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Ackerman Union’s hidden mural

A UCLA student is arrested on campus during one of several protests that inspired the mural in Ackerman Union.

By Will Weiss and Ravi Doshi

May 11, 2010 10:17 p.m.

This file photograph, published June 11, 1970, shows the 40-year-old 10-by-27-foot mural that has presumably been preserved behind a wall in Ackerman Union near Panda Express. Five of the artists can be seen sitting near the mural.
courtesy of OSCAR SIMS
Former librarian Oscar Sims and Sims’ cousin stand in front of the mural painted by seven UCLA art students in 1970. The mural is called “The Black Experience.”

On June 11, 1970, a small daily newspaper in Santa Monica ran a short story about a mural that had recently been completed in UCLA’s Ackerman Union.

Forty years later, the mural may be one of the only remnants of the tumult of the 1960s and 1970s. Though hidden from view, administrators believe the mural still stands behind a false wall in the student union, a lasting impression from the days of student protest.

With little pomp and circumstance, UCLA’s seven black art students had come together following weeks of campus protests, and had collaborated on the design and execution of a mural titled “The Black Experience.”

Until now, the article in the Santa Monica Evening Outlook constituted the only major recognition of the mural in a print publication.


On Tuesday, May 5, 1970, the UCLA campus community awoke to news that four students had been killed the previous day at Kent State University in Ohio, after being fired upon by members of the Ohio National Guard.

Almost immediately, protesters were spurred to action, and like other college campuses across the United States, UCLA found itself playing host to an incensed student body whose frustration over the Vietnam War and the invasion of Cambodia had reached its boiling point.

What had begun just days prior as small, contained protests of U.S. foreign policy quickly escalated into an insurrection involving thousands.

Attempts were made to take over buildings, windows were shattered, graffiti was painted on walls and the otherwise peaceful campus was quickly transformed.

By 2 p.m. that day, campus administrators had declared a “State of Emergency” on the campus, and the Los Angeles Police Department had been called in to help contain the students’ unrest.

With the police on campus, tensions escalated further. Students threw rocks and benches at the nearly 200 armed police, who had declared the protests to be an illegal assembly.

At times, force was used against the unruly crowd, and students felt the impact of the officers’ batons.

One of those beaten that day was an undergraduate art student named Neville Garrick.

“We had a big demonstration which was centered at Janss Steps and they called in the LAPD and the highway patrol and they declared us an illegal assembly … we didn’t disperse and we got our ass kicked,” Garrick said.

Though he was not arrested that day, 74 others were, and at least a dozen were treated for injuries.

By the next day, the students had calmed, but an order was still issued by then-Gov. Ronald Reagan to shut down all California colleges and universities for four days.

That day, May 6, no arrests were made by LAPD, and though the protests had not been fully quelled, the destruction of campus had largely stopped. But the damage had already been done.

From Murphy Hall to Campbell Hall to the Men’s Gym, the protests of the previous day had taken their physical toll, with broken windows and ransacked offices leaving a noticeable mark on the campus.

Even in Ackerman, the students’ union, which had acted and would continue to act as a safe house for student protesters and strike organizers throughout the strikes, a fire had been set in a third-floor lounge, and graffiti had been painted on many of the walls.

In total, the damage to Ackerman Union came to between $30,000 and $50,000, and though the cleanup of the campus was largely left to the administration, some students took upon themselves the task of helping to restore their student union.


Inspired and incensed by the catharsis of the time, and wanting to construct something positive to replace the graffiti and broken glass, UCLA’s black art students began planning a mural that would address their source of social and political frustration and would converse with black history in the U.S.

Combining the talents of both graduates and undergraduates, Garrick and graduate art student Michael Taylor organized a meeting to assess the interest in painting the mural among all of the department’s black students. Graduate students Jane Staulz and Marion Brown, along with undergraduates Andrea Hill, Joanna Stewart and Helen Singleton were all in attendance and willing to participate.

“We got together, seven black students, and said, “˜Let’s write a proposal to put something meaningful on the wall rather than just a blank wall that just says nothing.’ And so we did,” Singleton said. “It was grassroots, which is where most things begin. If change is to happen, it usually starts at the bottom and you have to talk to the people who have the authority to make the change.”

