In the years following the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a new file was created in the admissions office at then-Mississippi State College for Women in Columbus.
The file was titled: “Letters from Prospective Students (Considered Wise not to Respond).” It contained letters from black women that had applied to the university assuming the new legislation would afford them the same privileges as their white counterparts.
The file reveals a dark past: A concentrated effort at the now-Mississippi University for Women under then-President Charles Hogarth’s administration to, in fact, actively stop black women from enrolling, according to Dr. Erin Kempker, an assistant professor of history at MUW today.
Kempker is one of the leaders in a multi-year effort by the MUW Department of History, Political Science and Geography uncovering the history surrounding desegregation and integration at the school in 1966. This fall marks the 50th anniversary of the event.
An ongoing, student-led research project into the event led by Kempker and fellow research leaders — Dr. Beverly Joyce, an MUW art history professor, and Derek Webb, the university’s library archivist — has earned the Award of Merit from the Mississippi Historical Society.
They’ll be honored with it Saturday at the committee’s awards luncheon in Jackson at the historic King Edward Hotel.
The files of rejected letters — called “dead files” by the MUW researchers — show an active effort by admissions staff to determine if a student was black. Notes attached to submitted letters claimed a prospective student’s name “sounded like a negro,” or noted things like addresses or information gained through different contacts used to determine whether an applicant was black.
The efforts were far reaching: There was postcard correspondence found from an MUW alumnus in Hawaii who university administrators had reached out to, asking if a prospective student was black.
The letters were then filed away and ignored.
“Their tactic was to just not give any information, to just pretend like they never saw it,” Kempker said.
Such findings are possible due in part to a student’s capstone project a couple years ago featuring an interview with one of the first women to start in the desegregation process.
“It was through that that we realized how little was known,” Kempker said.
The research group has now grown to include more than two dozen students, who’ve already begun to cite each other in their work, Kempker said. This fall the work will be showcased in a physical and online exhibit, a campus mural and in the showing of a documentary created by Tevin Arrington, a senior communications major at MUW.
The project features about 10 oral interviews, including three of the six first black women to attend the university in 1966: Diane Hardy Thompson, Laverne Green, and Barbara Turner
The process of collecting the interviews and digging through MUW archives has been a nuanced project. The archives needed to first be moved from where they were housed in Orr Chapel, where the failing building was collapsing on the records. Researchers said the records were in “terrible condition.”
“It was tedious,” said Webb, who at one point adorned a hazmat suit in digging through a particular area where he thought there might be asbestos. “A lot of file cabinets, box by box and then dusting them off to see what’s inside.”
The findings are helping to fill a gap in MUW’s and in the nation’s history in studying what integration at a southern and then-women’s only college looked like.
“It’s a surprising gap,” Kempker said.
While researchers plan to launch their findings within the year, Kempker said the work is still very much in the early stages.
“We’re still in the infancy of this history project,” Kempker said.
She added that the group is still reaching out to — and looking for — people from that time willing to share their oral histories. Currently, they’re looking for two students from the first integrated class: Barbara Turner Bankhead and Mary L. Flowers.
Recognizing the past
The researchers told The Dispatch they have encountered some who believe the painful history should not be revisited. But the group is passionate about the findings and feel as if they have already changed something in the air at MUW, Kempker said.
They’ve also had to be a bit creative in their research. Little documentation on the number of black students and other information was kept, Kempker said. One way they’ve researched the numbers of black students in the population is by going through yearbooks spanning twenty-five years, and counting the numbers in the senior class and social clubs.
“And there were some internal reports issued sporadically, to varying degrees,” Kempker said.
What is definitely known from some of the most moving testimony from the first three freshman, Hardy, Green and Turner — all three of whom were part of the Young Democrats at the college — is that, following a period of resistance by the institution in allowing black students, the students did not feel welcome when they finally were allowed to do so.
“They were traumatized by it,” she said. “They had feelings of isolation, feeling vulnerable…they lived in fear that at any moment violence could break out.”
What the research has also uncovered is that, beneath a then-culture of “southern lady hood that (looked to create) apolitical women who did not speak out” was a radical subculture at the college, Kempker said.
“We found there was this alternate side of what was conceived to be a very conservative institution,” she said, adding there were radical meetings, and shared writings that went on at the time on campus.
However, for most black MUW students following the integration, there was no radical motive, Webb added.
“Most girls wanted to come because it was local and inexpensive,” Webb said.
And since many were day students that returned home when not in class, the feeling of isolation, even as numbers of black students began to rise, was still very present.
“They felt ostracized, they felt isolated,” she said, adding many of those they interviewed expressed a sense of feeling as though others were “looking through” them.
While the entirety of the group’s research will not be made public until fall, some work is available at muwintegrationhistory.files.wordpress.com/2015/01/deseg-narrative_collins.pdf
Sam Luvisi is news editor and covers education for The Dispatch.
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