The more things change ... A guide for black college students, circa 1973, is surprisingly relevant | St. Louis Public Radio

The more things change ... A guide for black college students, circa 1973, is surprisingly relevant

Dec 10, 2015

When Ralph Hargrow arrived at Washington University from his home in the East Coast in 1969, he was part of a growing group of black students on a campus going through the same kind of drastic change that was hitting the nation as a whole.

The previous December, a group of black students had confronted Chancellor Thomas Eliot in his office in stately Brookings Hall and presented demands that later came to be known as a “Black Manifesto.”

It addressed what it called “conservative bigots,” saying that “this paper is most definitely a threat, for it promises to replace the status quo with an environment which promises an atmosphere for Black people free from the subtle, stifling racism” that permeated the campus.

It added:

“As students at Washington University, we have learned something which we choose never to forget.

“WE ARE NOT WHITE. WE DON’T WANT TO BE WHITE. WHAT IS GOOD FOR WHITES IS OFTENTIMES WORSE THAN BAD FOR BLACKS.” (sic.)

The persistent clamor on a number of college campuses since the death of Michael Brown clearly show that longstanding racial tension is far from resolved. But Hargrow and his friends didn’t take the protest route.

Instead, as part of the largest group of black students that had been admitted to Washington University to date, they got together in his senior year to create the campus’ first “Black Student Guide." Part survival manual, part travelogue, part academic catalogue, the guide included everything from a list of black faculty members to a directory of churches and libraries to the location of a nearby 24-hour White Castle.

A page from the Black Student Guide, circa 1973. Some of the stores and restaurants in the guide are still in business.
Credit Courtesy Washington University Library

And for readers of a certain age, the hairstyles, clothing and language are likely to bring back memories of more than 40 years ago. Take this reminder to students that when they leave the school’s idyllic campus, graduates will enter a world filled with “grave and serious problems” where “halfsteppin’ and shuckin’ and jivin’ around ain’t gonna git it.”

New efforts for diversity

Hargrow, who has spent his career in the business world and now lives outside Chicago, recalled that the guide was an effort to give black students “a quick sense of the greater community that surrounded the university.”

Today, the university is taking a hard look at its role in recruiting and retaining minority students. It has been criticized for a relatively low level of students who receive federal Pell grants. Also, a recent report on diversity and inclusion spelled out a dozen recommendations for increasing the attention and resources dedicated to increasing diversity among students, faculty and staff.

The emphasis continued on Friday, when Chancellor Mark Wrighton released a statement on diversity, inclusion and race.

For African American students already at the university, issues raised by the 1973 publication can seem very contemporary. Kendall Maxwell, a senior economics major from a Chicago suburb, recently read the old guide and realized that in some cases, “these still are conversations we're having today.”

Coming from a high school that was almost all white, Maxwell said she’s had a relatively easy adjustment at Washington U., and the campus has been friendly. But she knows classmates who have had more of a struggle. And concerns raised after last year’s shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson sharpened awareness of disparities that may have had less impact.

Maxwell said that, particularly with classes she has taken in African-American history, seeing that she is part of a tradition of black students going back several decades has enriched her campus experience.

“It's nice to know that you're not the first one to have to go through different struggles in a predominantly white institution,” Maxwell said in a recent interview in McMillan Hall, a few doors down from the location of the campus’ original Black Communications Center.

“It's kind of nice to know you're part of this continuum of black students on a predominantly white campus that are trying to figure out ways to support each other and ways to excel in the things you want to do, and make your voices heard on campus,” she said.

As for the guide itself, Maxwell saw it almost as a statement to the world at large about who the black students were and where they were coming from.

Kendall Maxwell, an economics major, read the guide from the early 1970s and found that a lot of the information still resonates for today's African American students.
Credit Dale Singer | St. Louis Public Radio

“I think it was an attempt almost to humanize the black community at Wash U,” she said, “and get people to see them as people and understand that they have their ups and downs, their trials and tribulations. It was really beautiful to read to me. I thought it was a great document.”

A Black perspective

From the vantage point of more than 40 years, the Black Student Guide reads at times like an anthropological study of an alien culture, a handbook for strangers in a strange academic land.

One of the first things a reader might notice is the fact that word "black" is always capitalized, as opposed to the style commonly used today. In terms of pronouns, black students are always referred to as “he.”

The introduction is to “Black Brothers and Sisters,” and the explanation for its existence is expressed this way:

“You may have heard a lot about Washington University, but there is more than one side to a coin. By the time you finish reading this guide, we hope you will realize that within the campus is a Black world of professors, worker, graduate and undergraduate students. You will discover a very together world of color which we hope you will want to become a part of.”

In that era, most students at Washington U. were local, though the school was working to expand its reach. The guide says that of the 2,000 students who live on-campus, 70 were black; of the overall 4,000 undergraduate enrolled, 250 were black.

Academically, the guide said, “the Black student must put a tremendous effort into his studies if he is to obtain good results.” Socially, the university “is a predominantly white school, and therefore is oriented to white wants and needs.”

Besides any individual personality conflicts, the guide said that “Black students relate to each other very well. There is an air of togetherness that spreads throughout the campus community. And there is a constant and sincere effort to become even more together as the year progresses.”

It didn’t highlight tension between African Americans and whites, but it didn’t exactly make the campus climate sound totally harmonious either.

“As far as Black-white relationships are concerned, these are basically on an individual level," the guide said. "There is no mass communication between the two groups, because Black students are not striving ultimately for the same things as white students. This does not imply racism, but rather another step towards being totally ‘together.’”

