My First Encounter With Racism on an American Campus

It was Spring, 1968 and I was in my senior year at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. The unrest throughout my four years was largely around the anti-war movement against the Vietnam war. In January, I was deeply involved with the first drug raid by police on an American campus…I was active in residential affairs and in the administration’s irrational and seat-of-the-pants policy regarding drug use. But, that’s not what this piece is about…

I had applied to enter an MA program in Student Personnel Affairs at Colgate University in upstate N.Y. I grew up in Brooklyn, and even traveling 60 miles to the then rural Stony Brook campus on Long Island was a cross-cultural experience. Colgate asked me to come up for an interview . I had never ventured this far north of NY City.

I had no knowledge about the history of Colgate. I did know it was an all male institution and had been since its founding in the late 19th century. Colgate had taken small steps to recruit black students – largely from NY City. However, it was a sea of white male privilege [although that adjective was not in common usage then]. There were no administrators of color and I do not recall any faculty of color.

Martin Luther King was assassinated in April. The reverberations were immediately felt at Colgate.

Here is what happened prior to my arrival for the interview: Only a few days after King’s murder,a few black students were walking along the main street running parallel to campus where many fraternity houses were located. Some fraternity students were sitting on top of the roof of their house- and one of them SHOT at the black students walking by the house…I only learned of this after my arrival on campus for my interview.

The story is told in this first-person narrative by an alumnus in this historical piece published by Colgate : https://200.colgate.edu/looking-back/moments/administration-building-sit-1968

And so, in the aftermath of this tragedy, I began the odyssey of my graduate study with nine other men in 1968-69. It was a year of ongoing tension,confusion, and absence of coherent leadership by a white Dean of Students who had been at the university for 30 years. He was completely unprepared to navigate change. We in the graduate program often had to manage our relationship to students, to the racism and absence of clear policy-on our own. We were actively in the middle of daily incidents taking place.

This was the beginning of my career in student affairs. I was 22 years old upon graduation. Colgate then hired me as Director of the Cutten House residential complex [where I had been during my Fellowship studies]. Two others in my class were hired on to manage other residence halls. Many decades later,during a family trip to Ellis Island, I learned that the man for whom Colgate had named the residence hall was a racist and well known for advocating a policy of racial exclusion with respect to immigration policy. A quote by him was written on the wall of one of the main buildings under the Statue of Liberty.

At the end of my first year in my first job, in 1970, Colgate terminated my contract saying the position was not going to be filled the following year. I had been an activist administrator – we all were. There was student protest over my being “let go.” A grad school colleague resigned his position. I was then 23….adrift.

Race and racism, as you will see if you read the article above, continue to impact education at Colgate.

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