Why did you come to Knox?
I have my Knox yearbook in front of me from 1967-68. I just went through it, and the thing I said to myself was, "Man, I didn't realize what a white school that was." I came from an integrated high school-Thornton Township High School, Go Wildcats!-a pretty big high school, 5,000 people. So I was used to being in a somewhat diverse environment. I had applications and scholarship offers and paperwork from almost every school in Illinois and neighboring states. When I pulled out the Knox College application, it was very small. It didn't have any extensive requests, and I thought, "This might be my kind of school."
The other reason was, when I came to visit, there were only maybe 10 Black students on campus, and those 10 Black people welcomed me. It was such a nice feeling. And because I had gone to a big high school, a smaller college seemed really nice to me, and I liked that idea.
Its academic reputation-I didn't learn about that until later. And then I realized how hard the curriculum was. I had been an honor student and I thought I was pretty smart until that first semester, and it was "Wow, these are some smart people."
How and why did you and classmates decide to create A.B.L.E.?
The emotional and mental state that we were in that year, there were lot of things going on-the Civil Rights Movement, the Black Panther-but we also attended Black student conferences. We went to some of the schools in our conference, probably one in Monmouth; we definitely went to one at Bradley. It was a steady diet of people advocating for us to have some cultural recognition. When we came back to Knox, we said to each other, "Why don't we have a student association?" Because we had nothing. I was looking through the Gale of 1968-it was no wonder we felt isolated, because there was nothing that we would identify with culturally at Knox College. And we considered ourselves militant, and we were militant, considering what the rest of the Knox student body was thinking.
We needed a place we could go. We would eat at the same table in the dining room; we sat at the same place in Seymour. We moved like in a pack. And we needed a place to go. And we needed a voice. That's how I recall it starting.
What issues were you concerned with? From what I've learned, the founders of A.B.L.E. were interested in the curriculum-the number of Black faculty, courses in the curriculum and books in the library relevant to your experiences.
There were none. That what's covered in the document, when we walked in on President Umbeck with demands. One was the house, one was Black studies courses, and one was a Black professor. Because there was none of that. What would happen is that when [Black] students came, we felt totally isolated. I watched fellow students who felt that Knox was totally foreign. Some came from all Black high schools, so coming to this all-white environment was a cultural shock. A lot of us were lost.
I had a different experience. There were a few Black students who pledged the white fraternities. I pledged Pi Phi. And one of the things that happened to me was a whole big rumble about me being Black. A lot of this was hidden from me, but my understanding, what I've been told, was that the national chapter, when they found out I was Black, was really appalled. In fact, if you go to the Pi Phi house now and look at the composite from my class, there was a big class of Pi Phis, and the next year, a lot walked out, including me, because of that brouhaha from the national chapter about me and what we had done.
That was not only that issue, but it was of that era, when we did not want to do anything that was mainstream. So for a national chapter to tell us not only about who could be a member, but there were other rules-we just weren't having it. It was an era of protest, Vietnam and anything that came from mainstream, we were like, "We're not doing that." So we walked out and started another sorority, Gamma Rho.
I went through another change, in 1968, the spring of my freshman year, after having pledged, trying to be part of Knox College and my Pi Phi sisters, then when Dr. King was shot, it was heartbreaking. I'm in Galesburg watching TV, things were being burned down, people rioting. When I went home at the end of the year, I had a whole change of mind. I came back with an afro and thinking, "Something's gotta change." It was a traumatic year for me, as well as for a lot of us at Knox College.
When you presented A.B.L.E.'s demands to the president, what were the results of that?
Well, we got the house, the very first A.B.L.E. house. That's how we got [Karl and Phyllis Helms,] our very first Black professors. And we requested that A.B.L.E. be recognized as an organization. I also recall that we hung a Black flag on campus in 1969.
What was your experience of A.B.L.E. House?