In terms of relating to campus administration, the guide said, “Black students do make a conscientious effort to communicate with Black administrators, since this is of great importance and necessary for meaningful co-existence. Rap sessions, where students release their grief, beliefs, and ideas are very helpful in narrowing the communication gap.”

The Black Student Handbook had information about how Washington University worked; what students could do in their spare time; advice on where to shop; and information on African American faculty.
Credit Courtesy Washington University Library

Overall, the guide concluded, “If one word could describe the Black student on this campus, it would be ‘active.’ In his many endeavors, the Black student has moved, is moving and will be moving in the future – both mentally and physically.”

Changed criteria

The guide acknowledged that Washington U. was making an effort to recruit more Black students. But in the process, it said, “it has been necessary to modify the traditional criteria for admission and take into consideration the cultural, educational, and economic differences existing between minority groups and the majority white group.”

Much of the publication was filled with brief biographies of individual black professors and administrators, including Ronald Jackson, who at that time was an assistant dean in the College of Arts and Sciences.

In a recent interview, Jackson recalled that at the time the guide was written, the university was reaching beyond St. Louis to attract black students from other metropolitan areas such as Chicago, Philadelphia and Cleveland.

“I would say that in the ‘70s,” Jackson said,  “Washington University was actively and aggressively recruiting and retaining African-American students. It was on the radar of a lot of black students.”

At the time, Hargrow said, he had had hopes of going from his private high school in New York to Harvard, but he was glad to make his first trip to St. Louis when he was accepted to Washington U.

He remembered doing community work in the Pruitt-Igoe housing complex and in Kinloch. He learned a lot of the harsh realities about race relations in St. Louis.

“The transition wasn't that difficult,” he said. “It was exciting. It was not intimidating, but I do remember being cautious my freshman year. It was a part of the country with which I was obviously not familiar, and St. Louis back then was very, very segregated. It wasn't as easy to know your way around without assistance as I had found other cities, since and before.”

An unnamed student featured in the Black Student Guide. The people who put the guide together wanted to make sure students felt comfortable on Wash U's campus and off.
Credit Courtesy of Washington University Libaray

The guide, Hargrow said, was designed to help make it easier to become a part of that world, on campus and off of it as well. Whether they needed something as serious as academic counseling or as personal as someone who knew how to cut a black man’s hair, Hargrow wanted to make his fellow students feel as comfortable as they could.

“Many of us wore Afros back then,” he said. “I'm completely bald, but I had a head of hair to die for back then. Many of us didn't even know where we could go for a haircut. So it's not so much about feeling like an alien in a suburban environment, it was where do we go through the environment to get what we were familiar with.”

Once he decided to spearhead the writing of the guide, Hargrow said, he recruited fellow students to help make it happen, and the project fell into place.

“The idea of it was mine,” he said. “I had to shop the idea quite a bit with some fellow students. And I was bound and determined if no one helped us, I was going to do it myself anyway.”

To write the introduction, he drafted Chezia B. Thompson, who edited a campus publication titled “Roots & Branches.” He recalled being “impressed with her intellect, impressed with her discipline, and impressed with her sense of not just community but talented. She was very, very aware.”

Thompson rose to the occasion, writing:

"To come to the Midwest to be ‘educated’ and not to come here to think, to question, to investigate, to actively pursue your self education is to die, or be mis-educated and possibly driven insane. I kid you not….

"I offer you a challenge, Black student wherever you are. I challenge you to defy Time and his alien personality on this continent, and to come to the Midwest knowing there is much here that can hurt and will attempt to hurt you if you come mentally, academically, or spiritually unprepared. I challenge you to come knowing also that there is much here that can help you build a better future, a stronger you."

Thompson, who now is on the faculty of the Maryland Institute College of Art, was a graduate of Sumner High School and grew up in the Ville neighborhood, so she already had a firsthand feel for the racial climate in St. Louis. Still, she too needed help navigating Washington U., a place where she said in an interview that there was “more than a little tension.”

Chezia Thompson today. Thompson wrote for an on-campus publication called "Roots & Branches" in the 1970s and helped create the Black Student Guide.
Credit Courtesy Chezia Thompson

But there was kindness and sensitivity as well. Thompson particularly remembered  Gloria White, a longtime administrator at the university who died in 2003. She called White “my personal Obi-Wan Kenobi.”

Thompson recalled the response when black students told White and Chancellor William Danforth how important it would be to have commencement ceremonies that spotlighted individual students.

“Most people do what we called the 'pope blessing,' where you bless the whole class and you move on into graduation," he said. "We told them that our parents — my parents and a lot of parents who had never graduated from high school — had to see us walk, because that was part of the tradition. They could see us walk across the stage and get something from somebody that said we had done what we were supposed to do and we had graduated.”

The administration listened, Thompson said.

“We had no power over how graduation went,” she said. “It was an institutional thing. But as a sensitivity to that class, they agreed, and we all walked. It was a long ceremony, but we all walked. And our parents cried, and it was remembered and loved and all of that. That's the kind of sensitivity that they actually had in terms of our presence.”

Students standing at a graduation ceremony. The administration listened to the request of the African American students and allowed each student to be called up to receive a degree during commencement rather than bestow degrees upon the class collectively.
Credit Courtesy Washington University Library

    

Today, Hargrow said he keeps copies of the guide in his home office, though he hadn’t looked at them in a while until he was contacted for this recollection.

“But they're there,” he said, “and you inspired me to take a trip down memory lane when I was going through it.”

Was it a pleasant journey?

“I think how good it was to be young,” he said, “how great it is to be wiser. But if I had much of it to do over again, the Washington University chapter of my life is not one that I would undo.”