Maryville College has a race problem

Maryville College has a race problem. I mean no disrespect to the inspiring message by outgoing college president, Dr. Tom Bogart, or the strong position stated by our MC Diversity Action Team back in May. Both statements were made in response to the Black Lives Matter protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer. Both statements gave testament to our college’s proud history of inclusion, but institutions, like the humans who create them, are complex and flawed. The college does have an amazing legacy to live up to, but that’s never the whole story. In the twenty years I have been here, I have seen quite a few diversity plans, dialogs, listening tables, and so on, with very little actually changing. 

We have a lot to be proud of. There is no question that the college was racially integrated long before such an idea was welcome in mainstream white society. From its earliest days, under the leadership of Isaac Anderson, MC accepted students of all races. 

The first Black student was George Erskine, who studied in 1819 and was emancipated from slavery with the support of Anderson himself in order to be admitted. No one denies the truth of that history. However, due to objections from the broader community and philosophical divisions within the faculty, we as a college have been just as often on the wrong side of history, either through complacency and silence or through outright injustice. 

None of this is secret, exactly. There are many documents and published sources that spell out our checkered past. At the same time, we have not been forthcoming about the things we ought to be ashamed of. 

Samuel T. Wilson’s “A Century of Maryville College” avoids the integration of the students at Maryville completely. 

He even goes so far as to say “the student body has been made up of pure Americans descended from these Old-World emigrants, and mainly those coming from the British Isles. No college need ask for a worthier clientage” (p.195). 

Ralph Waldo Lloyd’s “Maryville College: A History of 150 Years, 1819-1969” is decidedly more honest about the external threats and the internal conflicts with regard to racial integration. His longer time span allowed him to address the fact that the college was forcibly segregated by state law in 1901 and, furthermore, that the man who spearheaded the segregation bill was a white graduate of the college (p. 210). 

He does not name this alum but indicates he had spoken to the man personally. He describes how the alum did not regret his actions. In fact, the alum explained that he had even delayed his own graduation in order to not have to graduate alongside a Black classmate. 

Caroline L. Blair and Arda S. Walker’s “By Faith Endowed: The Story of Maryville College, 1819-1994” is even more explicit. Lloyd had addressed the division between anti-slavery and pro-slavery faculty at the antebellum college, but Blair and Walker take us deeper. The leadership of the college was solidly Anti-Slave Trade in but not Abolitionist and that includes Isaac Anderson (p. 37). 

In accordance with much of the Presbyterian Synod’s stance on staying out of politics, it was unacceptable for anyone affiliated with the college to publicly take a stance against slavery. Those who did so often faced serious repercussions. 

William H. Davis, a graduate from the class of 1836, taught Sunday school for Black members of the broader community while in Tennessee. 

As the pastor of a congregation in South Carolina, he even reserved a weekly service exclusively for enslaved people. But when he publicly voiced his views as an abolitionist, he was forced to resign (p. 29). 

E. M. Eagleton, another graduate, nearly lost his license to preach when he preached against the institution of slavery. He convinced a reluctant Isaac Anderson at that point to speak on his behalf and he was able to reach a compromise with the Synod (p. 38). 

Blair and Walker share a few more details we rarely talk about. Dr. Jon Robinson was pro-slavery, and he briefly served as a chaplain in the Confederate army during the Civil War (p. 17).  Thomas J. Lamar owned enslaved people, primarily brought into the marriage by his wife, and the last of those people ran away just as General Burnsides arrived at Knoxville (p.39).  The only actively abolitionist faculty, Dr. John Craig, had to be smuggled out of the area during the Civil War (p.14). As far as I know, we have nothing named for him. 

When T. J. Lamar returned at the war’s end to reopen the college, support and grant money became available from the North and from the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands on the condition that the school enrolled Black students. Would Lamar have integrated the college without the promise of funding? I’d like to think so. 

Even so, an observer for the Bureau reported in 1868 that Black and white students did not share the same classroom. Furthermore, while Black men and white women were enrolled, albeit in low numbers, no Black women were admitted during this time. 

Apparently, one of the College’s leaders cited concern over “a special danger to morals and discipline” if Black women were to be enrolled. The final presidential report of Samuel W. Boardman in 1901 expressed regret at this “timidity, repression, and silence” in the face of a moral conundrum. We missed out on the chance to welcome Black women on our campus and we don’t talk enough about the special burdens placed on Black women, then or now. (For more on this era, see Jaqueline Burnside’s “A ‘Delicate and Difficult Duty’: Interracial Education at Maryville College, Tennessee, 1868-1901,” American Presbyterians 72: 4 (Winter 1994), 229-240. Available via JSTOR). 