It was a place for social activities. When we visited other campuses for conferences, they might have a house or, at the bigger schools, there were Black greek organizations. But we had no place to bring guests or speakers, some place on campus where we could meet them. It was also a place where we could be ourselves, where we did not have to, where we could really, really be who we are, as African Americans, in terms of what we talked about, how we talked, that was where we did it. It was at A.B.L.E. House.
Do you feel that the changes you were able to make have persisted on campus?
An important issue for us was recruitment. At one point, I worked in the admission office as a counselor to incoming Black students to help them overcome that cultural shock. We lost them, a lot of them, because they couldn't cope with the environment. So for at least a year, I worked as an advisor to incoming students. The fact that A.B.L.E. is still around, that they do have a house-I don't know details of what's on campus, but from a holistic point of view, I think we started something, and it's still here, 50 years later. I'm amazed by that.
One of the things that Professor Fred Hord has written about is that Knox is proud of its anti-slavery past, but the College also has to deliver in the present. That it's bigger than having one Black student on campus in 1870 (Barnabus Root), who was one of the first Black college graduates in Illinois.
Knox being part of the anti-slavery movement, I don't think we even knew that [in 1968]. I don't remember ever thinking about that or talking about that. Probably because, to me it just seemed so white. I wouldn't have thought about that history having anything to do with the environment in 1968. There are things that I'm learning 50 years later, that to tell the truth, I wish I had known then.
If there's one thing that I wish I could pass on to the current African-American students, it would be to wholeheartedly really understand where they are, as Black students at Knox College, and where the school is. There was a lot of my consciousness that wasn't awake while I was there. And there are things that I wished I'd done and been involved with. But because it was such a polarized time, I shut down and didn't participate in things that I wish I could have. There are things that are available and are unique to Knox College. There are some things I wish were different, but there are other things that I love and wouldn't change at all about my experience at Knox College.
In the Archives, you can find some memos from 1968 and 1969 saying "I'm not sure we can afford to meet this demand or that demand. And at the same time you several memos from faculty saying, basically, "We should take seriously what the students are saying; they're making a legitimate point, and we should try to accommodate this."
That's very interesting. That's something, at that stage in my life, I would not even have thought about. The most I can remember is walking in and making the demands to the president. When we were preparing to do this, we were afraid, but also emboldened. We all dressed in black and walked into President Umbeck's office, read the demands, and as I recall, walked out. During that presentation of those demands, President Umbeck turned so red that I thought, "Oh my God, I hope this man is not going to have a heart attack and die, right here while we're handing him these demands." It was really a moment in time. We were standing in a circle. One person read the demands, and it was one of the moments in my life that I'll never forget.
One of the things you have to recognize is that the time, and maybe the school too, really promoted students speaking out. It was a liberal arts school, and there was always something going on. Even in class, there was always debate. Every class, I don't care what it was, we were debating the issues. So for us to come and make demands, kind of fits what Knox College was about. About having an opinion, making a statement, taking a stand. So when I think about it, we might have done something different, at a different school, in a different environment. Knox, in a sense, made us awake. It was like, "We've got some complaints, but you know what, we can do this, because this is how they do it here at Knox College."
Looking back, I recognize that the environment, the negative parts, are what generated those demands. But I think the other side is that [Knox] also emboldened us to do that, plus the times itself. Plus it was a small school and we had access. You could walk into the president's office. Everything at Knox was open. There were not very many rooms that were locked. It was an open campus, constant debate, constant dialogue. We might even have called the president's office to say, "When will the president be in?" It would have been that easy. I can remember borrowing the car from the dean of women, Deborah Wing. She loaned us her car to go to a Black student conference in Peoria. She felt that we should be able to go. We literally borrowed the dean's car and drove to Peoria to a conference.
Professor Fred Hord says that he often reminds students in classes today about the history of student activism at Knox.
I'd agree with that. That's what I meant about the environment at the school. All these things came together-the social activism, campus protests, we were all mad about the Vietnam War. There was a consciousness. You really felt impelled to know and be involved. I'm sure there were students who didn't. But it was almost you felt it was your right, especially as a student at a liberal arts college, to really be participating in the dialogue about what was going on. I'm not sure there's that sense [today] of being a participant to know what's going on, to have an opinion and to voice it.
