President's Forum

09/11/13

Alumna's insights can inform study of race: Harder

Climbing the stairs to the second-floor reading room of Bluffton University’s Musselman Library brought back strong memories for an African-American graduate who returned to campus in 2011 for the first time in 45 years.

And as Bluffton embarks on yearlong study of race and ethnicity in America as part of its civic engagement program, the insights triggered by Dr. Elaine (Ragsdale) Schott’s memories remain relevant, university President Dr. James Harder said Sept. 10 in his annual President’s Forum address.

Schott, a 1966 alumna with a bachelor’s degree in social work, went on to graduate school and positions in human services and mental health for the state of Michigan. She was also director of the School of Social Work at Grand Valley State University in Grand Rapids, Mich., where she remains a professor.

But growing up in Virginia in the 1950s and early ‘60s, just getting her hands on books to read wasn’t easy, Harder said.

“Blacks were not allowed to enter or use the public library in her county,” explained the president, who met Schott when she came back to Bluffton for a May Day 2011 celebration of its social work program’s legacy.

Nonetheless, as a girl, “she would walk to the library once or twice a week hoping that she would catch the librarian on a day when she was in the mood to let Elaine inside,” he said. “Elaine was only permitted to enter the basement storage area and touch, and sometimes borrow, the older books that were being discarded for missing or worn pages.”

On a good day, she was allowed inside for 10-15 minutes and could take some books home, Harder said. “On a bad day—often if there were other people around—she recalls being loudly admonished for ‘having the gall to be here’”—and worse, he added.

When it came time to select a college, many of her African-American friends chose one of the historically black colleges that were open to them in the South, the president continued. Aware, however, of the “lifetime limitation” of that choice—many states outside the South didn’t acknowledge degrees from historically black institutions, and employers sometimes discarded applications with such credentials—she decided to find a college in the North, he said.

“Ohio seemed to be about the right distance (from home), so she researched information about schools in this region and ended up selecting Bluffton sight unseen,” due in part to its small size and financial aid possibilities, Harder noted.

Once on campus, her roommates couldn’t fully understand some realities of her life as an African-American, and she overheard parents of a student across the hall expressing apprehension about her presence in the dorm, the president related. “Yet, for the most part, Elaine recalls having a very good experience as a Bluffton student,” including “very genuine and helpful efforts” by most people to make her feel comfortable and welcome, he added. “One of her friends came to visit from New York City and could not believe the campus was so friendly.”

One of Schott’s specific recollections was her love of spending time in Musselman Library, Harder pointed out. But “because of her painful library experiences as a child, every time she ascended the stairs in the Bluffton library, she found herself tensing up.” Quoting her, he said:

“‘I really kept thinking, ‘When is it going to happen?’ she recalls. ‘When am I going to be asked to leave the library?’

“‘I know it was an irrational fear. But for me, it wasn’t irrational. It had been part of my reality, and I was scarred by it. Those fears really didn’t fully dissipate until my junior year at Bluffton, when I was more certain of my acceptance.’”

For Schott, the president said, “Bluffton in the 1960s was a place where she could prepare herself for a most productive career and for a life of service to others. Her story of experiencing acceptance and respect here is one that we would wish for all students of all backgrounds.”

Fifty years later, “much has evolved in America with regard to racism,” said Harder, who also retold the story of the 1956 Bluffton football team leaving a Kentucky cafeteria when their black teammates were refused service on the way home from a game.

Despite progress in race relations, however, “just listening to current events tells us that we still have more work to do as a nation,” he continued. Bluffton’s campus community will take up that challenge this year through learning opportunities related to the civic engagement theme of “Race and Ethnicity in America: Celebration, Struggle, Opportunity.”

Marking 100-year milestones

In addition to focusing on Bluffton’s experiences with civil rights 50 years ago, the president observed several pivotal events that helped shape the college’s future 100 years ago. Among them were adoption both of the name Bluffton College, which replaced the school’s original name of Central Mennonite College as a signal of greater inclusivity, and the motto “The Truth Makes Free,” which was added to the official college seal.

During the then-college’s first 14 years of existence, beginning in 1899, students took primarily high school academy or junior college-level courses, Harder said. In 1913, though, the senior class included eight candidates for bachelor’s degrees the following spring. Soon, he said, “Bluffton wrapped up its academy phase and achieved its aspiration of becoming a four-year baccalaureate institution with the continued growth and development of its faculty, programs and facilities.” Those facilities included Bluffton’s second and third permanent buildings—Ropp Hall and the original science building, now Berky Hall—for which fundraising and two years of construction began in 1913-14.

The president described the century-old motto, taken from John 8:31-32, as identifying Bluffton “as an institution fully committed to our strong Christian underpinnings.” But Bluffton’s history indicates “that our early leaders likely intended a second and parallel meaning” for “The Truth Makes Free,” he maintained.

“In these same four words from Christ’s teaching, they saw support for the virtuous pursuit of knowledge, or truth, in its own right,” he explained. “We are called to be faithful people, but we are also responsible for the development of our own God-given minds in good ways. We are called to lives of both faith and reason.”

Harder expressed hope that the motto will inspire everyone on campus to “a deeper understanding” of complex issues, including those of race and ethnicity. “And may our resulting actions demonstrate a hunger for justice and a willingness to serve others,” he said.

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