Harvard-Radcliffe Class of 1964
50th Reunion Brief Talks

My Education at a Black College
Charlotte Ikels

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Background

It was the winter of 1966–67 when my then husband who was working on his dissertation in math at MIT received a form letter from the Woodrow Wilson Foundation asking whether he would like to take a break from his work and perform a useful service at the same time by teaching in one of a number of southern colleges that had difficulty recruiting faculty. Hmmmm…interesting we thought and then tossed the letter in the wastebasket. Fast forward a year—someone was not making much progress on his dissertation…in fact, he had taken to playing basketball for hours every day in an effort to avoid working on it. In other words he was pretty stuck. This time when the form letter came again those words “take a break” seemed even more interesting. We decided to apply to the program with the stipulation that whichever school agreed to take him agree to take us both. Having gotten an MAT from the Ed School, I was at the time teaching social studies at a high school in Bedford, about 20 miles from here. So it was that we went South.

The Setting

From 1968–1972 I taught in the sociology department at a historically black college in Richmond, Virginia. Virginia Union University (VUU) was and is a private, black Baptist college founded in 1865 to educate freedmen (and very early on freed women as well) to become community leaders. And, indeed, its graduates include several mayors of Richmond as well as in 1990 the first African-American to become the Governor of Virginia or of any state since Reconstruction.

My time at VUU occurred during what might be called the post-civil rights era. The Civil Rights Act had been passed. Waves of riots had taken place in the black ghettoes of many cities throughout the US. Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated. More radical leaders had emerged in the burgeoning Black Power movement, and interracial cooperation had begun to falter. I had not been an activist in the civil rights movement, and my goals at VUU were modest. As a believer in the value and power of education, I wanted to help educate students in a school that had difficulty recruiting faculty, but I found that I was the one who got an education.

What I Learned at VUU

Student funding priorities—defund NASA (program viewed as irrelevant in terms of solving social problems)—this at a time when according to the media everyone was invested in a moon landing and besting the Soviets in science and technology. The lack of support might also have reflected the very limited number of black scientists and engineers involved in these fields and their invisibility to the students.

Alienation from Africa—reluctance to be associated with a continent considered backward. A panel of African students had to address quite uninformed questions about their home countries and family life. African students on campus felt isolated—saying the panel was the first time they had been asked by faculty to talk about their homeland or way of life. This alienation was just beginning to be addressed by more positive assessments of African history and by the adoption of Afros, dashikis, and African-derived naming practices.

Mixed views of the Vietnam War—despite Muhammad Ali declaring that he was a conscientious objector and would not fight in a racist war, a white Quaker faculty member who was attempting to recruit students for an anti-war demonstration in Washington was upbraided by a black veteran who suspected his motives. In essence he questioned why someone, specifically a white person, would attempt to discourage black people from supporting the US Government which, in his words, was the only institution in America that gave the black man a fair shake.

Suspicion of white faculty—this same white Quaker and I were each teaching an experimental freshman course based on the latest pedagogical theories. We were supposed to teach social studies by having the students design their own ideal society. There was some structure to the course but not much. We had been told to be as non-directive as possible and to rely on the students’ natural curiosity to sustain the course. Books describing various real or imagined utopian communities were scattered about the classroom as resources. The students were at a total loss. They became extremely frustrated, and finally the tension rose to the boiling point. An agitated student asked why only white faculty members were teaching this course. Another proposed the theory that we two had concocted this course in order to undermine student confidence in their abilities. Whoa! I had to explain that I didn’t know why only white faculty were teaching the course, but we had volunteered to do it, and in order to prepare for it we had had to spend six weeks during the summer in Dallas at Bishop College, another historically black institution. Furthermore, the course had been conceived by a black non-profit curriculum development organization from Washington that conducted the summer training program. They were very surprised and somewhat relieved. Incidentally years later I tried a more structured version of this experiment with my own predominantly white students at Case Western Reserve. It didn’t work then either!

Disjuncture from parental and earlier generations—given the history of racial injustice in the US, some students were highly critical of their predecessors for failing to protest for their rights earlier. They seemed unaware of the nature of the oppressive tactics up to and including lynching used to sustain white power. I should add that when this viewpoint was expressed, other students usually provided reasoned responses.

Lessons for Today

Of course, I shouldn’t have been surprised by students’ disinterest in scientific goals, discomfort with being associated with Africa, suspicion of white teachers’ motives, or in some cases ignorance of the weapons used to keep black people subjugated. These students were after all products of American schools. For decades school counselors had directed black students into trades and away from the professions. History books tended to portray Africa largely as a dark continent in need of civilizing by white colonizers and rarely mentioned the achievements of African-Americans. But fortunately things have been changing.

Some of you may be familiar with the works of Jim Loewen (not a Harvard undergrad but a Harvard Ph.D.) who taught at another black college—Tougaloo in Mississippi—at the same time that I was at VUU. In his first year at Tougaloo while teaching a freshman seminar, Loewen was shocked by how little the students knew about Reconstruction and how distorted that knowledge was—a direct result of their prior education. His experience inspired him to embark upon a career of correcting our history books. Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your High School History Book Got Wrong was only the first in what became a series of correctives. His most recent book is Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism. Sundown towns are towns where black people are welcome during the day (usually to labor), but must be gone by sundown or they will be removed by force. Historically many towns were sundown towns, but Loewen argues that they continue to exist today often in the form of exclusive suburbs.

Teaching at a black college helped open my eyes to some of the inadequacies in our educational system. Until one has the opportunity to step outside of one’s own environment, it can be difficult to appreciate its limitations. I wonder how many of us appreciate not only what Harvard gave us, but how it might have limited us as well.

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