We are proud of the fact that the college only segregated in 1901 due to state legislation that targeted MC in particular and that we reintegrated as soon as we were legally able to in 1954. We rightly celebrate that. However, though it had long been acknowledged that the author of the state segregation law was an MC alum, no one revealed that person’s name for decades. 

Even Blair and Walker, who had been so open about every detail in the college’s interracial past, did no more than note that Lloyd had quoted “an alum.” What we know now is that Moses H. Gamble was the author of the bill. 

This was revealed publicly when a Knoxville Metro Pulse editorial by Jesse Fox Mayshark in 2011 accused the college of hiding the fact that one of our buildings, Gamble Hall, was named for the man who forced us to segregate. 

Tom Bogart’s response appeared in the very next issue, explaining that Gamble Hall was actually named for Joe C. Gamble, who had served as Chair of the Board alongside then-president Dr. Lloyd during reintegration. 

While on the one hand this is a kind of redemption story in that Moses H. Gamble’s son helped to undo the harm his father had caused, we cannot  deny that both men are a part of our heritage. We cannot simply congratulate ourselves for one of the Gambles without acknowledging the other. 

After reintegration, we still rarely address what life was like on campus for the Black students who enrolled. Browse through the pages of the post-1954 yearbooks, the “Chilhowean,” available through the Internet archive. In the sections containing portraits of individual students, it is fairly easy to see that there were Black students. Now look at the organizations, the honor societies, and the athletic teams. They are, let me warn you, extremely white. I can’t help but wonder what integration meant if it was so difficult for groups to include their classmates on an equal footing. 

During the Civil Rights era of the 1960s, we find the same divide between those yearning for real change and those who were too cautious or too invested in the status quo to support racial equality. 

The front page of the Highland Echo on October 31, 1964 is pretty shocking— “KKK comes to Maryville.” Apparently, they came in response to the college’s invitation to American Presbyterian Church leader, Eugene Carson Blake. 

Blake was white but was very active in the Civil Rights movement and had marched on Washington with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1963. The KKK came to campus in hooded robes to hand out pamphlets and talk to the campus community about the dangers of Blake’s ideas. The article notes that Dr. Copeland addressed the student body in chapel after that visit, pleased that the members of the KKK, students, and staff were all very polite. 

“Even the faculty behaved themselves,” Copeland is quoted as saying. The student reporter signed off by remarking that the college president “did not comment on the cross-burning at Morningside on Saturday night.” 

I’m not at all surprised by Copeland’s remarks. Then, as now, some people uphold civility as the highest virtue. 

Some MC students at the time were clearly frustrated: the editorial “Lip Service” on page 2 of that issue simply states, “We think Dr. Copeland was a little free with the laurels.” 

But Nancy, you might say, those were all tumultuous times. We’ve come a long way. Yes, I’d like to think we have, but let me tell you about a recent incident and my own cowardice. 

A couple of years ago, when the temporary fitness center was located on the first floor of Bartlett Hall, a student approached me in the ladies’ room while I was fixing my hair after a workout. Lots of us did that—faculty, staff, and commuters who had nowhere else to tidy up before class used that bathroom. 

The student, a Black woman, asked me if I worked at the college. Thinking she was just making small talk, I smiled and introduced myself. She deflated a bit, and she admitted that she was trying to challenge me as she had recently been challenged for fixing her own hair in that bathroom.

 Some white woman like me saw this Black woman and demanded to see a student ID. Those of you savvy in social media no doubt recognize what had happened. We live in a society saturated with the idea that white people have the authority to monitor and correct the behavior of Black people as they go about their everyday lives. On that spot, in a bathroom in one of the most public buildings on campus, someone decided that a Black woman had no right to fix her hair. 

Angry, I took the issue to Dr. Melanie Tucker, and she was wonderful. But, as the student did not wish to pursue the matter, we had to let it drop. As the student said to me, she just wanted “to graduate and get the hell away from here.”  It made sense at the time to let it go. I thought it was best to honor the student’s wishes and to protect her privacy. And I still believe that part of it, but I think now I was probably also relieved that I didn’t have to push any harder. I tried, right? There was nothing else to be done, right? 

I was wrong. I needed to do more. I don’t mean I needed to identify my white coworker, whoever it was, and hold them accountable. That’s not what this is about. but I should have done something to shed light on the matter so it would be absolutely clear there is no justification for treating anyone like that. 

