Stories of Simpkins: The Occupation of 1970

By: Peter Hostert

Being one of the oldest buildings on campus, Simpkins Hall is steeped in lore and history. From tales of ghosts roaming the halls to documented cases of inspiring political protests, countless fascinating stories are nestled within this stately building’s architecture. One of these stories is the anti-war protests and occupation of Simpkins itself during the infant years of the 1970’s. The Vietnam War lasted from arguably the late 1950’s to the mid 1970’s and during that time the American public slowly began to find it’s voice in dissent at what the United States government was doing overseas. Nationwide, protests on campus’s were organized and carried out in the name of peace.

Exploding in number across the United States after the horrific event at Kent State on May 4th 1970, Simpkins Hall was directly involved in such events. On this tragic day four students were massacred at Kent State by the national guard while protesting. Western Illinois University was one of the campus’s that rose up to protest such a horrific event. A week after the massacre, 1,000 Western Illinois students marched from dorm to dorm chanting anti-war slogans. Simpkins Hall at the time was the building on campus where ROTC operated out of and the march ended outside there, now our beloved building for the English department. An occupation of the building would occur for the duration of five days after this initial march. Throughout these five days negations began, ROTC equipment was taken out of Simpkins and students remained occupied within the building. One of the two student newspapers, The Western Catalyst, would document the event. The photos shown here were pulled from the archives of Mallpass Library.

As is common today with protests, a counter march ensued. The photo above shows those who participated in the counter march walking down a street in Macomb. During this time the national guard stationed at the armory on the south side of Macomb (which still stands and is operational to this day) was put on high alert. Eventually the occupation was disbanded and referendums of Westerns ROTC were promised.

Regardless of political opinion I believe shining a light on this event is important to the legacy of Simpkins Hall. As the building of the English Department here at Western Illinois University I find it important to remind those of the history that occurred upon our campus and within our wonderful building. To know that our building and our alumni were involved in a historical movement taught in classrooms all throughout the country is exciting and humbling for an English student like me that roams the halls of Simpkins each day. Knowing the events that transpired in Simpkins over a whopping fifty years ago makes me prouder than I already am of this historic and storied building and I wish to share that with students and alumni alike through this publication. The words photographed above that were written upon a blackboard in a classroom we all have probably attended class reminds me that there has always been struggles in this country and that us, the students, have a say in what goes on here. I hope that by ending on this uplifting note all students and alumni of the English department continue their efforts in writing. Getting our thoughts and opinions out there may seem trivial in the moment but just like these students our actions and thoughts have a real impact upon the world and hopefully someday someone just like us will be writing about the words we all put out there in the world.