Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Some Personal University of Missouri History

In the summer of 1967 I was returning to the second summer of Peace Corps training in DeKalb, Illinois.  Friends had moved from LA to Minneapolis and asked if I could drive their second car; so I got a chance to drive across the US before heading for Thailand for several years.

On the way I stopped to visit my roommate from the previous summer's training  He was, in the language back then, a Negro.  While I went to a demographer's dream of a high school and had many interactions with black students there, this was the first time I got to have a close friend who was black.  (He's still my close friend all these years later.)  But he didn't make it through that first summer of training.  At the end, he was told to pack up and leave, as were others.  In hindsight, it was obviously racism.  He was the only black in our group.  It wasn't til much later that I learned it was his first time in an all white setting.  Thais have a thing about light skin, so it may have been the influence of the language teachers that got him kicked out.

Why do I say it was racism?  Because he did get into a Philippine group later where he served his two [three] years well.  And because there were so few volunteers of color and because he has an infectious smile, he ended up on a Peace Corps recruiting poster that was used for years and years.

[UPDATE July 9, 2016: rereading this I realize this is not a good explanation of why I feel he was deselected (the term they used) because of racism.  He and I were a team in training (and still are when we get together now) and there's no reason that our foolishness should have gotten him deselected and left me in the program.  I'd been labeled 'high risk-high gain' by our shrink, Dr. Feldman.  My sins?  In hindsight, I realize it was the first time I'd been discriminated for being from California.  What Feldman said was, "You wear cutoff shorts, a silly hat, and go barefoot everywhere."  Well, that was my native dress and we trained in DeKalb, Illinois where it never got below 90˚ F, and we didn't have air conditioning.  My dress was entirely appropriate to the weather.  (My hat was just a normal little hat the gave me some shade, not particularly silly.) I could ditch the hat and wear long pants and shoes - which I did for the rest of the summer - but my friend couldn't change his skin color.  I think my pointing out that he served well in the Philippines was to show that he eventually did become a successful volunteer, good enough to be used in recruiting posters.]

He lived in St. Louis and he was a student at the University of Missouri, which was still in session as I drove to Minneapolis.  I stopped in Columbia to visit him.  What I remember from that day was that he saw things I never saw before.  As we walked around campus he showed me escape routes, little paths he could use to disappear, if say, a threatening looking group of white students was approaching him, or if a campus police car was nearby, or any number of things that would make a black student at the University of Missouri nervous.  This was only ten years after the Little Rock Nine, four years after the University of Mississippi took black students, and three years after Governor Wallace blocked the entrance of the University of Alabama in an attempt to keep black students from enrolling.  The University of Missouri, through a court order, had integrated 'way back' in 1950.
But only for students in the nearby black college who wanted majors not available at their school.

I had lunch that day with my friend at a campus restaurant with his friends (all black.)  I was very conscious of all the people staring at me from other tables.  And later I learned that my friend was chewed out by his friends for having me eat with them.

I got the message that day, that Missouri was a southern state.

So it's with a mix of sadness and awe that I watch the news now of the University of Missouri's black football players standing up to the crap that's apparently still going on after all these years.  Football players threatening to boycott the game means people risking their scholarships and their education for their principles.

It says something about American universities that the threat of a cancelled football game can get a president and a provost to resign in a couple of days.  These aren't issues that are confined to Missouri or even the south.  These are issues on every campus.  And what will it take to get campuses safe and comfortable for women?

Lewis, do you have anything to add?  I was only there a day or so, you spent four [two] years in the mid 1960s at the University of Missouri.  You must have lots of stories to tell and lots of thoughts as you watch your alma mater today.  [UPDATE July 9, 2016:  Lewis emailed me after this was posted to say that he didn't comment here because it was still - over 40 years later - too painful to dredge up other memories of those days.]

No comments:

Post a Comment

Comments will be reviewed, not for content (except ads), but for style. Comments with personal insults, rambling tirades, and significant repetition will be deleted. Ads disguised as comments, unless closely related to the post and of value to readers (my call) will be deleted. Click here to learn to put links in your comment.