Past, present students critically examine campus racial climate

By: Amanda Dee – Online Editor-in-Chief

“This conversation doesn’t matter.”

That’s what University of Dayton 1992 alumna Veronica Morris told students, faculty, staff and Dayton community members in Kennedy Union Torch Lounge at the alumni session of the university’s first symposium on race. She explained her statement by asking for a show of hands.

“How many board of trustees do we have sitting here today?” No one raised a hand. “How many key executive management staff do we have sitting here today?” No one raised a hand. “How many people manage the multimillion dollar budgets that the University of Dayton operates on sitting here today?” No one raised a hand.

“I don’t mean to put it as bluntly or as negatively as that, but this conversation doesn’t matter because where you allocate your dollars is where your thoughts and where your energies are centered,” she continued.

Expanding “the whos” involved in the race conversation was the vision of the symposium “Critical Examination of Our Times: The State of Race on the University of Dayton Campus.” As marketed, the symposium “seeks to educate, inform, and bring to the forefront conversations of race on campus.”

“Race” in this case is the differential treatment between “white” and “black” people. Skin color is genetically determined by the concentration in the skin of a pigment called melanin. It doesn’t have any biological effect on us, besides the visible difference in skin—and maybe our susceptibility to sunburn. But the way a society has treated these differences over the course of history—in court cases, art, science, informal and formal laws—makes “white” and “black” mean more than a variation in genes. The way music, movies, teachers, historians, politicians, parents, friends portray the difference of skin color can mold how we act and think toward each other and ourselves.

The “Engaging the Past” panel, on which Morris spoke, served as an opportunity for local black alumni to speak candidly on their own past racial experiences on campus. It followed a panel of students who presented their research on the history of race through UD and Dayton publications, as well as one student’s findings from summer 2015 focus groups. A faculty session and a session discussing solutions and next steps also shared perspectives. (Click below for photos)

Later that same evening, Interim Provost Paul Benson would deliver a keynote address, but the symposium started the night before with an overview of the three days and the university’s annual Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speech.

Urban ethnographer Elijah Anderson, Ph.D., told stories from his life and presented sociological definitions of spaces in his Jan. 26 address, “The ‘White Space,’ the ‘Black Space’ and the ‘Cosmopolitan Canopy.’” He defined “black space” as what most people consider “the iconic ghetto” or “the hood.” White people generally avoid black spaces, but black people are forced to navigate white space—spaces like our university campus “as a condition of their existence.”

Anderson talked about his own beginnings in “the black space,” born on a former plantation to a 20-year-old mother and a father with a fourth-grade level of education, who Anderson said fought in WWII but won’t be remembered like the white soldiers of that war.

He shared another story about an 18-year-old boy named Ralph, who he interviewed during his time in Philadelphia while teaching at the University of Pennsylvania. Ralph attended a private, wealthy, dominantly white school and played on the soccer team, on which he was the only black player. During one of the games, an opposing player called him the N-word.

The referee shrugged. His coach and his teammates ignored it. The opposing player who threw the word at him approached Ralph’s mother—the only black woman in the stands—after the game to tell her that her son was in the wrong.

This is what Anderson referred to as the “n—-r moment,” a “moment of acute disrespect” to one’s sense of humanness. Anderson also called this moment “a minority moment.” It can happen to anyone—“a Catholic, a gay person, a woman”—“but black people in this country have a history of racial injury.” As do many black students, faculty and staff who have walked or are walking UD’s campus.

When alumna LaShea Smith and her roommate went out her first night on campus in 1987, Smith was attacked by one such moment.

“And so we walked down to the student neighborhood. You know, I was kind of amazed at what all was going on here. And I thought, this isn’t my place. And so I went back and then came down the next day for coming to KU to eat and got called a n—-r,” she said. “And there was a group of football players coming my way, walking down this path, and they were walking back and that’s what I was met with.”

She called her mom and begged her to pick her up, but her mom told her she deserved to be there and had to stay.

Five students spent this past summer researching the history of race through UD and Dayton publications, as well as a focus group, and came across some of these moments: Gianna Hartwig, Tiara Jackson, Kwynn Townsend-Riley, Camila Robles and Joshua Steed.

Junior English and political science major Hartwig searched through the UD literary magazine The Exponent, the predecessor of Orpheus, and discovered something from 1923. A new glee club called the End Men was performing minstrel shows with a flood of positive reviews. Minstrel shows feature white performers mocking African-Americans by wearing blackface and portraying them as fools. The last mention of these minstrel shows in the magazine was in 1928. Marianist brothers directed some of the performances. Hartwig explained that these shows definitely express racial attitudes on UD’s campus, but they were part of a national trend.

Though, not all the pages of the student researchers’ findings were stained with ignorance.

Senior communication major Townsend-Riley cross-referenced Flyer News archives from the ’70s with the independent black publication UHURU, which ran from 1977-2002.

She showed the audience a comic from Flyer News that depicted a black basketball player as an ape.

“In Flyer News, there were some racist comics, racist comic strips. There were lots of views in the opinion section,” she explained. “… Flyer News did really speak up as an entire staff. There were weekly editorials from the editor, him or herself, that would be backing these issues. So when the issues came down to racial turbulence, the editorial would speak as a staff saying Flyer News does not support any racial injustices …”

“It was really reassuring to see what Flyer News used to do,” Townsend-Riley said.

Senior business major Jackson researched the Dayton Daily News archives and discussed them from her perspective as a black female student at UD. The last article she talked about focused on the university’s 1969 recruitment program, which responded to what Dayton Daily News called “demands” of black students to diversify the student body to increase the amount of black students from the Dayton area and provide programs to make sure they also felt accepted. UD accepted 10 black students from the area that year, and decided if the program was successful, they would continue to make sure they enrolled 10 black students from the Dayton area each year.

“But I would think that after 1969,” Jackson said, “we would just have a little bit more as far as black students and black recruitment.”

But I would think that after 1969, we would just have a little bit more as far as black students and black recruitment.

As of fall 2015, about 2.95 percent of UD’s 8,226-student body was black. About 77.8 percent was white.

“Crazy. We got a black president but no black kids at UD,” Morris said.

“Yes, we have made some progress, yes we do have programs and I’m definitely a part of programs at UD that helped me to have a positive experience and have resources and gain education, but I still feel as if there is a lot more to do,” Jackson said.

Just as Jackson said, recruitment is a major issue for Morris and Smith as well.

“When I was here,” Morris recalled, “we had a minority student weekend, where we actually brought students in of color to actually experience the campus over a weekend.”

Smith was the only black international studies major during her time at UD. She said, “That got to be a great burden.” She was forced to be, as Morris expressed, a “one of.” She was also the first W.S. McIntosh Memorial Leadership scholar in 1987. Since then, UD and the city annually award the W.S. McIntosh scholarship to a graduating African-American resident of Dayton. The program includes an internship with the city.

“By going off campus, by going to the city of Dayton, I saw African-Americans in positions of authority and leadership and that gave me courage,” Smith said. “That gave me strength. It gave me purpose. It gave me hope. It told me, ‘Yes, you can,’ because they were.”

For the past 15 years, she has managed the scholarship’s interns, who work with the city of Dayton. She has heard 15 years-worth of their stories and said she tells them “to ignore ignorance. Be truth.”

Smith concluded her talk with questions:

“I’d ask, ‘What do you really want the future of your body to be? A campus? Or a community?’”

For the FN staff editorial on race on UD’s campus, go here. Click here to see students’ reactions to how the university has addressed racial issues this year. Black History Month continues through February. For BHM events and dialogues, visit the Office of Multicultural Affairs online or on the first floor of Alumni Hall.