'Shame on them'

Former Abbey Black Student Group president opens up about Science Building Takeover, thankful for time in Belmont

After 52 years, it’s strange to Jerome “Jerry” Croan that his alma mater has not done anything to remedy an injustice in Belmont Abbey College’s history.

“It’s like nothing was said (about the April 29, 1969, Science Building takeover),” Croan said. “Shame on them. The church of today, the leaders of today would say ‘Say you’re sorry at the minimum.’” 

Five decades have passed, enough time that both sides could meet and reconcile a learning experience that resulted in indefinite student suspensions, dropped charges and a frayed Abbey community.

“Look at all the different groups that have been offended,” he said. “And as we age, I’m 70 and those guys are in their late 70s.”

The Roanoke, Va., native and Abbey soccer player missed that school moment as he attended his grandmother’s funeral. 

“When I came back, I didn’t see anyone,” Croan said. “It was night time when my dad dropped me off. I went back to my room. So I didn’t have any contact with anyone. I found out on my way to breakfast the next morning. It was really an interesting moment. That was my freshman year.”

As a student government member, Croan said he was able to witness the initial interaction between the administration and the student protestors.

“I was there in meetings with one of the men,” Croan said. “And when the demands were posted and rejected, I felt that pain. I felt that disrespect or whatever you want to call it. No question about it.” 

Croan laments that the final outcome didn’t reach the student body at the end of the semester as students focused on finishing exams and moving out of the dorms.

After the intense situation on campus, some students were more than ready to leave.

“People were scrambling to get out of there,” Croan said. “There were threats that would come from outside the community, and I had that fear. As soon as you could leave you did, and I never knew what happened.”

ABBEY BEGINNINGS

Croan went to a Catholic high school and knew of the Abbey’s academic reputation. But he was mainly interested in coming to play soccer while earning his degree. 

He was drawn to the school’s burgeoning Greek Life atmosphere and even joined the Tau Kappa Epsilon fraternity. He was also drawn to student government. Croan started the African-American Union in 1970. With three other members, the Spire yearbook has the foursome posed in front of the iconic baptismal font in the Abbey Basilica’s narthex that year. 

“That picture says it all, and when I saw it again this year, it’s a reminder (of what happened in 1969),” Croan said.

He said he and the AAU members worked to create an appreciation of black culture at the Abbey.

But the group was short-lived. Two were brothers and Croan recalls one of the two transferring to Duke University. Croan said he still remained committed to the AAU’s efforts.

“We created an AAU and never knew what happened with it,” Croan said. “I never knew if anyone did anything beyond a yearbook picture. We did some recruiting. We tried to go into the community. At least I did. We tried to go into the local community and tell them that Belmont Abbey was a good education. I don’t know if that did anything other than to help me feel as if I was trying to take a stand against the tyranny (in the world) that was happening.

“My goal was to be visible, and I think I achieved that," he said.

LIFE AFTER THE ABBEY

Soon after his May 1972 graduation, Croan’s draft card (No.8) was issued. Boot camp sent him to Illinois. Then he served in the Bethesda (Md.) Naval Hospital as a hospital corpsman/medic and worked with the Veterans Administration. He completed nine years of service and during that time, earned his Masters in Social Work at Howard University in 1976. After an internship, he dove into clinical social work.

Croan has spent his professional career in counseling in clinics and hospitals. He started his private practice in 2000 while living in Florida. He moved with family to Durham recently. He practiced at home during the pandemic and helped take care of his grandchildren. He had bypass surgery in October but is on the mend. He credits the Abbey for teaching him how to preserve through his career.

“I kinda stuck with it thanks to Belmont Abbey College,” Croan said. “I’d love an opportunity to say something (to students), whereas the right opportunity, the right format. I have no axe to grind.”  

Croan has attended Abbey reunions through the years and values his college experience. But for Croan and many alumni, the need for resolution still exists when it comes to the 1969 event. 

“(They should be able to say) ‘That was then, this is now,’” he said. “‘We’re sorry and let’s move on.’”

— Matthew Memrick

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