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A History of Race and Racism at St. Olaf

Published May 5, 2017, 3:07 p.m. - 1042 views


St. Olaf College has had a longstanding problem with racism. According to a Manitou Messenger article published in 1961, a campus wide poll revealed that “one of every three St. Olaf students would rather not room with a Negro,” “over half of us would rather not dance with a Negro” and that “one of every ten thinks that Negro professors should not teach white students.”

Diversity has also been a persistent problem. In 1963, the campus demographics were “over eighty per cent middle-class Lutheran and over ninety-nine and forty-four hundredths percent white.” As an effort to mend what some believed would leave white students “serious holes in their world picture,” the school implemented a plan for six St. Olaf students to attend “Negro colleges in the South” while four students from those colleges would come to St. Olaf. The article noted that Macalester College and Carleton College had already set up similar exchange programs.

This initiative, referred to as the Tuskegee Program, was met with criticism from the student body. This criticism is reflected in an editorial published in 1965 in the Messenger which suggested that, after being exposed to racial disparities in the Southern United States, St. Olaf students were too supportive of civil rights. The article claims that there was “embitterment against the Negro's fight for integration and civil rights among the northern people” and asks “why upset the apple cart?”

The program also met sabotage from within administration. In a Messenger article, black student Leavy “Lee” Oliver ’69, revealed that the St. Olaf administration had been sending letters to students interested in the program condemning Tuskegee. The letters claimed that Tuskegee was a “‘loose’ school and that by allowing their daughters to go there they were risking their daughters ruination.”

Oliver continued by elaborating that many students came back from the program with romantic partners or children and asserted that the administration’s problem wasn’t with these relationships, but that “sole reason for the administration's letter was that the boyfriends, the husbands, the babies, were black.” Oliver continues by calling out that St. Olaf intentionally sabotaged the program in a “blatant perpetuation of racism.”

In 1968, Oliver was elected student body president, and was the first black student to ever take on the role. One of his first moves was for his parliament to recommend a course in “Negro politics” be taught the following year. Also in 1968, Ron Hunter ’70 founded the Cultural Union for Black Expression (CUBE) to “raise awareness of the African-American presence at St. Olaf.” According to a Messenger article, Hunter “summarized some of the feelings of the black students. He also outlined some of their ideas: a section of the library highlighting racial literature, more accredited courses on black history, a week focusing on black culture and more recruitment of black students.”

In the interim of 1969, the first “specifically Negro-oriented courses” were offered, including, “The Negro: A Minority Group in American Society” taught by Dr. LaFrances Rose and “The Negro in American Life: 1865 to the present” taught by Mr. Vattel Rose. Students had varied responses to the courses, with some calling for more and lengthier classes on racial issues. One black student reported "you don't have to have a class to understand attitudes or have a discussion with a black person."

In 1982, a black student named Warren Braden ’85 wrote a piece titled “Racial overtones: A Black at St. Olaf,” describing his experience as a black student at the college. He describes that white students viewed him as a representative of all black people, saying “if I decide to take a bath after 10:00 p.m. one night in my dorm, I would be asked, jokingly or seriously, whether all black people do that, just because I do it.” Others would tell “black jokes,” with Braden describing that “the more jokes they can tell before I get angry, the better; it gives them a feeling of superiority.”

Braden also noted that the national situation made him feel unsafe.

“I am told I am too sensitive to the black issue, but when I go home I see whites killing blacks and getting away with it, in my city and around the world. I come back here after each vacation and wonder if one of the whites here would kill me and know they could get away with it.” Braden wrote.

He continued by acknowledging the pervasiveness of racism.

“There are many racists out there, enough to be recognized, and the racism has become subtle and intellectual. So subtle some do not even know they are racist; others do,” Braden wrote.

Ending his article, Braden talked about the way he was addressed on campus.

“I suppose I should be happy with Negro; that is a big step from n*gger. Some of you might not say that word, but it is written in your eyes and imprinted in mind,” Braden wrote.

Other students from the decade echoed these sentiments, including Bruce Williams ’89, a black student, who said, in 1987, "If I want to make friends here, either I have to not talk about the problems of racism, or find people who are willing to talk about it—which are few.

