‘Speak, Brother’: Colgate’s Literary Time Capsule to the Sixties

Speak, Brother: Colgate’s Literary Time Capsule to the Sixties

In May of 1969, the Association of Black Collegians circulated a compilation of their poetry and essays entitled “Speak, Brother” around the Colgate campus. In the University Library of Archives, “Speak, Brother” is uploaded from cover to conclusion, with a length of 25 pages. Within, writers from across disciplines contributed their view towards activism on campus and discussed the broader implications of the Black experience in America.

The introduction is penned by Dr. Gregory Threatte, a member of the class of 1969. As a graduate of the late sixties, Threatte has reflected on the tensions lasting decades after the sit-in demonstration of 1968. In this demonstration, nearly 400 students and staff gathered to protest the recognition of Sigma Nu and Phi Delta Theta as fraternity houses at Colgate after acts of racial violence and discriminatory recruitment procedures. Threatte’s introduction makes direct reference to this event.

“You may find me bitter, you may find me sweet; it all depends what side of the fence you’re on.”

Threatte offered that the divisions caused by the sit-ins were polarizing, and lasting.

“The sit-in demonstration that was held in 1968 actually split the school in two. Half of the students were involved in the sit-in, and half weren’t. We sort of judged each other based on whether we were ‘in’ or ‘out’ for, probably, 25 years.”

The 1968 sit-in occurred days after the assassination of Martin Luther King; it was representative of national divides that found themselves inextricably linked to the social atmosphere of American college campuses. Threatte remarked that many saw this moment as a merging of the Vietnam anti-war movement and the civil rights movement. When Threatte began his collegiate studies, he was one of very few Black students at Colgate.

“When I was a freshman at Colgate, in 1965, there were a grand total of 14 Black students on the entire campus,” said Threatte. “Seven of them were in my class.”

One of his classmates, Bill Robinson, was one of the main drivers of the “Speak, Brother” project. Six years later, Threatte and Robinson went on to become roommates in Berkeley, California. Threatte, who studied physics at Colgate, was hesitant to provide a literary contribution to the magazine; he had dabbled less in the humanities than he had in his scientific studies. But his critical, analytical perspective would preface the penmanship of his colleagues — poets and speakers alike. To the Association of Black Collegians, he served as one of four co-chairs.

Preserved also within the pamphlet is a poem penned by Naceo Giles, a victim of the violence that spurred the 1968 sit-in. When he passed through fraternity row, days after Martin Luther King’s death, a white fraternity brother at Sigma Nu allegedly fired three shots at Giles and his companion, Robert Boney. Giles’ sentiments in “Speak, Brother,” titled “We,” celebrate Black unity in the face of malice, in a structure that resembles a funneling of ideas down the page.

“Black, togetherness, bad, down, free … Brother, Sister, You + Me.,” writes Giles.

The idea of “Brother and Sister” was preserved in the ALANA Cultural Center. While the first cultural center was under construction, Colgate became co-ed, and the usual “Gentlemen” and “Ladies” placards were replaced with labels that read “Brothers” and “Sisters.” It was something unseen at campuses across the nation at the time.

Another writer featured in “Speak, Brother,” Ernest Pile, offered remarks about his journey from the city of Harlem to the village of Hamilton. Pile’s poem, titled “I,” provides a personal narrative that reclaims the wholeness and being of Black men.

“I am my people who shout words of ‘injustice!’ ‘never again!’, and ‘liberty!’ and dare to be silenced.”

Pile provided the emotional and physical transformation he had after viewing organizations of Black activism on television as exigence for his poem.

“I remember the students that I saw on television from the Student National Coordinating Committee, and the Freedom Riders in the South, and what they went through,” said Pile. “I felt as if I were going through it. I had to stand my ground and figure out who I was.”

Pile said that Black companionship was crucial to his collegiate experience. Eating and walking together were not the only instances where the Association of Black Collegians developed a familial sense of care. After Giles and Boney were violently victimized on Fraternity Row, the Association of Black Collegians gathered to respond to the emergency. Pile recalls this event, 50 years later, as one of the most terrifying experiences of his lifetime.

“The night that Martin Luther King was shot, I heard about it because there was a banging on my door. … It was one of the members of ABC, and a white basketball player. … They said ‘Come on with us! They’re shooting at us!’ …  So I grabbed my coat, we got in his car, and what I found out was that somebody shot at them, at Naceo Giles.”

That night, Pile huddled with the members of ABC at a private location to plan their next steps of action. He described how the fear in the room rendered all but the upperclassmen speechless. They slept in the room and planned the sit-in with the members of the student body.

In his remarks, Pile made a point of identifying the Greek Life associations that engaged in either discriminatory practices or acts of violence during his Colgate experience: Delta Epsilon, Delta Kappa Epsilon and Alpha Tau Omega.

It cost one dollar to purchase the pamphlet in 1969. Today, its legacy is priceless. Sarah Keen, head of special collections and Colgate University archives, contends that the 1968 sit-in, the first of several throughout Colgate’s history, fills the archives with historic material including “Speak, Brother” and related resources. She remarked as to their unique primary perspective.

“It was a pretty significant event on campus, so we have quite a few photographs, and a lot of news articles in the student newspaper,” said Keen. “We also have an audio recording of WRCU’s broadcast, of the speeches outside of the administrative building. It’s really powerful to hear those words first hand.”

The full text of the “Speak Brother” pamphlet can be accessed in the Colgate University Archives, both online and in-person by appointment. Though the poems and essays within are surely on paper, it seems as if they’re still breathing; over 50 years later, the members of the Association of the Black Collegians in the late sixties are making us feel something, whether it takes but a sentence or fills a page.