Archives show University’s path to diversity

This image of students marching after Martin Luther King Jr.”s assassination ran on the front page of the Emerald on April 8, 1968.
Danielle Hickey Photo Editor

Even though it’s located in a small city in the Northwest, the University has played its own distinct role throughout the years in the struggle for racial equality.

As the movement grew, the University continued to develop into a more understanding and accepting institution. Since Mabel Byrd, the first black student, attended the University from around 1917 to 1919, the University has also increased its diversity.

University Archivist Heather Briston said Byrd is generally considered to be the first black student to attend the University, although that type of information can be hard to confirm.

“In this case it was a letter that one of my predecessors found in the presidential records,” she said. The University had more than 300 black students in Fall 2003, according to the Office of the Registrar.

Briston said that the University’s first black faculty member is generally thought to be Charles William Thomas II, an assistant professor of rehabilitation counseling from 1963 to 1966.

Significant moments in black history at the University are also chronicled in the Emerald archives. According to the archives, the Black Student Union was formed around 1967. The purpose of the group is defined in a brief article published Feb. 8, 1967, about the newly created Black Student Association, which later became BSU.

“The primary purpose of the association is to unite Afro-American students at the University,” the reporter wrote. “Participants stressed the importance of a unified black student movement to achieve educational, economic and political progress for the Afro-American in the local, national and world community.”

Today, former BSU Director and University graduate Dominique Beaumonté said BSU still serves to unite black students, but it also takes on many more endeavors.

“Initially I’m sure that the intent of the organization was to bring black students together, but now its intent is to educate all students on campus about black culture,” he said, adding that BSU also focuses on the retention of students of color.

“I think our focus now is more about cultural development,” he said.

Beaumonté said he thinks BSU has come a long way in terms of obtaining funding for programs, such as its fall reception for new students and its Black History Month events.

But he added that as far as developing cultural awareness and aiding with retention, the burden can be tough on members of the group.

“I think it’s really difficult for groups of students who work here to really carry on that tradition,” he said.

During the years of the civil rights movement, students at the University also felt the impact and were part of nationwide events.

Shortly after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, University students held a march on campus in honor of his legacy. The march was followed by a memorial reception in McArthur Court, where 5,000 students gathered in mourning. The events were sponsored by the University and BSU, according to an Emerald article.

In an article published April 8, 1968, former University President Arthur S. Flemming urged Americans to search their souls and question why King was assassinated.

“America is reaping the harvest of hate,” Flemming said in the article.

Some students became personally involved in the movement.

In 1965, a University graduate was arrested in Magnolia, Miss., along with about 50 other civil rights demonstrators for protesting against voter registration discrimination, according to an Emerald article.

That same year, a University education professor gave a speech on the 1965 Watts Riots, saying that such things happen when populations are not given equal opportunities.

“Our society denies the disadvantaged person an education and then insists that only with an education can he get through the front door,” he said in an Emerald article published August 19, 1965.

Briston said that it is always important to document historical events so that people can know facts in the future.

“That’s why we owe such a debt to the people who decided to write it down,” she said.

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