To Savannah Jelks, you couldn’t discuss the Vietnam War without also bringing up the anti-war protests that accompanied it. What surprised her, however, was that Union College was very much a part of the conversation.
“When somebody mentioned Vietnam, the No. 1 thing you thought about was all the protesting that took place on college campuses throughout the country back then,” said Jelks, a native of Alexandria, Virginia and a senior at Union College. “You thought about Kent State, UC-Berkeley and UT-Austin and other schools. But I didn’t think about Union.”
In the fall of 2019, Jelks, a history major, found out about Union’s role in the anti-war movement of 50 years ago. She was so intrigued by the topic that she made it a senior project and the exhibit she put together to document the movement is on display on campus at the Schaffer Library.
“You wouldn’t have thought that a small, liberal arts college in upstate New York would be a part of the story, but Union did have some very significant protests,” she said. “I came across an old article in the Union College magazine with all these wonderful photos, with protesters in downtown Schenectady and down in front of the General Electric. I thought, ‘wow, this is really cool.'”
The exhibit Jelks put together is titled “Hell No, We Won’t Go! The Power of Campus Protests (1965-1975).” While it provides a look at the entire anti-war movement of the 1960s and early ’70s, it focuses on the May 1, 1970 demonstration that began on campus and moved into downtown Schenectady.
“As a history major, typically you would write a paper, but my concentration is in public history, and what I want to do is work in a museum,” she said. “I asked if I could curate an exhibit instead of writing a paper and they said OK, but make sure I get all the details right.
“Then I had to find a topic that you could feasibly design a whole exhibit around,” continued Jelks. “That’s when I started partnering with the Schaffer Library and came across this incredible collection of photos they had about the anti-war protests, many of them taken by Dr. Lester Kritzer from the class of ’73.”
Jelks contacted a handful of Union College alumni as she was putting together the exhibit, and was surprised to hear some of their feedback.
“Nowadays people are very passionate about women’s rights, or prison and incarceration rights, and it’s common for someone to call themselves an activist,” she said. “It was a different time back then. They were happy to protest because it was something to do and they felt strongly about it, but people back then were hesitant to call themselves political activists.”
Jelks’ interest in history began in the fourth grade.
“I got interested in British history, particularly the War of the Roses and the reign of Henry VIII,” she said. “Now, my interests vary more. I do really like the antebellum period and Civil War, and obviously I’m a lot more interested in the movements of the ’60s and ’70s now after this project.”
While Schaffer Library and most of the college campus is closed due to COVID-19 concerns, you can see Jelks’ exhibit by visiting www.schafferlibrarycollections.org.