This Week in the Archive: “An Issue of Black and White”

by Alexa Mendieta

Alexa Mendieta is senior from Apache Junction, Arizona majoring in Rhetoric and Communication Studies. She believes the class has given her an ability to understand the power of the archive and its ability to help or hinder an understanding of the past. Her favorite part was being able to examine the original documents. This post was written as a part of Digital Memory & the Archive, a course offered in Fall 2017.

“Recruiting Trouble Cited by Students,” the headline cried in the December 1978 issue of The Collegian. The article was nestled under the broader heading of “An Issue of Black and White,” part of a one-page section dedicated to articles about the activities and concerns of black students on the University of Richmond campus. This article specifically discussed the student concern over the focus on black male athletes, citing that the “recruitment of blacks at the University of Richmond is concentrated in the athletic department.” Because of this focus, more black men than black women were being drawn to the University. The imbalance of men and women is further discussed under the article titled, “Male-Female Ratio Imbalanced at UR.” One concern stemming from the imbalance is that the high ratio of men to women puts undue pressure on the dating culture amongst black students because black men don’t have enough women to choose from and the black women face pressure from all of the black men. The initial focus on recruiting black male athletes became a held-on stereotype. A 2010 poem submitted to The Collegian by J. Isaiah Bailey describes his experience as a black student on campus. He writes, “A black male at UR. “Oh are you an athlete?” With so many students assuming that black students must be athletes, it raises the question of why students couldn’t fathom a reason why a black male would be a student here other than his athletic prowess.

One quote from an article titled “Virginia Program To Increase Enrollment in Public Schools,” drew attention to the overall public image of the University. Dr. David D. Burhans, University Chaplain, said that the student body was too homogenous with “the majority of our students coming from upper-middle class Anglo-Saxon backgrounds.” As I read all of these articles under the singular page dedicated to issues affecting the black community at the University, I began to reconcile the above quote with the lived experiences of black students. The University of Richmond had a very white, upper-middle class image at the time these forty-five black students were enrolled and they encountered social problems because of this image. Access to the University of Richmond hadn’t even been possible until just ten years prior to this, so it is interesting to see how black students, once given the opportunity to even attend the school, were attempting to take control of their own experiences. As I thought about these things, I began to ask myself, Is the image of the University any different today than it was in 1978? Do black students have different or similar experiences to these students in 1978?

Benjamin Campbell wrote in his book Richmond’s Unhealed History that accomplished black students were being denied admission to higher education all throughout the history of the city. Even Henry L. Marsh and L. Douglas Wilder, Richmond’s first African-American mayor and the first African-American elected governor in the United States, respectively, could not have attended Virginia schools because of segregation and discrimination. They had to attend Howard University in D.C. before being able to return to the city having finished law school (pg. 150). Ten years after graduating from Howard in 1959, the University of Richmond enrolled its first black residential student at Richmond College, Barry Greene.

Forum Upholds HEW By Slim Vote, 43-31,” an article in a 1970 issue of The Collegian, eight years prior to the articles above, describes the issue effectively. The Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW) charged the University of Richmond with perpetuating an image of an “all-white Southern school” and thus implicitly discouraging the application of black students. Before black students would feel more comfortable attending the school, the school needed to actively work towards making the campus a more inclusive place for these students to work and live for the next four years. A 1974 article titled “Registrars Seek To Overcome 150 Years of Black Exclusion” phrase it even better, “[Black students] see no black professors or administrators and only a handful of black students and they immediately throw the catalog down.”

In the “Recruiting Trouble” article, one black student reported that when he had toured the University before attending, he was mislead to believe that there were more black women on  campus than was actually true. I think this leads to an interesting line of inquiry in which there exists an element of difficulty in attracting more and more black students to the campus. It seems only natural to think that any student would want to attend a school that is welcoming, so it must have seemed daunting for the first black student to attend a school that was entirely white and to make himself the only black student. Although this got easier as more and more black students were accepted, the argument can’t be made that their experience became easy. Just easier.