Gaps Speak Volumes
Black alumni reunion reconstructs hidden histories
by Michelle Simmons
October 3, 2011
From left:Willie Pollins ’88’s niece Jobeth Brown, his wife, Marlene Pollins, and Dean of Students Leonard Brown ’92 consider Black History Making at Dickinson, a student-curated exhibition in Althouse lounge that opened during AlumniWeekend.
Numbers tell part of the story. Twelve large red and black posters in the newly renovated Althouse lounge list most of the known African-American graduates of Dickinson College since 1900. Six posters represent a century’s worth of graduates; the other six capture a single decade’s.
The posters are part of the student-curated Black History Making at Dickinson College, a prominent element of the Black Alumni Reunion during June’s All-College Alumni Weekend.
“From 1901 to 1969, the numbers were very small,” explained Liz Stuhr ’12, one of six Africana-studies majors who conducted research for the exhibition. “In 1971 we had a peak of 63; in 1987 we had 14. There were years in the early 1990s when there [were hardly] any African-American students at all.”
“I wanted students in Africana studies to start here,” said Lynn Johnson, assistant professor and recent chair of Africana studies. “Archives is rich with primary sources and history that hasn’t been very visible.”
According to exhibit co-curator Grace Perry ’11, what’s missing reveals as much as what’s on display. “There are a lot of gaps, much more than other aspects of the college you would want to research,” said the former double major in Africana studies and women’s and gender studies. “It’s a reminder of who decides which stories get told and how we’re going to do our part in preserving these stories.”
One of Perry’s tasks was to research Strayer House, founded in the early 1970s at 131 S. College St. by the Congress of African Students (CAS) to provide a quiet study space for black students. The building now houses a fraternity.
“We had to do a lot of piecing things together,” she said. “It’s really unclear what happened to Strayer and why it was disbanded. The house had a library called the Martin Luther King Memorial Library, and we wondered what happened to all the books. We looked everywhere and couldn’t find anything.”
Nevertheless, according to Perry, “Strayer is important because it was the first time that black students had their own space. It was a really important step for CAS but also for future organizations. Without them, we wouldn’t have the [current student organizations] African American Society or Umoja.”
To fill some of those gaps, Susan Rose ’77, professor of sociology and director of the Community Studies Center (CSC), invited alumni to participate in oral-history interviews during the reunion.
Eight alumni shared their experiences, and videos of the interviews are housed in the CSC and Archives & Special Collections. “The idea is to build up an archive of alumni stories, particularly of those from less-represented groups,” Rose said.
Judy Rogers ’65 arrived for her interview just as Lauren Smith ’06 and Sarah Hiller ’06 finished theirs. The two generations talked together on camera, with Smith tapping in to her interview skills as a former American-studies major now working as a television producer.
From Rogers, Smith was able to learn about some of Dickinson’s early black pioneers. “Maureen [Newton Hayes ’65] and I were the first black women to live on campus, which was something I wasn’t aware of when I came,” Rogers told Smith. “I knew we were going to be in a real minority, but no one told us we were going to be opening doors.”
Having experienced racism at her high school in New Jersey, Rogers was initially impressed with how she was received here in 1961. “People were very curious, friendly. People were acting like I was a person,” said the former sociology major. “But then they would say things like, ‘You’re not like those colored girls at my high school. You’re really nice.’ Or I’d get, ‘Sometimes I forget you’re a Negro.’ And I’m like, ‘No, don’t forget that. That’s who I am.’ ”
Off campus—from restaurants that refused them service to local residents’ racial taunts—Rogers and other black students faced daily hostility in an insular, rural community. “I had a particularly embarrassing situation in the basement of the Carlisle library,” she recalled. “I was down there, and some kids came by, saying, “Look at that nigger down there, acting like she’s white.”
But when James Robinson from Operation Crossroads Africa, an organization he founded in 1958 for Americans to live among and build cultural bridges with Africans, visited Dickinson during Rogers’ sophomore year, she discovered a whole new world.
Their meeting ultimately led to a summer in Sierra Leone. Rogers and fellow students formed Project Africa, a fundraising organization, to help her, and later, three more students, cover their travel and living expenses.
“Crossroads led me to be a citizen of the world,” said Rogers, who went on to found two organizations in New York City for African refugees and is now a semi-retired clinical social worker. “There were good things and bad things here. Dickinson gave me a strong sense of self, the ability to negotiate my environment and a belief in my internal strengths amidst a challenging situation.”
For more information or to participate in an interview, contact the Community Studies Center at email@example.com or Archives & Special Collections at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Watch highlights and listen in on some of the memories shared at the Black Alumni Reunion during this summer’s All-College Alumni Weekend.