Campus has mixed history with race, ethnicity
United States Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey's Oct. 15 visit to Bluffton was part of a yearlong campus focus on race and ethnicity in America. That focus was also the impetus for an Oct. 1 examination of the university’s history in those areas, led by Dr. Perry Bush.
An ongoing dynamic
It’s an uneven story that keeps circling back, the history professor said, to a central theme with which nearly every Christian—and every religious person, for that matter—struggles. “This is the ancient question of how much to accommodate outside society without surrendering basic group beliefs: how to be, in Christian talk, ‘in the world but not of the world,’” he explained.
“Very few religious people can totally isolate themselves from outside society,” and most of them end up borrowing from it, including culture, technology and social attitudes, Bush maintained. “Sometimes, what we borrow can reshape and reinvigorate our faith commitments in very positive ways. In other instances, however, the borrowing has more negative effects.”
For example, he cited “a progressive and idealistic group of Mennonite professors” in Bluffton’s early years who “were preaching a thorough acceptance of the mainstream culture of progressivism.”
A reform movement at the time focused on such issues as child labor and basic workplace safety laws, as well as women’s suffrage. “In absorbing this progressive culture, Bluffton professors argued, we can maintain our identity as Mennonites, refashioned now to serve the times, and share our Mennonite values—of peacemaking, of freedom of conscience—with an outside society which desperately needed them,” said Bush. “It was an agenda that had real promise; absorbing social justice commitments later bore much fruit for the Mennonite churches.
“But these Mennonite progressives borrowed too uncritically from mainstream progressive culture,” he continued. “They accepted, for example, much of its racism.”
That group included Mennonite historian C. Henry Smith, who, in a 1911 issue of “Christian Monitor” magazine, warned of “ignorant and inferior” races eventually outnumbering whites in America.
Change for the better
But Smith later changed, said Bush, the author of Bluffton’s centennial history, “Dancing with the Kobzar.” In the mid-‘30s, Smith spent some time in Hitler’s Germany, where he was “deeply troubled by the routine, extreme anti-Semitism he witnessed,” Bush pointed out. “By the World War II years and up to the end of his life, he began to speak across the Mennonite churches with denunciations of racism.”
At the same time, the college was changing as well, led by Lloyd Ramseyer, Bluffton’s president from 1938-65. Ramseyer recruited black students and was “extremely upset” by an “Amos ‘n’ Andy”-like skit by Bluffton village residents in blackface at a Lions Club show, said Natalie Nikitas, a senior history major from Jeffersonville, Ind., and one of six students who assisted Bush in the presentation. Ramseyer asked, she said: “How can we as Christians look on this field with serenity when the God whom we serve has made us as one all nations and races of men?”
A proud moment
In the late ‘50s, Elbert Dubenion dominated on the football field for Bluffton. In 1956, he and Willie Taylor, the other African-American on the team, were also at the center of a racial incident in Kentucky that was recounted by their then-teammate Ron Lora.
The 1956 football team was undefeated through eight games before a season-ending loss to Centre College in Danville, Ky. On the way home, the 35 players were filling their plates at a cafeteria in northern Kentucky when Dubenion and Taylor were told they couldn’t eat there, prompting their teammates to set down their trays and leave.
“We were not civil rights heroes; we were just teammates supporting each other,” said Lora, noting that the incident predated most major events of the civil rights movement.
“There was a lot of silence and embarrassment on the bus trip home,” he recalled. While “we didn’t have the language,” he said, what had just happened “allowed us to see” that Jim Crow laws weren’t right.
More change, and concerns
By the late ‘60s, a national wave of student activism reached Bluffton. Baldemar Velasquez founded the Farm Labor Organizing Committee—which he still leads—as a junior in 1967. And African-American students successfully campaigned for creation of an Afro-American Studies course and the Black Student Union, then called for other changes—including the addition of black faculty and a black admissions counselor—that led to a brief boycott of campus activities in 1971.
Race relations remained complex on campus in the ‘80s and ‘90s, said Hillary Crawford, a senior history major from Carey, Ohio, who related racist episodes from both decades.
Throughout the period, “there were welcoming students, staff and events that allowed minorities to feel welcome,” Crawford said. “Unfortunately, this was not the case many times,” she added, citing, for instance, an incident on one Martin Luther King Jr. Day when a student was accused of mockingly reciting King’s “I have a dream” speech while dressed in a Confederate flag and carrying a noose. The incident helped prompt a subsequent student, and faculty, protest outside Marbeck Center against racism.
While borrowing from many aspects of society can “render us better servants of Christ,” Bush reiterated, “we all need to be very careful and discerning about what we borrow.”