Blacks on the Banks

By: Rachelle Legrand

Blacks on the Banks kick started the weekend’s celebrations as a part of  Rutgers University’s 250th anniversary.

Neilson Dining Hall hosted part one of Blacks on the Banks on Friday November 6th. Part one featured a panel of some of the first African American students who set foot on Rutgers and Douglass College. The alumni all touched upon their days as a college student and their experiences of being black in an all white university.

Wilma Harris, class of 1966, felt the burden on her shoulder to make an example of herself for the rest of the black female students who soon would follow in her footsteps at Douglass College. “If I screw up, Douglass will not accept any more black students.” She recalled a piece of advice her mother told her upon entering Douglass College.

“You have to be twice as good to be considered half as good.”

Thomas Ashley, a Rutgers College alum of 1964 and a South Jersey native, recalled being 1 of 16 black students on campus. He spoke of his attempts to adjust to Rutgers College. He started this adjustment with joining the basketball team where he was also alone and but tried to find his niche by pledging an all white fraternity. His father told him, “Your head is in Camden, but you need to be in New Brunswick.” He quickly gravitated toward the other blacks he met on campus.

Joseph Charles, Rutgers class of 1964, found himself in a similar predicament as Ashley. In search for blackness at Rutgers he rushed an all white fraternity as well but also found the racist politics of Greek like to be very present.  Luckily, Charles did not encounter any overt racism, however found himself detached from a social life as there were no blacks in his dorm and nor his classes.  He even considered transferring to Howard.

Frank McClellan of Rutgers class of 1967, had a much different experience than the other panelists. As every one else’s parents encouraged them to stay and make the transition into Rutgers, McClellan’s father questioned his entrance into Rutgers when they first arrived. “My dad said, son do you know what you’re doing here?” He reassured him he would be alright but that was not the case. He lived on Douglass, but “could not find any of the sisters.” He as well went on this search for blackness, but as opposed to joining a white fraternity on campus like some of the other panelists, he became a brother of Omega Psi Phi on a campus in New York.

Photo courtesy of 250.rutgers.edu
Photo courtesy of 250.rutgers.edu

Juanita Wade Wilson, Douglas College 1966, encountered a few racist politics of Rutgers as well. She had a white roommate but prior to moving in, her roommate’s parents were warned that Juanita was black. On the other hand, Juanita’s parents were not warned anything about her who her roommate was. Juanita expressed her passion for the civil rights movement but her roommate never understood why. However as her roommate watched her struggle during her four years and she began to recognize her privilege. They began to form a coalition that transformed into a friendship that still exists today. Despite her experiences, Wilson expressed gratitude to Douglass College by allowing her to study abroad in Africa for a semester.

As for the future experiences, Ashley went onto work with the NAACP and “never thought about undergrad again.” He discouraged his son from attending a predominantly white university due to his social experiences. McClellan knew he couldn’t not just come to Rutgers University and leave the way he it the way it was so he helped found the African American Society. Wilson started the Julia Baxter Bates scholarship, in honor of the first black women to graduate Douglass College.

The audience fully grasped all that was spoken about their experiences and thanked the panelists for their contribution.

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