Penn State History Lessons: Walkertown
In 1968, Penn State was a very different place. Just more than 26,000 students were enrolled at University Park, College Avenue was a two-way street, and scheduling classes was more like a fight to the death in Rec Hall rather than an academic procedure. Plus, the HUB was barely recognizable, the first dancers hadn’t stood in the inaugural THON, and the Phyrst was just two years old.
But just because Penn State was different 48 years ago does not mean that it was a perfect place. In 1968, less than a thousand black students called themselves Penn Staters. Those few black students didn’t have access to any African American history courses or curriculums. The Vietnam War entered its thirteenth year in 1968, and the students were just beginning to show their disapproval of the long war overseas. 48 years ago, women students weren’t allowed to live off-campus. And though men were allowed to live in downtown State College, women were not allowed to go visit men in their homes. This requirement, along with a number of other complications, led to a major housing crisis at Penn State. This crisis led several students to become homeless in 1968.
One thing, however, hasn’t changed at Penn State since 1968. In the face of all this discrimination and unrest, Penn State’s students stood up for what they believed in. They made it clear to the university and its administration that their voices would be heard through their actions, protests, and demonstrations. That spirit, which we see today when Penn Staters fight for equality and stand up for their peers, manifested in 1968 with the two-week long demonstration entitled Walkertown.
Old Main, circa 1965
Like I said before, Penn State’s growing pains caused a housing crisis, which forced around 800 students to live in temporary dorms (aka study lounges and recreation rooms) and about 400 students to find off-campus apartments. Some of the students left on their own to find housing were not able to do so, and consequently became homeless. Those homeless students, along with their sympathizers and supporters, decided to let the university and President Eric Walker know about their living situation.
So, in September of 1968, a handful of students pitched tents on Old Main lawn. They spent the night there, hoping to catch President Walker’s eye. According to one of the participants, they weren’t trying to start a protest against the administration. “We’re not protesting anything, we’re totally nonviolent” this unnamed ‘citizen’ said in a September 18, 1968 Daily Collegian article. “But we need a place to sleep.”
That group of students called themselves the “Citizens of Walkertown,” due to the close proximity of their tent village to President Walker’s office. These tent-residing students printed thousands of leaflets explaining their demands from the administration, according to that same Collegian article. They asked for temporary housing while the seventy-odd homeless students searched for off-campus apartments, among other demands.
But Walkertown wasn’t just an angry, demanding gang of students camped out on Old Main lawn. Walkertown became a sort of festival during its two weeks. Rock bands played every night, and students drank and smoked weed openly in front of Old Main. According to Penn State historian Michael Bezilla, “A carnival atmosphere prevailed.”
However, not everyone on Penn State’s campus adopted such a festive attitude towards Walkertown. According to a September 24, 1968 edition of the Collegian, grad student Paul Kupferman was beaten while sleeping in the “tent city” on Saturday, September 21. A tear gas capsule was thrown at three students on that Saturday as well, while they were speaking at the demonstration’s microphone. So on Sunday, September 24, 1968, the citizens of Walkertown took down their tents and packed up their sound systems.
Though they moved off Old Main law, the citizens of Walkertown weren’t quite satisfied with the administration. Because while President Walker and his colleagues were making strides towards solving the student homelessness problem, the citizens of Walkertown realized there were more problems at the university than met the eye.
Those problems were things like the exorbitant price of student textbooks and the strict rules of residence halls, among other things. In other words, the students starting looking critically at their university when they were sitting in those tents. “There’s no real need for the tents now,” Norman Schwartz told The Daily Collegian on September 24, 1968. “Now Walkertown’s dramatizing more than just a need for housing.”
The students of Walkertown joined forces with the Students for a Democratic Society, or SDS; Some of the citizens of Walkertown were also members of SDS, so the partnership was fitting. Together, these two groups created a Free Speech Platform at Penn State, so any student could voice their opinions and concerns. And for the inaugural free speech event, these students chose to invite President Walker.
Now, Walker had remained relatively quiet during the whole Walkertown demonstration. But now, these students were appealing to him directly. They asked him to speak, not resign (though at one point, that was one of the demands of Walkertown). So on September 28, 1968, President Walker met with four representatives from the Free Speech Movement. According to one of the students present at that meeting, Walker’s administration supported the free speech of students. However, President Walker expressed that he would decline the Free Speech Movement’s invitation to speak at their platform that Sunday. “Walker said he felt that there were adequate existing channels to allow him to keep in contact with the student body, especially through USG,” a student present at the meeting told the Collegian on September 27, 2968.
So despite the fact that its namesake was missing from the event, Walkertown stood once again on September 29, 1968. This time, there weren’t any tents or students sleeping on Old Main lawn. Instead, it was an open-air forum. Students and community members alike were free to express their feelings and ask questions about everything from off-campus living to the Vietnam War. Each stood on a student-constructed wooden platform near Walker’s office, hoping that though Walker was not at the event, their concerns would somehow be heard.
Walkertown started out of necessity. It’s original students pitched their tents out of necessity, because the university gave them no where to go. Soon, other students pitched their own tents out of solidarity. Then, the tents became somewhat unnecessary, because the citizens of Walkertown understood that their demonstration was about more than student housing, expensive textbooks, or strict resident rules. It was about being heard.
Those students who stood on Old Main lawn in 1968 realized they had stayed silent for too long about too much. Maybe they once thought that their voices wouldn’t make a difference, or perhaps they thought their ideals were misguided. But that wasn’t the case at Walkertown. With their tents and rock music and real, valid concerns, the students of Penn State made the administration listen, if only for a brief meeting.
Nowadays, we don’t pitch tents on Old Main lawn to have our voices heard. Instead, we lie in the middle of the HUB. We march down Pollock road in high heels. We light candles, and let them silently flicker as we remember those who are no longer with us. And in each of those moments, the spirit of Walkertown lives.