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75 Years of Social Justice: The History of Roosevelt University

American Dream Reconsidered Conference

Professor emerita Lynn Weiner unearthed a treasure trove of photos in a presentation that explored Roosevelt University’s social justice mission, past and present. The event commemorated the 75th anniversary of the University.

Weiner shared photos from the early days of Roosevelt University when its founders walked out of the YMCA College to challenge discriminatory policies. Even at the Y College, which was founded to welcome all students, Black students were not allowed to use the pool or attend school dances held in segregated hotels. The board had tried to oversee what faculty could teach, ruling out “controversial” topics like the labor movement, religion or race.

“Today we face a trifecta of a global pandemic, economic crisis and systemic racism, but we can learn from the people who founded Roosevelt College,” said Weiner. “From their optimism, their activism and their belief in the power of democracy.”

During the slideshow, Weiner shared the stories of the many speakers who had visited the University’s campus: Martin Luther King Jr., Hillary Clinton, Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She also recognized the early faculty, as diverse as the students they taught, including pioneering modern dancer Sybil Shearer and linguist Lorenzo Turner. She compared photos of the Auditorium Building today to its previous life as a hotel.

Weiner highlighted the many alumni who had gone on to fight for social justice after graduation, from civil rights leaders like Timuel Black and James Forman to Chicago mayor Harold Washington. The first Asian principal in Chicago, Sam Ozaki, came to Roosevelt after being held in an internment camp and fighting in World War II.

She also celebrated more recent alumni like Jennifer Berry Hawes (BA Journalism, ’93). Hawes is a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist and author of the book Grace Will Lead Us Home: The Charleston Church Massacre and the Hard, Inspiring Journey to Forgiveness.

“Roosevelt was a pioneer in so many ways related to social justice, community engagement and the creation of leadership,” said the historian. “We are 75 years old, young in terms of most national universities, and yet we have had an outsize impact on the world.”

Weiner shared accounts of how students continued “activism of all kinds” since the University’s founding. In the 1950s, the students held a “Discrimination Day” on campus to show what discrimination would look like for hair color, weight or freckles instead of race.

In the 1960s, students protested the Vietnam War and held a sit-in for a black studies department. And in the late 1980s, the AIDS Memorial Quilt was displayed in the second-floor lounge. Today students continue to advocate for the causes they care about and improve their communities.

Read more about Roosevelt’s founding and social justice history.

“If the American dream is about anything, it is about opportunity and education unfettered by bigotry and hate,” Weiner said. “And Roosevelt has embodied that from the beginning.”

The American Dream Reconsidered is a free conference that invites scholars, activists and leaders to explore the modern American dream. Sessions delve into immigration, health care, politics and more in America today. With optimism and hope, our panelists share visions for the future of our democracy.

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