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Univ. of Missouri’s hateful legacy goes back to 1839

Alumna says university has much more to fix than recent history

For the media, and the world, the University of Missouri’s race relations took a turn for the bad on Nov. 7, 2015, when black members of its football team announced a boycott of all football-related activities. Maybe some saw the deterioration five days earlier, when graduate student Jonathan Butler began a hunger strike that he said would end in his death or the UM system president’s removal. But the true sons and daughters of Mizzou know the university’s tumultuous relationship with race began much earlier.

Back in the ’60s, there was that white fraternity hosting slave parades — blacks dressed as slaves included.

And even further back, in 1938, there was the mysterious disappearance of Lloyd Gaines. Shortly after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Mizzou had to allow Gaines, a black man, to attend its law school or else build him one to attend, Gaines disappeared. He was never heard from again. His legacy lives on at the Gaines Oldham Black Culture Center (GOBCC), the veritable hub of black student life on campus.

For us, the sons and daughters of Mizzou, racial injustice on campus truly began in 1839, when the University of Missouri was founded. James S. Rollins, the “father” of MU, owned slaves, and much of the seed money for the university came from local slave owners. Rollins Street cuts through the entire campus, a permanent reminder of his legacy.

This is what the national media missed.

My history with Mizzou began in 2008 when I was accepted into the university’s journalism school. My freshman year was the beginning of an upward trend in the African-American student population that continued until, well, until this year.

I was one of a handful of black journalism students, but Mizzou’s campus resources helped me find my family. There was the Ale chapter of National Association of Black Journalists, where I honed my craft and network. I found the Women’s Center, where I fellowshipped with women of all colors and defined my feminism. Dream Outside the Box helped me discover my love for community service. Lastly, the GOBCC facilitated my life as a black student, both socially and academically. Through these organizations and more, I laid claim to Mizzou.

Like slaves picking cotton

It was a cold, clear morning in February 2010. It was the end of Black History Month and campus celebrations had left me feeling informed and triumphant. But then a word began to spread; someone had put cotton balls on the lawn of the GOBCC. Cotton balls. Like slaves picking cotton. Get it?

Telling the story now, it seems trivial, cotton balls scattered on the ground hurts no one, right? That same narrative was told when Concerned Students 1950 claimed Tiger Plaza as their safe space during last fall’s protests. But seeing that cotton gathered in bunches in the dead, brown grass beside iconic names like Gaines’ and the civil rights activist Marian O’Fallon Oldham, among iconic institutions like the nine black greek letter organization memorials, on the lawn of the veritable hub of black student life on MU’s campus, I felt violated — WE were violated.

It sent a message of exclusion and hate. No matter how much I believed I was a true daughter of Mizzou, there were those on campus who still believed I was not.

Three days later, Mizzou hosted a town hall on the incident. Black students were angry and hurt and we felt we had the right to be both. We asked what police were doing to find the perpetrators. We questioned why there were no security cameras around the GOBCC. We wondered aloud if the university and its students understood the gravity of the situation. This was no harmless prank.

On March 3, two white Mizzou students were arrested for the crime. Of course, they claimed it was a harmless prank. Many on Mizzou’s campus believed it was a hate crime. The prosecutor agreed. Nonetheless, the perpetrators pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of littering and received two years’ unsupervised probation with community service. The university handed down a temporary suspension. They could return in the fall. That’s it. That’s all. Oh, wait, the university also required the men to write papers reflecting on what they’d done. Ha.

It wasn’t the last time racism reared its head at Mizzou during my undergraduate years. But it’s important to understand the traumatic impact of these individual incidents within the larger context of ex-president Tim Wolfe, Concerned Students 1950, and life for students of color at predominantly white institutions nationwide. When camera crews leave, students still need institutional change and support. This responsibility lies with the universities, the government, and me, an alumna.

Black Mizzou alumni quickly mobilized during the events of last fall. The students on television were not just sound bites or B-roll, they are my friends. Some of them are my sisters. We, as alumni, have a vested interest in their concerns and their safety. Within days of the campus protests, alumni created a Black Alumni Network under the Mizzou Alumni Association umbrella. Efforts have begun to connect to incoming and current students through mentoring and programming. For better and for worse, Mizzou is ours. That is what the national media missed.