Today, much of the debate has shifted to social media. Do you feel that it helped, having nothing electronic in 1968 and having everything face to face?
Oh, absolutely. You can look at that from any angle. I said we went to conferences. We went. We didn't phone it in, we didn't watch it, we didn't Skype. We got in a car and drove. I remember driving eight hours to a school in Minneapolis. An hour down to Bradley. To be face to face with the people who were participating. I think it makes you feel more engaged. It takes it to a different intellectual and emotional level when you're face to face with people.
I don't know if anybody's told you about the time the white students came and protested to us, in the Seymour Lounge. Again, we're face to face. They came and protested because they were upset that we were always together, that all the Black students ate together, played cards together. And they were protesting that. So again, there was always this eyeball to eyeball, face to face, versus posting something on social media, like, "Why are they always playing cards together in the student lounge?"
I guess we can't say, and history will judge better, if it's good or bad. All I can do is think about how it was then.
Was the town, Galesburg, a factor in any of your experiences?
Not at all. We hardly went into town. Probably had some fear of going into town. And what would we have done? There really were no places for us to go. There were some bars in the Black neighborhood, but most of us were not old enough to go there. I can't think of one place. That was one of the drawbacks. There was nothing to do in Galesburg. That was another reason we were like a herd, we stayed together, there was nothing else to do.
What role do you think A.B.L.E. alumni can play, in having Knox continue to examine itself, continue to confront issues on campus?
We bring a sense of maturity and experience. We can offer ideas-do it this way, not that way. We can bring our experience of being in the real world and understanding the administration's point of view, what their mission is, and their goal, and how that impacts the students. I think they can also see us as models, I would hope positive ones. What does it look like, years later? What's the positive part of staying at Knox? What's it going to do for my life? They can really look at us and think, "OK, look where they are, look what kind of people they are, look at their values. Look at what the experience at Knox did for them."
This is one thing I would hand to them: This will be one the most influential places in your life, even though you may not see it that way, because it's hard to see things when you're in it. But when you back away and have time to reflect on the moment, I realize that was quite an important part of my life. That was something that informed the kind of person I am now. Not only the education part of it, which was superior, which I don't have to back away from anybody no matter what school they came from, I can say, "I went to Knox College," 'nuff said. And then just asking students to be conscious of the experience, to hold it in some type of special way, that you may not understand now, but you will later on. That's what it's meant to me.
That's one of the things about Knox [that students are looking for], the heart and soul. When Black students come there, they say, "Where's my culture? Where are my people?" That's what we can help them hold on to and help them get through the maze of this environment that's so different from where they came and see what the advantages are, of toughing it out. Because it's tough to be in Galesburg; it was for us.
Any other thoughts?
Something in the universe came together, for me to get to Knox College. Something in the universe gave a push, and things just lined up in a chain and happened. And won't happen like that again. It was a unique time. That's why I'm always careful, when we try to compare today's student body with us. They're drastically different.
I came from a mixed high school, one of the best in the state, and my experience, I had never felt disrespected. I had already been in class with smart white people, and I didn't feel intimidated on an individual basis. I never felt intimidated, one-to-one, by anybody at Knox College. That's because I came from a different environment. That's what we were trying to make the administration understand; there's a problem here. And one of the things A.B.L.E. wanted to do, and did, was address that. We told the College that we've got to fix this. Otherwise you're never going to get Black students to stay here, because it's too much of a shock.
We were trying to figure out how to survive. What could we fix? To us it was totally dysfunctional, unbalanced. Literally, we were psychologically fighting to figure out how are we going to get through this. It was a day-to-day battle, trying to maneuver and feel comfortable and figure out what's what. Particularly if you came from a drastically different environment. You just felt totally out of place. We were trying to figure out, how the hell can we make it through this, how can we keep people? I don't know if you've looked at the number of Black students who came and left, but they would come, and they would leave. We were trying to figure out, how can we fix this?