What was your involvement in the founding of A.B.L.E.?
When I was on campus, people asked me, what was it like being the founder of A.B.L.E.? I was not the founder of A.B.L.E. by any stretch of the imagination. In 1968, I was a freshman coming into Knox. The groundwork had already been set for A.B.L.E. by the few Black students that we had on campus. Alfreda Dortch [Williams '69], I would give her a lot of credit; Yvonne Brown '70, another upperclassman, and Pat Ware [Owens '70]—they set the groundwork. I was just one of three African-American freshmen coming into Knox at that time.
You came to Knox before A.B.L.E. existed, when Knox was 99-percent white. What figured into your decision to come to a school like that?
I'm from a small town in Indiana, Michigan City, between Gary and South Bend. I was first on campus in April of 1968, right after Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated. I was obviously aware of that, but I came to Knox and stayed at Coach Harley Knosher's house. Back in that day, staying at a coach's house in a Division III school, you could do that. I had talked to Coach Knosher, I was going to play basketball. There was a guy from my hometown, Bob Aurach, whom I did not know, but he wanted me to visit Knox. Why I have no idea. He was pseudo-manager of the baseball team. I had never heard of Knox. When my parents brought me to Knox, I came that weekend, saw the campus, participated, and the rest is history, as they say.
Race didn't play into your decision, one way or the other?
Race was no factor in me coming to Knox. In 1968, people were very much aware of race, and, quite frankly, I don't think it's gotten a lot better—race relationships—but that's a different topic. It was not a factor for me. And I'm not sure during my visit, my weekend visit, of how many people I actually met. I spent time in the gym, played basketball, was with the basketball players. I don't remember whether I met any of the Black students on campus on my visit.
When you arrived, what was it like?
If I live to be 100, I'll never forget August of 1968. I'm in a freshman orientation group, probably 100 people, talking about race. We had to read two books. One was Crisis in Black and White, because of all the racial turmoil that was going on. And the other one was The Autobiography of Malcolm X. I think the faculty assigned the books because they were trying to ease tension. But again, how can you have tension when you have [only] three African-American students coming in that year? And you have maybe 20 Black students on campus. I think the school was aware and was trying to be more socially conscious.
I'll never forget that class. A girl, a freshman at Knox College, a highly prestigious college, where SAT scores were over 1200 in 1968 [Editor's Note: In 1968, the national average SAT was just above 1000], she stands up and says that for years and years, she thought all Blacks had tails. She knew no different. That really shocked me, on my first endeavor at Knox College.
I'll never forget her saying that. I'll never forget the statement, but I don't understand it. She had just never come in contact with any diversity whatsoever.
Knox was not diverse in 1968.
Once I got on campus, there were three Black students in my freshman class. We were a pretty close-knit group. There were not a lot of us on campus. We ate together. We played cards together in the lounge. We were pretty close. I do remember the sit-in at Old Main [and presentation of the demands]; we wanted a culture house, we wanted a Black professor. I also remember that the demands, they were pretty well answered by the president, Sharvy Umbeck, or his lieutenants. We did get a Black culture house. And I think that surprised us a little bit. Then there were Black professors, a husband and wife, [Karl and Phyllis] Helms. Mr. Helms, I took a class with him, and he was pretty cool. I don't remember what she taught, but I heard that she was tough.
What were your experiences with A.B.L.E. House?
I went to the house, but I didn't do that much studying there. We had meetings there every once in a while, and some parties there. You have to remember, there were [only] 20 of us on campus, so whenever we wanted to talk about something, 18 of us were already in one particular location.
You said you were recruited to play basketball. What was your experience in sports?
For me personally, I came from a high school where sports were very important. If you're from Indiana, basketball is a big deal. Our high school team, we didn't lose games. In '66, we were Indiana state champions. In '67, the number one team in the state. When I came to Knox, I remember Harley telling me that I was the first Black basketball player he had coached in 10 years. That sort of surprised me. I didn't look at myself as the only Black player. Could I play? Could I make a difference? Dave Wood '72 and I were co-captains freshman year and senior year. I was close to the players. Three years ago, I played golf with Coach Knosher and Dave and Jim Wetherbee '74.
