Black history at SLU a complicated story

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February to feature events focusing on African American history 

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., came to speak at the University in 1964, the height of the Civil Rights Movement. University News Archives

February is Black History Month, but this month 67 years ago was marked by a different sort of historical moment in Saint Louis University’s history.

On Feb. 11, 1944, Claude Heithaus, S.J., gave a sermon at St. Francis Xavier College Church stating that it was SLU’s obligation as a Catholic university to start admitting African American students.

“Now, some people say that if the Society of Jesus gives Catholic Negros the Catholic education which the Church wishes them to have, our white students will walk out on us. Is this true? I deny it. I say it is a lie and a libel,” Heithaus said in his homily. “I challenge the whole world to prove that even one of our Catholic students will desert us when we apply the principles for which Jesus Christ suffered and died…Do you want us to slam our doors in the face of Catholics because their complexion happens to be brown or black?”

According to “Seasons of Change” by former SLU President Paul C. Reinhert, Heithaus’ message of tolerance and integration was published in The University News and was picked up by other St. Louis media sources, but his words were not well-received.

Both Archbishop Glennon of St. Louis and the University president at the time, Patrick Holloran, S.J., made clear their displeasure with what Heithaus had preached.

History such as this is why Karla Scott, director of the Department of African American Studies, believes Black History Month is important.

“I think it’s all the more critical that this generation understands the back story, how we got where we are today,” Scott said. “There’s a back story. There’s a context for how we got where we are in terms of the good and the positive, but also the negative.”

The negative turned positive later in 1944, as Holloran reconsidered his reluctance to integrate SLU. That year, SLU admitted its first five African American students, becoming the first educational institution in a former slave state to open its doors to black students.

Despite this progressive step forward, however, the University was naïve when it came to appropriately meeting the needs of its African American students, something Michael Barber, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and the College of Philosophy and Letters, said he remembers coming to a head in the 1960s and 1970s.

“There was protest here on campus that was all about the Vietnam War,” Barber said. “Students wanted ROTC to move off campus, and that was the resolution. Then, at the meeting where this was announced, a number of African American students came into the room.”

According to Reinert’s account of the event, the students, some of whom were African American Vietnam veterans, took the microphone from Reinert, who was addressing the protestors at the time, and said that the assembly’s concerns were misplaced.

SLU students were protesting a war thousands of miles away while ignoring the injustices that existed at their own university. The African American students called for greater attention to their needs as a minority on campus.

While their call was met with hostility, it was not ignored. According to Barber, several students and faculty members withdrew from the University and held a hunger strike.

“For me, it was eye-opening because I didn’t realize the ways in which the University had not communicated well with African American people,” Barber said. “You sort of think everything’s fine, we all understand each other, but there were some serious misunderstandings.”

In response to the protests, the University held several workshops featuring African American speakers, brought in a federal mediator to improve communication and appointed Roy Wilkins, the head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in New York City at the time, to the school’s Board of Trustees.

One of the most significant and lasting  actions the University took in response to the protests, was to create the African American Studies Program in 1974. SLU did some other notable things, including bringing Martin Luther King Jr., to campus to speak in 1964 and creating the Black Student Alliance in 1972.

BSA has grown to be one of the largest groups on SLU’s campus and hosts several events for Black History Month.

Throughout the month of February, BSA will host discussions, service events and other entertaining programs focusing on African American history and issues facing the African American community today.

On Feb. 16, the Cross Cultural Center, in partnership with African American Studies, the Department of History and the Doerr Center for Social Justice, will be bringing comedian and civil rights activist Dick Gregory as this year’s keynote speaker.

“He can be a little controversial,” Scott said of Gregory. “Who knows what he might say that might upset or please some folks? We can guarantee that it will be an interesting, informative evening.”

Scott believes that, especially in light of the University’s history, Black History Month will continue to be important for SLU students.

“I think it’s unfortunate that we need to set aside a month to observe when it should be a part of history. Period. But setting it aside does give it a special designation and it does start these kinds of conversations which is good,” Scott said. “It’s important for SLU because our students are growing up in a world where they may not think it is important. Black History Month for this generation is a good complement to the education here because you go out in the world and work in businesses and communities that are very different than those that I grew up in, or your parents grew up in, or their parents grew up in.”

Barber echoed Scott’s sentiments, stating that Black History Month is a step in the right direction but should extend past the month of February.

“It’s really important for all people in our culture to be aware of the contributions, the art, the poetry, the music and the events,” Barber said. “African American history belongs to the United States. Black History Month is a symbolic nod in that direction, but one month isn’t enough.”