It should not have fallen on that young woman’s shoulders to carry the burden by herself. Everyone deserves to be treated with dignity. The whole point of challenging someone for doing perfectly normal things is to keep them on their toes, to make it clear they are under scrutiny. 

What else could be the reason? Is there some nefarious crime spree I’m unaware of in which strangers sneak into private buildings to plug in their curling irons? Nonsense. We only call out people for such things to scare them and control them. That needed to be shouted from the rooftops. 

There are promising things on the horizon. The Diversity Action Team worked all summer to create, among other things, a Bias Incident reporting system. It’s a shame we didn’t put something like that in place long ago. 

Now, no doubt that in writing this piece I have suddenly volunteered myself for any number of committees. I truly want to be part of the solution. I also think I’ve hit on a number of challenges we face in the current climate, as we have faced in earlier climates. 

We absolutely have external forces pressuring us to maintain the status quo or even undo whatever progress we can claim. We have external and internal forces calling for lasting change. We also have internal conflicts between those who are indifferent, fearful, confused, defensive, and/or hopeless. 

I’m no expert on changing or even challenging a system that’s stood for so many generations but let me share something I learned from a diversity discussion from a couple of years ago concerning disability issues on campus. 

Dr. Tucker and Kim Ochsenbein led the conversation, and I learned so much from that session. At the very end, someone in the audience asked them what they thought our priorities should be moving ahead on disability issues, and their answers involved learning more about disabilities and thinking about how we talk about disabilities. 

At that point, a woman in a wheelchair, a student, shouted, “I should be able to get to all my classes.” 

She was met with mostly quiet nodding, but I learned a big lesson. It won’t matter in the long run how kind, thoughtful, well-informed, and well-intentioned each of us is. If we prioritize abstract rhetoric over the basic needs people are actually begging for, we will not see any real progress.

6 thoughts on “Maryville College has a race problem

  • September 17, 2020 at 10:55 am
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    I was the student who took the pictures of the KKK used in the Highland Echo in 1964. By the standards of 1964, we as a group were mainly publicly unbiased, and we did behave by the standards of that time and place. As students we were scared, very few went down to the gate by the Klan. I took the pictures with the camera held out of sight at my waist. We did all know of the cross burning, but again I believe Dr. Campbells remarks were mainly to set the stage for Dr. Blake. Publicly I felt most students supported Dr. Blakes ideas, but maybe behind the scenes they did not. We were in school at a tumultuous time for Civil rights, the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the assassination of JFK, etc. Our student body had more students from NJ than Alabama…..it was a time of exploring ideas and faith for all of us.

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  • September 17, 2020 at 12:21 pm
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    This is an informative, helpful post, and of course, more can be done to make Maryville College welcoming to all people. However, I would like to say that my autistic son attended Maryville College from 2015 through 2019 and had a very positive experience of not only tolerance but acceptance & appreciation. People let him be his unique self and appreciated who he was. It was far better than I could have imagined or hoped for.

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  • September 17, 2020 at 4:51 pm
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    Thank you for this excellent article, Dr. Locklin-Sofer. Only by shining a bright light into those dark corners will we move towards positive change. I appreciated your ending comment: “If we prioritize abstract rhetoric over the basic needs people are actually begging for, we will not see any real progress.”

    Listening to recent conversations between Black Leaders, I heard this message loud and clear: “White people need to be talking with white people.” Thank you for speaking up.
    Cathy Angell, ’82
    Senior Class President

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  • September 17, 2020 at 5:00 pm
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    Thank you for shining a light on the darker parts of MC history. I’m encouraged to see that there is such a strong desire to affect positive change and institutionalized avenues to enact that change. I look forward to being part of the solution.

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  • September 19, 2020 at 9:12 am
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    Thank you for the well-researched, thoughtful article & sharing your own reflection… As a graduate of Maryville College, it provided (and I hope, still provides) a place to conduct research, develop critical thinking skills, & meet/befriend/ debate folks of different backgrounds. I hope, as a Black alumnus, the alumni of the Caucasian persuasion ask themselves critical questions about social justice. Such as, if their workplaces or houses of worship or locations of education lack Black people as leaders, co-workers, or interns, why? What are the institutional reasons? How & where is recruitment conducted? In addition, if you don’t know the local history of the African Americans in your community, discover it. If there are no Black folks or other People of Color in your community, find out why.
    Hubert E. Dixon, III
    Class of ‘86

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