The Rest of the story: 1972 Geneva High School Student Walkout

March 10th, 2023

By Becky Chapin, Archivist

For an introduction to this article, please read the “Looking Back” article from the Finger Lakes Times (or email me for a copy). During my research about the student boycott, there was far more information that was cut from my original article because of space constraints and because I know that the topic is a sensitive one.

But I felt the rest of my research needed to be addressed because it is a part of Geneva’s history, no matter how uncomfortable a topic like racism can be. The 1972 walkout was not the first incidence of violence in the high school (though it is unclear to me how much on-campus violence there has been due to a lack of reporting). A couple incidents in the years previous followed school events outside of regular hours, including school dances.

On February 9, 1970, a fight involving 8 to 10 students at the school reportedly stemmed from an off-campus incident in which a black female student was attacked nearby two days previous. The newspapers do not identify the actual events surrounding the fight (like they do in 1972) but make only veiled references to the fight while reporting on the resulting meeting between parents, school officials, and the Geneva Human Rights Commission.

What is also important to address is that the Geneva City School Board did not have a single African American member. In fact, in May 1972 Charles Kenney became the first African American to be elected on to the school board, receiving the highest number of votes out of all nine candidates running. Charles addresses his decision to run an oral history with Kathryn Grover for Make a Way Somehow. He said black and white kids were all carrying guns and clubs, skipping school, and beating each other up, reasoning that he had so many votes because voters believed he could help improve student, board, and parent relations.

Racial tensions in the high school were obvious from months of follow up articles related to the 1972 boycott as rumors were spreading through Geneva. Reports of a mob of over a hundred white students meeting the bus from Chartres Homes (known to be a housing project with a majority people of color population) at the school were denied by school officials and police when questioned by parents. COMAC wrote about this mob in a letter to the newspaper on March 4th denouncing the school officials lying about the mob.

Though the rumors were officially denied, the report was confirmed in an April 20 interview with a student who participated in the mob. That (identifying) white student claimed a group of 150 students waited for the bus and told the black students “…if they breathed wrong, it would be their last. After that we didn’t have any more trouble from them.”

This April 20 publication was an interesting read. The Geneva Times conducted 2 separate interviews, one with three (identifying as) white high school students, and the other included 2 black high school students, 1 black college student, and a parent. There were glaring differences in the subjects discussed. While the black students and parent mainly discussed the overarching issues of what we now call institutional racism and how they feel the future will play out, the white students took this opportunity to express their own feelings of oppression.

One white student said “I think the problem is that the blacks have been kept down so long that when you give them freedom they want more than the whites. They think they are better than the whites.”

But it’s clear from research done for Make a Way Somehow and on a nationwide scale that the black community just wants equal opportunities. The black college student said her high school guidance counselor “discouraged her from trying a four-year college,” though she disregarded that advice and was accepted into Cornell University.

This was not the first example of a guidance counselor discouraging black students from specific educational or career goals. In Beth Henderson’s oral history conducted by Kathryn Grover, she explains how she wanted to go into modeling and had plenty of experience, but her counselor refused to help her, instead suggested she go into homemaking.

The School Board requested a state probe by the NYS Department of Education in April 1972 who responded by visiting within a couple weeks. The report came back in July with disappointing results for school administration who felt it was not conducted properly. The newspaper published the whole report  with its stark results. Quoted in the conclusion section, “A review of the discussions…seems to indicate concerns in the following areas:

  1. Unsatisfactory race relations between students
  2. Inadequacy of the curriculum to deal with the role of blacks in American history and culture
  3. Inequitable disciplinary treatment of black and white students
  4. The tracking system and its effect on equal educational opportunity for students, particularly blacks
  5. Student counseling programs
  6. Teacher awareness and preparation for dealing with problems of race relations in the classroom
  7. Administrative responsibility and performance in preventing and dealing with crisis situations
  8. The responsibility of the Board of Education toward its relationship with community groups
  9. Extra curricular activities
  10. The use of corporal punishment
  11. The community’s role in achieving better race relations.”

The truth of the matter is, the report gives good advice on how the school district should move forward with addressing the above concerns, though not as detailed as many would have liked.

Geneva High School students staging a protest.

November 2021 Geneva High School student walkout. Image from the Finger Lakes Times

Former GHS students have spoken with me about incidents while they were in school. In 1992, a student created a word search for the newsletter which was full of racist words prompting sit-ins and boycotts by the student population. In November 2021, GHS students walked out over claims of mistreatment related to race, gender, and sexual orientation.

We also can’t overlook the Geneva Times having been a primarily white person-led newspaper. The lack of reporting on the earlier events impacts how those of us in the future are researching these issues. In many cases, we rely on first-hand experience from the Black and African American community because their perspectives are not often the leading news story.

This subject was a very eye-opening journey for me as a historian and native Genevan. I walked the same halls as these students did 30 years ago and had no idea about those who came before me. Though I’m positive that my position as a white student meant I did not experience school the same as my peers, it’s very clear given these recent events that many improvements still need to be made as our understanding of race, gender, and sexual orientation continues to grow.

I did not list all 11 of COMAC’s requests to the School Board in my first article.

They were:

  1. School board issues a statement deploring the sordid situation, making known what action they will be taking to correct it
  2. Rescind suspension of all black students involved in the fight
  3. Drop all charges against black students
  4. Establishment of a fact finding committee with reps from COMAC, school board, and Geneva Teacher’s Association for the purpose of developing a better program to eliminate racism
  5. Establish holiday to commemorate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday
  6. Hire a black guidance counselor
  7. Hire blacks in the administration department
  8. Hire black teachers
  9. Hire a black teachers aid
  10. All racial grievances be handled by the above newly formed committee; and
  11. The Afro-American Society (aka Minority Student Union) be recognized as a legitimate school club

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