Research leaves lasting impact on students

This is the first part of a story about integration at The W. It was published in The Spectator on Oct. 23, 2015. 

Jessica Barnett

Online Editor

It began with three women who wanted to go to a local university and were instead bullied into dropping out.

While they were responsible for one of the biggest moments in W history, it would take almost 50 years for a student to dig deeply enough to learn the original three women’s names. It would take even longer to discover that there were actually six students, not three.

“The fact that there were six women – that was huge. I mean, if you can even under-stand, like, we didn’t know there were six women. So just the idea that our institutional memory is so limited that we didn’t even know the number – or their names,” said Dr. Erin Kempker, an associate professor of history at the W.

“And then, I think, just our overall ignorance. It seems like such a stunning thing to not have done before. The very idea that if you walk around this campus today, it’s almost unbelievable to know that we don’t know this story of how we became this diverse institution, but the truth is… we don’t,” said Kempker.

Jaleesa Fields first highlighted the lack of information in a Capstone project. Capstone projects are usually a multi-semester assignment in which students attempt independent research into the topic of their choice. For Fields, it was the first three African-American students to attend The W. Kempker became so intrigued by Fields’ Capstone project that she turned it into an assignment for the students in her Spring 2015 classes. When the semester finished, she provided the opportunity for select students to earn internship credit for their work over the summer. She gave preference to students who had experience in fields that would help the research, such as history, women’s studies or communication.

“If you want to do this work, we try to find ways to help you connect to it. But always through coursework or the federal work-study, because we want students to have something they can document and then use on their own transcripts,” said Kempker.

Tamara Rutledge first heard about the research project from her roommate, who was a student in Kempker’s class. Rutledge is a senior and interdisciplinary studies major in English, psychology and women’s studies.

“I really wanted to be part of something that hadn’t been done before and contribute to the school itself to help uncover our own history here,” said Rutledge.

For Tevin Arrington, a senior and communication major, it was an endeavor that he felt compelled to join. He said that while the stories didn’t reflect his own experiences at The W, he did feel connected to the women on a different level. His first idea was to write an essay about their experiences, but it became evident that that wouldn’t be enough. So he altered his plans and went instead with an idea for a documentary.

“For me, it’s, like, telling their stories and making sure it’s told in a way that’s understanding and that does them justice,” said Arrington.

Arrington and Rutledge joined Kempker and a small group of other students in digging through campus archives, from filing cabinets in Orr and McDevitt to newspapers on microfilm to the University Archives in Cromwell. Marissa Vaughn, a senior and communication major, was also a part of the team.

“I think it’s special, just because it hasn’t really been looked at that closely. So many people don’t know the stories of these women who came here. Like, you know, we hear about James Meredith and all these people who got all this press coverage, but you don’t hear about these people,” said Vaughn.

Photo by Chris Jenkins.

In the fall, Arrington and Rutledge were given the opportunity to share some of their findings in an honors forum in Nissan Auditorium. They were joined by Alex Elmore, Chelsey Collin, and Kempker, and together they revealed some of the successes in the summer’s work. For Rutledge, one of the biggest discoveries was a flyer advertising the return of the first African-American graduate from the university to speak with students in 1985. For Arrington, it was a bulleted list that explained the disbanding of the YWCA in 1945 and a series of articles detailing laws that forced then-president of the university, Hogarth, to integrate a university that was otherwise happy to keep black students from attending.

The night after the forum, Vaughn joined the theatre department in presenting “In Their Own Words.” The Reader’s Theatre presentation was arranged by Kevin Barkman, a junior and theatre major, using excerpts from oral interviews with Laverne Green-Leech and Diane Hardy, two of the three freshman women, and Suzy Shelton, a student who attended a few years later. The show was designed to mimic a talk show and allowed a dry run to give performers and crew an idea of how the finished product might be perceived by audiences. The reviews were all positive. Several of those in attendance found themselves crying at a few of the stories, and more than one described the event as intense.

“People didn’t even realize. There were probably people involved in the incidents that were discussed. People that were a part of the TV room incident and things like that, that didn’t even know it was wrong or didn’t know they had affected someone so hugely,” said Vaughn, who selected the images that appeared on a projector behind the performers.

The TV incident that Vaughn referenced occurred between Laverne Green-Leech and a group of white students. The university had a room filled with cots and a television set, designed to give students the chance to nap or relax between their classes. When Green-Leech and a friend tried to use the room, they were told that coloreds weren’t allowed to watch television. Green-Leech refused to obey, and the white students responded by turning the TV to face the wall and allowing no one to watch it until the black students left. This was one of several events that ultimately led to all three of the original freshmen women dropping out before they graduated, and it was arguably milder than the other stories described in the forum and Reader’s Theatre.

However, finally getting a chance to reveal these stories was empowering and validating for the families of those women.

“They came up to me after the presentation and talked to me and they were, like, ‘Thank you so much for what you’ve done,’ ‘This is really moving,’ ‘This means a lot to us…’,” said Rutledge. 

This story is continued here. Additional photos are available here.