During the 1970s, many Black students from racially segregated areas of the United States attended Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter.
These pioneering Gusties started the Black Student Organization, which became the Pan African Student Organization, out of which grew the Diversity Center, now the Center for Inclusive Excellence. This summer, the Gustavus Quarterly joined video chats with several BSO alumni. Here are excerpts from the conversations.
Eric Johnson ’76 (Louisiana and Los Angeles): In 1972, Minnesota cast a huge number of [presidential primary] votes for Shirley Chisholm. I thought, what kind of state is this?
Isacc Birdlong ’78 (Greenwood, MS): I was in co-ed on third floor, and I kept seeing only white people. I started crying. Then I saw one black person coming. It was Otis Zanders (’77). I ran into him so hard I got knocked down. It became a running story.
Michelle Swann Hightower ’82 (Marietta, GA): I was the only black person on the plane to Minnesota. I was the only Black person walking around the airport. And then Bridgett (McCarthy ’78) showed up in the airport with her mother and they were going to St. Peter, too.
Struggles in and out of classroom
TR Coverson ’78 (Atlanta, GA): It was more demanding, because the competition was set at a higher pace than where I had come from. Add to that, there were very few cultural relaxation points. One time, this guy comes up to me out of the blue and says, “I hate Black people.” I ask, “What Black people have you ever known?” He says, after a long pause, “George Jefferson.”
Thomas Joubert ’76 (Houston, TX): I did have some good white friends I made there. The unfortunate part was on the first Parents Day, some acted as if they didn’t know who I was when they were with their parents.
Terry Handy ’80 (Sledge, MS): I got to do some new things — snow skiing and riding a snowmobile. Being away from campus was a nice departure, because lots of people on campus and in St. Peter had never seen a black person before.
Patricia Clark ’78 (Chicago): During my tenure, I was the lone black student in the nursing program. I would have welcomed instructors to acknowledge and value the rich cultural diversity I brought to the program … sadly, a missed opportunity.
Bridgett McCarthy ’78 (Houston, TX): We had study groups — not with our major, with all of us. We needed encouragement from each other until we were confident enough to go out and associate with white students.
The importance of the BSO
Carol (Nelson) Browder ’79 (Memphis, TN): Going from an all-black to an all-white community, having that support system when I needed a taste of home, that was important.
Hightower: It was my foundation. It was my strength. I had someone to talk to about my experiences. It got me to where I am today.
Handy: I served as president of the BSO for two years. What I got from that was leadership skills, diplomacy. I was given a place to express myself and to feel comfortable integrating myself into a new environment and using that to grow.
Coverson: One year, the BSO sponsored the showing of “From Montgomery to Memphis.” I remember one young [white] lady coming out of the theatre profusely crying because her parents had told her that Dr. King was a communist.
What they learned at Gustavus
Johnson: I used Christ Chapel as a place of refuge. That solitude gave me a lot of inner strength. Later in life, I felt internally strong. I had personal fortitude strengthened by religious conviction.
Birdlong: I was prepared for any field of work. I managed a petroleum company. I was a director of adult education. I worked with models in the fashion industry. I wasn’t afraid to take a chance.
Joubert: It taught me how to deal with adversity, to get through business people knowing you’ll have to work harder for a job, to use resources to get what you need and want, and to have a good time.
Hightower: I learned how to talk to the racists, the advocates, the middle-of-the-road. If I had not had that experience, my introduction to corporate America would have been harder. I had to figure out how to navigate, to move up the ladder. I learned that being at Gustavus.
How students, and Gustavus, should act going forward
Clark: Gustavus must be clear with zero tolerance of racial prejudice among students, staff, and employees of its community. Provide a welcoming safe space for students and staff to unpack concerns and misconceptions.
Victor Richardson ’77 (Sledge, MS): If you are Black, find refuge or nurturing in folks who aren’t white. If you are not white, be a part of providing that nurturing to someone who is not white.
Zanders: You don’t clap your hands and say, “Now we’ve arrived!” with inequity and racism. Stay in the game.
Johnson: I admire this younger generation. To me, they’re further in the deep end of the pool. They will tell us the way. Sit back and let them roll.
Hightower: There’s no playbook. You’re not going to get it right the first time. You’re going to feel like you have to apologize. Black students: Speak up. White students: Listen. Allies should persevere and have thick skin. Will they back down and get out of the movement? Then there’s no one left out there marching but the Black students.
Handy: Don’t be afraid to inject what you have to offer into the culture. Your unique experiences, your unique perspective, is of great value to this place. It will enrich Gustavus, and by so doing you will also enrich yourself.
Joubert: You’re writing your story. Be open to everything that’s coming your way and layer that onto the person you’re going to be in the end. Enjoy experiences and make them count for you in some positive way, even if you can’t while you’re there. Take your experiences and make something good with it.