many UW–Madison students at the time objected to Dow’s role in the war and to its campus recruiting efforts. The company manufactured napalm, a chemical weapon used by the U.S. military. Read more about the violent clash here.

About a dozen UW–Madison students assisted university archivists in the public history project. Huff and two fellow students, history majors Avery Pilot and Yiqi Yu, contributed the most, collecting stories, processing the interviews, and working to make the audio recordings accessible online, says Troy Reeves, who led the project as head of the Oral History Program at UW–Madison Archives, part of UW–Madison Libraries.

“From the start, I wanted students involved,” Reeves says. “With a project like this, they self-select, so they come to it interested in campus history and history in general. That energy and drive is really invaluable.”

Huff participated in the project first as a volunteer, then as a student worker with UW–Madison Archives. Pilot and Yu came to the project through for-credit internships, then stayed on as volunteers. All three students say they were personally moved by the memories they heard. Working on the project helped them hone career skills — and changed how they view protests.

“I’ve always been a little rebellious, so I definitely went into the project with less empathy for the police and for those opposed to the protests,” says Pilot, a sophomore history major from Maple Plain, Minnesota. “I was swayed to a more moderate view by the range of perspectives. There were people on both sides being extremely raucous.”

Listen to Beth Wortzel’s account of the protests.

Huff says she was struck by a woman who described the frequent disruptions on campus due to demonstrations and protests.

“I hadn’t thought that much about what it would have been like to be on campus at that time,” Huff says. “I think this woman supported the ideals of the protesters, but she didn’t think the protests should interfere with her ability to get an education.”

The various viewpoints “made me think about the protest in a more centrist way,” Huff says.

Yu, a history and Russian double-major from Shanghai, China, says the project gave him insight into the kinds of research he hopes to do as a historian and author. He interviewed a hospital nurse who treated injured protesters.

“She described the blood and the phone calls from panicked parents. She couldn’t imagine something like this was happening in the United States,” Yu says. “There was such emotion in her voice, even 50 years later. You can’t get that sense of urgency unless you do oral histories.”

Being exposed to such a spectrum of views will serve him well in his academic work, Yu says.

“The people we interviewed did not share a collective experience,” he says. “It was a reminder to me that there are so many sides to every story.”

Story courtesy of University Communications.

Tags: History, iSchool