My school’s racist history made me stronger
I am a proud alum of the University of Missouri. I am a Tiger and anyone who meets me is going to instantly know that.
My dad, a retired educator and a history buff to his very core taught me that you never go to a new place without knowing its story.
When I arrived at the University of Missouri-Columbia I sought to learn its story. All of it. Not just what is said on tours, what hangs on the walls of our student unions and our beloved Jesse Hall, or what the Mizzou Alumni Association puts in glossy pamphlets. I wanted to learn the good, bad, and ugly.
When I was a sophomore I was honored with the opportunity to share a meal with Gus T. Ridgel, Mizzou’s first African-American graduate degree recipient. His master’s degree in economics at MU was supposed to take two years but he did it in one.
He talked to me about how the black cooks in the cafeteria looked out for him because there were hardly any places in Columbia that would serve him and how he wouldn’t even dream of sitting down in the Shack. (An old building that was a hangout for many students until it burned down.)
I learned how the confederate flag used to be flown at football games and that Marching Mizzou, our band, used to play “Dixie.”
James T. Scott was a janitor that was lynched in 1923 because he was suspected to have sexually assaulted a professor’s daughter.
Lucile Bluford, a black woman, was accepted to the Graduate School for Journalism and then denied when they realized she was black. When I sat in the the School of Journalism’s commencement ceremony and walked across the stage, I thought of her.
At first, I described my feelings for Mizzou as an awkward love, having so much love in my heart for a place that I know would not have loved me back 60 years ago; walking through and working in buildings named after people who owned slaves or tried to play a role in keeping the school exclusive to whites.
But now, I no longer describe my feelings for Mizzou as an awkward love — but a true love. To me, you are not really in love with someone if you cannot accept their past, love them in the present, and want better for its future.
No matter your ethnicity, failing to ask questions and learn history for yourself, from the eyes of many people is a huge mistake. We have to move beyond the heroification that we place on historic figures that make them almost inhuman in our eyes and in our textbooks.
A statue of Thomas Jefferson sits on our quad. He signed the Louisiana Purchase that established Mizzou as the first university west of the Mississippi. He was a great leader and wrote the immortal words — “All men are created equal.”
Thomas Jefferson owned over 600 slaves.
One of the nation’s brightest minds probably didn’t even notice that he had been part of one of the largest contradictions of American history. All of his accomplishments are very much part of him, but so is his role as a slave owner.
We need to stop erasing the real from real people.
We need to stop erasing the real from real stories.
The moment I learned Mizzou’s real story is when I realized that my role and responsibility to the university was much greater than I ever could have imagined. I realized that I could not afford to not be involved, to not take advantage of every opportunity that came my way, to not give back or make my presence known. I also realized, that even in an extremely competitive program, that I certainly could not afford to fail.
More than just 4 years of tuition was paid for me to walk that campus, to occupy those spaces, to graduate from that journalism school and to be a part of that community. More people than just my family paid for that experience.
Learning Mizzou’s true history compelled me to set a standard of excellence for myself that I never had before. I didn’t mean I was ever perfect or never lost my way. It doesn’t mean that I didn’t feel angry or hurt when learning these things about a place I loved, but at the same time, learning these things did not erase the amazing memories I made there.
Loving something or someone doesn’t mean that you forget their past or shortcomings. In fact, being aware of those things and choosing to love them anyway is what true love actually is — unconditional.
Painful stories of the past don’t have to be sole reminders of pain. Let them push you to be greater, to walk taller, to pick yourself up when you’re on the ground, and to never take for granted every step and breath you take because someone paid for that.
The pain of my people in this country taught me to never apologize for my presence.
Maya Angelou once said, “history despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, and if faced with courage, need not be lived again.”
I live and work in D.C. now — down the street and around the corner from the White House built by slaves and not far from the National Mall where my ancestors were auctioned and sold. I strive every day to turn that pain into power.
My dad says that America has a terrible case of amnesia.
I’m here to tell you to never forget the full story. You’ll most certainly have to dig a few feet under the ground for it, and you probably will never reach everything. But history is too invaluable to be buried.