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September 4, 2012

SUNY Oneonta looks past Black List

Cornell West to speak tonight

By Denise Richardson
The Daily Star

---- — ONEONTA — The criminal case was never solved, but the police probe of Sept. 4, 1992, sparked protests, lawsuits and sometimes intense discussions about stereotyping, racism and civil rights.

Twenty years ago today, state police at Oneonta began an investigation into a reported burglary on Upper East Street near the campus of the local public college. The suspect, a 77-year-old woman said, was a young black male.

The State University College at Oneonta gave troopers a list of black male students, and in the days following, police questioned about 300 black students and residents. No arrests were made.

The release of the list and its aftermath became known as the Black List, and the discussion continues formally today as SUNY Oneonta presents a day of observance, atonement and learning titled “Beyond the Black List.’’

The college has made steps toward recovering from the Black List, and that momentum must continue, according to a former mayor and a former student who lived through the trying days and years after the incident.

“Is it cured or healed?’’ David W. Brenner, Oneonta mayor from 1986 to 1997, asked last week. “No, not yet. But I think the community is better positioned to prevent such things from happening.’’

The Black List was a tragic event that hurt not only college students, staff and faculty as victims but also administrators who acted without malice in making difficult decisions, said Brenner, who retired in 1993 from SUNY Oneonta as associate vice president for academic affairs.

The college’s vice president for administration who authorized release of the list was demoted and suspended as a result of the Black List, and the director of SUNY Oneonta Public Safety, a department now called University Police, resigned.

Major Barnett, a student at SUNY Oneonta in 1992, described the Black List as a “growing pain,’’ and peoples’ reactions to it vary.

“People cling to things,’’ said Barnett, an adjunct lecturer in sociology at Broome Community College. “Others are trying to forget about it.’’

Barnett said he was the only student of color on his dormitory hallway and was away when police were on campus investigating and talking to students.

But he returned to find students had many questions about the police presence, he said, and he became an outspoken “brother of the Black List’’ who met many times with officials to discuss the incident and its aftermath.

“Now they’re coming to terms with it,’’ said Barnett, who trained as a social worker. “The Black List is a kind of neurosis.’’

Barnett, who was the first director of the college’s Multicultural Center opened in response to the Black List, said today’s commemorative activities are a continuation of the college’s effort to become a more diverse college community and retain minority students.

SUNY Oneonta enrolls 6,000 undergraduates, with a multicultural population of 12.7 percent, according to the college’s Fast Facts online. 

In 1992, the college had about 5,420 undergraduate students, including a minority population of 6.4 percent, a Daily Star article reported.

In December 1992, Alan Donovan, then-president of SUNY Oneonta, said as a result of the Black List, measures were taken to secure confidential information about students, and meetings were held with state police to protest how the investigation was conducted on campus, among other reviews of student and civil rights.

H. Karl Chandler, retired state police investigator in charge of the 1992 investigation, didn’t return a telephone message left Thursday.

Locally, the Oneonta Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was formed after the Black List.

The city of Oneonta through the Common Council has the Commission on Community Relations and Human Rights to encourage tolerance and goodwill toward all people.

Brenner said he was pleased with the collaboration and progress made by the city, SUNY Oneonta and also Hartwick College to address issues since the Black List. The efforts to raise awareness of stereotyping and related issues, to enhance diversity and to establish venues for grievances are important steps, he said.

The heightened sensitivity also opens doors for individuals to say “I think I’m not being treated right,’’ Brenner said, and to address concerns before they become crises.

At SUNY Oneonta today, “Beyond the List: A Teach-in: Remembrance and Reconciliation’’ will present an atonement ceremony, a documentary screening, discussions about race and other programs. Cornel West will give a keynote address in Alumni Field House at 7 p.m.

Barnett, who is slated to participate today on a panel about lawsuits stemming from the Black List, said through today’s programs, SUNY Oneonta is acknowledging the Black List and applying its lessons.

“I’m glad they’re embracing it,’’ Barnett said. “Keep moving on.’’