"In 1989 students of color offered a demonstration against racism on campus, called “Majority rules.” The event was organized by Harambe, an organization named after the Swahili word for unity, which was a “multicultural umbrella group” for students, the Messenger reported. According to a statement from the organization, St. Olaf and "other schools with problems of racism like St. Olaf’s should require a course on racial equality, and hire outside reviewers to solve problems of recruitment and retention.” Harambe leader Jin Kim ’90, also elaborated "this is not only a protest. It is a party given for people of color in the entire MIAC. As students of color on primarily white campuses, we often find ourselves as educators on racism."

There was an effort to continue the conversation in 1995, with a documentary, titled “Can We Talk?” produced by Director Multicultural Affairs & Community Outreach Bill Green ’77, Theater Professor Bill Sonnega and a group of St. Olaf students. The film showcases a diverse group of St. Olaf students talking about race and racism at St. Olaf and was created to be shown to classes and then discussed. However, the film was met with resistance.

“After the film was made, the administration at the time felt that it was potentially too disruptive to screen for the campus,” Sonnega said.

In 2013, mounting opposition to racism at St. Olaf was embodied in a group called “Enough! The new face of St. Olaf College.”

“Over the past year, we have had a dramatic increase in visible hate crimes committed on campus. These are not isolated instances, but indicators of underlying problems at St. Olaf. We strive to be an inclusive community, but for many people St. Olaf is not a comfortable or safe environment,” the group wrote in a letter to President David Anderson ’74, Deans of St. Olaf and the St. Olaf community.Our mission is to bring attention to the issues on campus, both incidental and institutional, and demand sustainable changes that would have a direct impact for the betterment of the community.”

The post ended with a list of demands, including “mandatory, campus-wide conversation about these issues,” publicization of “changes of policy that directly affect the student body,” a re-evaluation of “the Multicultural-Domestic (MCD) and History of Western Culture (HWC) curricula” and required “training for faculty, staff and administration on the realities of these issues and how to address them in classes and on campus.”

The movement garnered a response from Anderson. "We are having a useful, if challenging, conversation at our college about the nature of our community, our expectations of one another, and the role of the College in fostering a welcoming environment for everyone," Anderson wrote.

The movement also scheduled a walk-out of classes and rally in solidarity at 2:45 on May 1, 2013 in Buntrock Commons, which was well attended by students.


The movement dwindled somewhat until a Facebook post on March 12, 2016, stating “Friends this is Bullsh*t! I dunno if this is what current students want to use. But the struggles of 2013. Are still alive and we have to support the work and efforts of our current students.”

Now, in response to institutionalized racism and a series of seven reported incidences of hate speech in one year, A Collective for Change on the Hill, a group of students representing the larger People of Color community has taken the charge to make institutional change.

On April 24, following an incident of hate speech targeted at a specific student, students gathered for a sit-in in Buntrock Crossroads during the day and a huge meeting in the Link between the Hall of Music and Center for Arts and Dance. Sit-ins in Buntrock Commons continued consistently for the remainder of the week.

Following another incident of targeted hate-speech, the movement staged a large-scale protest on Saturday, April 29. Beginning by creating a blockade in front of the cafeteria at approximately 4:30, the movement expanded to block off the Cage and the Pause and eventually continued to fill up the student area. Protesters came from on and off-campus, including alumni and students from other schools, such as Carleton. President David Anderson was in attendance for part of the event, and was questioned by protesters. The protest continued all night, with many students sleeping in the building and leaving in the morning.

On Monday, May 1, starting at 7:50 a.m. students occupied Tomson Hall with the aim of presenting Anderson with the demands of the movement and getting him to sign an agreement to institute those changes. After much public discussion of the terms and revisions from the movement’s drafting team, the president signed the agreement, retitled the “Terms and Conditions of Negotiation,” agreeing to begin the conditions stipulated within. The details of the agreement and movement can be found on https://www.acollectiveforchangeonthehill.com.

Last Updated 5/5/2017

About the Author

Conlan Campbell, class of 2018 is a English major.

cambe1@stolaf.edu

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