After I left Knox the basketball team got good, maybe because I left! My three years on the varsity, I think we were 8 and 14 for three years in a row. I can remember the Black students sitting up high in the corner. Make fun of me if I did something funny. Maybe ask me after the game why I didn't shoot more. I had a good friend Steve Rowan '73, he didn't play basketball, but we would talk about things after the game.
You majored in sociology. What was your relationship with the faculty?
Yes, I'm a sociologist, very proud of that. The professors were great. If I got an assignment, I knew I'd have to study, I'd have to write a good paper. I came to Knox, initially I was going to major in political science, because I was going to be a lawyer. My freshman year, my first semester I think I got two good grades but I got a D in political science. I think that scared me from wanting to be an attorney. I was already working at a bank, since I had been a junior in high school. I knew that I'd be working with people, so I might as well find out what makes people tick, and that's why I became a sociologist.
The founders of A.B.L.E. were concerned with academics—what's it like in the classroom, how many Black faculty, how many Black students, how many Black-interest books in the library? And socially, is there a place for me to go on campus?
I think that's very apropos. We were going to be there for four years. We knew we had to get an education. We knew we had to do better than everybody else, because when we graduated, a lot of us didn't know what we were going to do. Where I think the white students may have always had a fallback. They could be concerned with the worldly things. We were concerned with how were were going to be treated by the other students and by the college when we were there. That's why some of our best situations were clinging to each other.
I think in '69, I forget how many Black students we got enrolled, but it was like almost double from '68—I mean, from three to six. And then in '70, there were probably a few more. I think when the Black students came to campus to look at Knox, there were times that we could talk to them, tell them what the facts were—pretty much it is what you make of it. It depends on where you came from, how well you would adjust to Knox.
Specifically, if you came from a predominantly Black school, it would be a tougher adjustment.
I don't remember how many minority students came in '69. I do remember Debra Banks '73, Steve Rowan came in '69. A lot came from the Chicago area. Brenda Butler '71 was from Houston. Alicia Jackson was in the Class of ‘68 with me.
If Knox has about 8 percent African-American students today, that's about 100 students. I think when I was there, we had about 35. So in 50 years, we've gone from 35 to 100.
Was A.B.L.E. effective in making changes on campus?
I would say, unequivocally, that would be a fact. Here's how you can judge that: Look at the various organizations that were established in 1968. Look today, how many of those organizations still exist? A.B.L.E., Allied Blacks for Liberty and Equality, has stood the test of time. I think it's very admirable to the incoming students over the years who have kept this going and enhanced upon that. I really think that when the historians start to look at Knox College, A.B.L.E. will be high on the list of influential organizations.
Another thing, if you think about it, A.B.L.E. was not a fraternity or sorority [with a national organization behind it]. A.B.L.E. was an organization for students.
What do you see as the role of A.B.L.E. alumni in bringing about changes that they'd still like to see?
As an alum of Knox College, I think I have an obligation to help students. Last week, Eric Johnson [of the Alumni Office] called me about a student who wanted to get into finance, and Eric wanted me to talk with the student. I'm working on that student's resume, the pros and cons of how he can improve his resume. When I was on campus, I talked to all the students about what they can do for a good education and what they can do, when they get out in the world. And I was privileged to go to the A.B.L.E. house and talk to students there.
I believe that any alum has to make things better for current students and help them, because we've all had someone help us along the way. I think that's my role as a graduate of Knox.
How do you see A.B.L.E. as a multicultural organization?
We were opening our doors to anyone that wanted to be a part of the organization and believed in some of the things we were trying to do as an organization. I can't remember any person not being accepted. It's an organization, yes primarily the Black students, who knew what we wanted, and we'd get together and talk, and have some kind of organization of our wants and needs.