The group took its proposal to the management of Associated Students UCLA, and through them, secured permission and funding to paint the mural on one of the graffiti-stained walls of Ackerman Union.

Permission granted, the seven artists had only one discussion left ““ what method to use in creating their work of art.

They began by capturing and enlarging a black-and-white image of themselves. The artists then adjusted the color contrast in the photograph so that all shades of gray were either brightened to white or darkened to black.

To infuse the historical element, they then superimposed into the black spaces powerful images of important figures and times in African American history, from slavery and the slave trade, Angela Davis and Huey Newton, among others.

With the historic images in sepia tones, an effect was created such that the otherwise black-and-white figures of the artists appeared to be colored by the historic photographs.

“We wanted to do a pictorial history of Africans to present, and we, being the present generation, the large images were of those of us who did it. We felt that we were the sum total of the black experience, and so it was all happening in our image,” Garrick said.

For the seven, the work was a labor of love, requiring weeks of planning and hard work. Singleton explained that the process for superimposing the images was much more complicated in 1970, when the digital tools used for the process today were of no avail.

“We had to take these images and expose them to the sun,” she said, adding that the team worked day and night on the project in order to fit in all the extra work. “I remember us standing out on the balcony at the Dickson Art Center for days at a time just to get the right sun.”

But within just about three weeks of first requesting permission to create the mural, working around their busy class and personal commitments, the artists had created a lasting work to commemorate black history at UCLA.


In the years after it was painted, the mural ingrained itself as part of the aesthetic and the landscape of the student union. Whereas other murals painted in Ackerman after the student strikes had been covered within years of their creation, “The Black Experience” stood firm as a reminder of the time in which it was conceived.

For some, it was a memorable part of campus, but for others, including some who were present on campus when it was painted, it was, at best, a vague memory.

“After the things died down, (the mural) just became part of the landscape, if you will ““ of how the place looked. People neither really complained about it or commented on it one way or another. It was just there,” said Jason Reed, executive director of ASUCLA from 1981 to 1995.

It remained through multiple renovations of Ackerman Union, but in 1992, ASUCLA began discussions about bringing a new, quick-serve Chinese restaurant to the building; the mural’s fate became uncertain.

As Reed described, about 20 years after its creation, the mural had stopped matching the decor and ambiance of the Ackerman first-floor cafeteria, then known as the Treehouse. To attract potential bidders to bring their business to Ackerman, a decision had to be made regarding the mural, and it was one that did attract some controversy.

“Among the black grad students and the grad student leadership, whether black or not, (the mural) was a point of pride and reverence, and here it was going to be taken away or at least not visible anymore. And so that was the point of concern,” Reed said.

According to ASUCLA board of directors meeting minutes, at a meeting on March 31, 1992, then-USAC President Danette Martin expressed concern about covering the mural without any student notification or input.

In the weeks following, a compromise was reached. Because the mural had been painted directly onto the existing wall, administrators realized it could not be removed. They decided that the mural would be preserved, but a false wall would be erected in front of it, to hide it from view.

“The controversy was about whether to make any change at all, and the preserving it, which I would have to say, at the time, was a euphemism for covering it up, was controversial,” Reed said. “But obviously there was consensus or agreement by the board of directors to go ahead and preserve it while covering it up. That is a better way to put it; saying “˜preserving it’ kind of misses the point.”

But covering the mural proved to be more problematic than the board of directors had envisioned.

Bob Williams, current executive director of ASUCLA, was serving as food services director in 1992.

On the day that the mural was covered, Williams stopped by to check progress on the renovation and noticed too late that workers had drilled studs into the artwork to support the falsetto wall that was intended to preserve it. Though slightly damaged, both from the studs and from the expected wear and tear of 20 years, Williams believes the mural may still be in its original location.

“Unless something happened in future remodelings, my thinking is that the mural is still back there, although somewhat damaged,” he said.

Thinking back on the mural 40 years later, Singleton recalls with a smile the artists’ own attempt to preserve their work. In one corner of the mural, Singleton remembers that the artists left their names and a small “c,” denoting a copyright on the mural. Though they never actually filed for the copyright, Singleton said she wanted the gesture to signify that the artists wanted the mural to last.

Mistakes in installation aside, if more recent renovation has not touched the false wall, the mural is still in Ackerman Union, depicting the black experience.

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