Research project leaves lasting impact on students

Jessica Barnett

Online Editor

This is the second part of a story about integration at the W. The first part chronicled how a small group of students are working with Dr. Erin Kempker, an associate professor of history, to learn more about the six women who originally integrated MUW. The first part was published in The Spectator on Oct. 23, 2015, and can be read here. Additional photos can be found here.

Kempker and Arrington echoed the sentiments, calling it intense and admiring the influx of positive reactions from the audience. All four looked forward to the second run of the production, which is currently scheduled for next spring. Vaughn said that she expected it to be bigger, better and even more powerful.

They were also in agreement that more students should attend these events in the future, and that they should look into joining the ongoing research or attending the history classes associated with desegregation.

 “There was a lot of information that just wasn’t out there for people. Like, there was one small article in the local newspaper about it, there was only a couple times that it was even mentioned about desegregation on campus. Like, everybody knew it was happening, but they were just kind of ignoring it. So it’s nice to dig in – it’s hard, because there wasn’t a lot there, but it’s nice, because they deserve credit for what they did, even if it wasn’t some huge act of rebellion,” said Marissa Vaughn.

In the meantime, the research had a profound effect in the students who have been involved thus far. Tevin Arrington admitted that he believed keeping an emotional distance from the stories would aid him in getting the job done, but as he grew close to Laverne Greene-Leech and learned more about the way the university treated black women in the 1960s, it became increasingly difficult.

“It’s definitely kind of zeroed in on how I view race – race and race issues. You know, I remember particularly, um, being in class, and I talked about it, and it really stirred back ideals that I thought I had already kind of dealt with, you know, about the way they were treated,” said Arrington.

Tamara Rutledge recalled thinking that she could sit and read the transcripts of the oral interviews during a moment of down time, only to find herself crying alone in the Writing Center on campus. She said it would be a long time before she forgot the feeling that came with those tears.

“It’s kind of just been a reality-check kind of thing. It’s like, uh, you read in history books that black people were mistreated, that it was difficult for women, um, even in the 1900s in America, but I feel like I didn’t really process that until I did this research, um, and really immersed myself in someone else’s life and how they felt the kind of things they were experiencing,” Rutledge said.

For Vaughn, a different feeling emerged. As a white student, she described an urge to apologize to them. She knew she had no words for the other white students and wanted the evidence to speak for itself. Knowing what to say to the black girls who were tormented into leaving school early was a different matter entirely.

“There’s that guilt. Like, I wasn’t part of that, but that, you know, those are my people, so, like, you know, I’d say, you know, I’m sorry that you went through all those things because of someone like me,” said Vaughn.

Rutledge said she wanted to thank the women for paving the way for other African-American students to attend the university. She expressed gratitude and a deeper connection to the school because of the research into their experiences.

“I would just tell them, ‘Thank you.’ You know, like, it was a really awful experience for them. They had a lot of emotional trauma for years afterwards. An experience of just trying to go to school… But, um, I feel like, because of what they did way back then, that we’ve moved forward to where we are now, so I‘d just tell them, ‘Thank you,’” said Rutledge.

Arrington, also an African-American student, took it even further. He felt “thank you” wasn’t enough, but he seemed to struggle with finding the words that were enough.

“You know, I try to deter from this ideal that they made the ultimate sacrifice, because they weren’t sacrificial lambs. They were just students that wanted to – they wanted an education and they wanted to graduate. Um, I guess I would just say I appreciate them for everything that they went through, and there’s nothing that justifies what they went through, but I’m happy that what’s going on now can be a healing process for them,” Arrington explained.

He also mentioned feeling uncomfortable when talking to particular people about the research.

“I think in talking about it and talking about it to mixed audiences – to mixed rooms – like, there’s still this discomfort. Like, I’m not comfortable talking about it in front of certain people, and those ideals… I mean, those… It makes me think about what they went through, and, like, I’m troubled by it,” he said.

Vaughn acknowledged that the project made her more aware of traditions and routines on campus that she might not have questioned before. She wished that she could tell the women who attended in 1966 that the campus was fully integrated, but as the project continued, her doubts regarding the full integration of the university grew. Race relations remained a problem on campus, even if it was no longer as apparent as it was 50 years ago.

“I question things a lot more, like, you know, ‘Is this intentional racism?’ ‘Is it not intentional?’ ‘Does that make a difference?’ You know, that sort of thing,” said Vaughn.

Looking to the future, Dr. Erin Kempker hoped that the history would be more commonplace on campus.

“I don’t know what it’s like, but I think that, like, to have never had the university tell this story, and then to hear that story told from the mouths of students today. I hope… I hope that those women understood that their sacrifice was worthwhile, that it was – that it is deeply appreciated by women on campus today,” said Kempker.

Kempker also noted the lack of information about desegregation at women’s colleges. As of this writing, the closest she could find was “Black at Bryn Mawr,” a project started by two students at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania. The research was started in 2014 after an incident involving the Confederate flag, and it continued through 2015 with plans to extend well into the future. Kempker stressed that this did not mean information on desegregation didn’t exist, but that the information centered on larger campuses and the men who attended them.

“We are one of the few places where we’re really asking the question of, ‘What does desegregation look like? What does integration look like on a women’s campus?’ And that leads to all kinds of questions, like, ‘Does it look different than on co-education campuses? Does the fact that it is a women’s college matter?’” said Kempker.

She mused about a day when the colleges might get together for a conference to discuss the answers to those questions. While she said the conference might happen in five or 10 years, she has been hard at work with other faculty members to create events over the next 12 months. These events include a public exhibit organized by Dr. Beverly Joyce, a professor in the Department of Art & Design, to be built by the students in the Museum Studies of the spring 2016 semester, in addition to the aforementioned second run of “In Their Own Words.”

Those looking to do something now are invited to participate in this semester’s Common Reading Initiative. This semester, CRI’s selection was “Coming of Age in Mississippi” by Anne Moody. Rutledge was tasked with reading the book over the summer and thinking of discussion questions that would help other readers to better understand the autobiography. She also helped set up the CRI page on the university’s website and spoke of the annual essay contest.

“We’re having the CRI Essay Contest, and you can get cash prizes for that, so… I wrote – I mean, I wrote the CRI website, so maybe I’m biased or whatever, but it’s a really good book, even if you don’t end up writing an essay,” said Rutledge.

As for the research, there is still plenty of work to be done.

Arrington revealed that an attempt had been made to contact Barbara Turner, the third of the freshman women to attend the university in 1966. The team has also tried to talk with the graduate students from that year. Kempker said there were at least 10 women who she planned to interview as part of her future oral history classes.

“I know people always think that, like, there’s nothing new in history, but it’s just not the case at all. In fact, there are really huge gaps in the literature, and we are sitting smack-dab in the middle of one,” stated Kempker.

Rutledge also maintained a positive outlook.

“I just hope that we can keep moving forward from here. I feel like it’s been really positive, and there’s been a lot of good stuff done,” she said.

Kempker agreed.

“Whatever the workload is, it’s worth it.”