Thursday, February 3, 2011

The history of Black History at Coker College

Dean Jason Umfress addressed a letter to the Coker College Community that is really interesting and that makes some interesting reading. This is Black History Month and sometimes we hear questions about Why black history -- reason -- because it was so often ignored by those writing the histories. But I think it makes sense to share the thoughts Dr. Umfress shared. Earlier today I finished a Condolezza Rice's memoir, EXTRAORDINARY, ORDINARY PEOPLE, She addresses her experience at Stanford University in a couple of chapters of that book. We should know OUR history.

Here is Jason's letter:

Dear Coker,

I hope this message finds you well and staying warm/cool during this strange weather. South Carolina weather patterns can be so strange - warm one day and cold the next. Like we say around here, “if you don’t like the weather, wait a minute.”

The month of February is set aside every year as a chance for us as a nation to celebrate Black History month. I thought I would use this “Dear Coker” letter to reflect on the integration of our own college and honor those pioneering African Americans who paved the way for the integration process of our College.

Let me take you back to Coker College in the turbulent 1960’s. Our student population was very small (only a few hundred people)…we were very female (all female, to be exact)…and we were very White. Considering what was happening in the county in the way of the Civil Rights movement, the issue of racially integrating the college was complex enough. Coker’s integration challenges were compounded by the decision to integrate the campus along gender lines at the same time. In the History of the College, the author writes:

Issues surrounding diversity at Coker College centered on the two matters of gender diversity and racial diversity. Originally separate issues, they intersected in the 1960s as the College wrestled with the implementation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In addition, no institution can escape the attitudes of its surrounding, nor could Coker College. Founded as a college for women by a retired officer of the Confederate Army, and located in Darlington County, SC, diversity at Coker occurred slowly as the institution distanced itself from prevalent attitudes about gender and race.

In the fall of 1967, Coker admitted its 1st two African American students – two females. Due to poor record keeping, only one of the two has been positively identified: Evelyn Alsbrooks. The documents don’t seem to indicate there were any protests, outrages or violence as a result of their enrollment, as had been witnessed at other institutions around the country.

Racial diversity and the movement toward integration was influenced most directly by outstanding members of the student body, faculty, and staff. Here is a list of instrumental and influential African Americans who have shaped our College into what it has become today:

1. 1st African American students admitted to Coker: Evelyn Alsbrooks and a “mystery woman” thought to be Evelyn’s sister, Alfrieda.

2. 1st African American SGA President: Johnnie Dawkins (1976)

3. 1st African American May Queen: Vikki Sheryl Coleman (1978)

4. 1st African American on faculty: Dr. Ernest Nichols, Professor of Education (1973)

5. 1st African American to receive the Master Professor Award: John Foster (1995)

6. 1st African American senior staff person: George Hogan, Asst Director of Military Programs (1986).

7. 1st African American Dean of Students (or the equivalent): Shelia Hill (1990).

8. 1st African American Officer of the College: Dr. Ron Carter, Provost (1997).

Although they may not have realized it at the time, these individuals were pioneers. They most certainly faced challenges as they bravely walked into our Coker community. Much like the Rosa Parks, James Merediths, and Fannie Lou Hammers, these people chose to bravely face the status quo in pursuit of equality for all. For this, they should be honored and remembered.



Today, as we look around our campus, we take note of how diverse we are. Minority students make up 40% of our student population - far above the national average at other institutions of higher education. We interact with people from all races, genders, cultures, sexual orientations, and religious backgrounds. It is important for us to pause to remember that these things didn’t happen overnight. Brave men and women who came before us broke those social and cultural norms so that we might enjoy a campus that is more inclusive and welcoming of its community members.



While we as a community have come a long way since the 1960s, the work is far from done. We must continue to strive to be inclusive and respectful of our community members. We must continue to value diversity of background, culture, and thought. We must continue to appreciate the value added to our educational experience from being around people who are different from us. We must continue to educate ourselves on, and be open to, other cultures. We must continue to strive to be the Coker College we all know we can be. Let this be our aim.



Stay Engaged,



Jason



Jason W. Umfress, Ph.D.
Dean of Students

Coker College

2 comments:

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  2. Interesting. I saved his letter, too.

    I moved here from a campus community that, to its credit, works hard to attract and retain as diverse a student body as it can. Over the past several years it has made good gains, doubling the size of its minority population -- moving the needle from about 7% to, now, just about 15%.

    I'm struck by how much the enviable numbers that Coker now enjoys -- 40% minority students -- seem to almost be taken for granted. Black History month and Jason's letter help us recognize it as a terrific point of pride.

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