Breaking Down Barriers Reflections on Race Relations at W&L.
“The increased diversity of faculty and students builds on the excellence of the university’s past without compromising its illustrious history.”
~ John Miller ’77, ’80L
Forty-plus years after graduating from Washington and Lee, I’m proud of what has become of one of America’s top universities. Yes, that’s the university that sold slaves in 1836 to sustain Washington College, as it was facing dire financial circumstances, and now is confronting issues around Robert E. Lee’s legacy.
In the fall of 1973, when I matriculated at Washington and Lee, I was one of 12 black men in the class of 1977. W&L had only allowed black students to attend as undergraduates in 1968. Walter Blake and Carl Linwood Smothers broke that barrier.
Our daily lives were fraught with anxiety, racial tension and rigorous academics. A longtime c-school professor made it clear to me and other black students not to expect a grade higher than a C because we were incapable of keeping up and grasping the work. Yet, the bonds of brotherhood among the men of SABU, and others who supported black students, made my W&L days a great experience.
One of my main motivations to attend W&L was to see how power, privilege, money and influence were wielded by whites in America. And what better place than where rich, white families sent their sons to be educated? The admission of women changed the gender exclusivity, but not some of the other constants.
Jamila Seaton ’09, years after the black men of my era made it through Lexington, said it was the support of the undergraduate and law school community of black students and Dean Tammy Futrell that got her through. “I was a social butterfly, but I constantly felt isolated while at school. Yet, I always felt like I had the resources on campus to overcome my obstacles. My closest friends on campus were always there to help, and a few new friends at schools in surrounding cities became outlets for me. I believe the relationships with all of these resources kept me afloat — barely, but afloat.”
So, given that, I think the university has made definitive progress in recognizing the glorious and inglorious past of Lee and, more broadly, the South, prompted by tragic events in Charlottesville in August 2017.
One example is the Commission on Institutional History and Community, charged “to lead us in an examination of how our history — and the ways that we teach, discuss, and represent it — shapes our community.” That commission included Elizabeth Mugo ’19, the first black female student elected Executive Committee president.
While on campus for Black Reunion Weekend, I talked with many of the 65 people who attended. I spoke with current undergraduate students, recent grads and, of course, alumni from my days in Lexington. Almost to a person, they were encouraged by what they had seen and heard but were skeptical if the progress was sustainable.
The most notable indications of progress are the addition of Lena Hill, dean of the College, and the new Office of Inclusion and Engagement, headed by longtime dean Tammy Futrell.
Previous efforts to diversify the university and sustain those efforts have not been consistent. Yet, it seems with President Will Dudley that the university is committed to maintaining the excellence in instruction and providing opportunity for all students.
The increased diversity of faculty and students builds on the excellence of the university’s past without compromising its illustrious history. We should not try to romanticize history; let’s be truthful about the past and mindful of a future that represents an ever-changing American landscape.
J’ontae Smith ’19 from Williamsburg said he transferred to W&L from William & Mary because he wanted a more rigorous academic challenge as a Romance Languages major. He intends to go to law school.
“I stayed because of the black community,” said Smith. “I feel like it’s strong, even though we’re small in numbers. I feel like it’s a real mighty community.” Smith said the strength of W&L is in the personal relationships you build with faculty — especially black faculty — as well as the other minorities on campus. “I feel like this is corporate America that we’re looking at. So, to not attend the school and decide to drop out for that reason (lack of minority students), I feel it’s self-defeating. I think you have to learn how to navigate it in order to be successful in the future,” he added.
One of those Generals from my era, Anthony Perry, a football and track teammate of mine, returned to W&L for the first time since we graduated in 1977. Though his days were littered with disappointments and cruelty, he did become in 1976 W&L’s first black All-American athlete as a tight end on the football team. He was drafted by the New England Patriots. He told me he had regretted not returning earlier. But he was not alone in feeling embittered by his treatment on campus.
I was at the dedication of Chavis Hall, an indication of how far the university has come since I took classes here. Professor Ted Delaney ’85, who spoke at the ceremony, has uncovered much about John Chavis’ life before and after his time at Liberty Hall Academy. Ted was a lab technician in the Biology Department when I attended, but after earning a Ph.D. from William & Mary, he became the first black department chair in W&L’s history.
Not all would agree with me that things have changed enough. And some would argue that the changes are ruining the university’s legacy and its future as one of America’s elite colleges.
Being mindful of the future, change and progress are not synonymous. Progress comes at a price for those advocating for it and those resisting it.
Miller is senior editor for news and commentary for ESPN’s “The Undefeated.”
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