Alumni reflect on years of racism at MU
“I think this is a litmus as well as an example for equality and to open a dialogue about race and justice and collaboration in our country,” graduate Jeff Beckham said.
Nov. 13, 2015
Walking on Hitt Street from his residence hall, Jeff Beckham encountered men in a pickup truck who proceeded to shout, “Hey you nigger,” at him. He was just a freshman.
Although growing up on the South Side of Chicago desensitized Beckham, a 2003 graduate of MU, to dealing with such vitriol, his experience at MU is not unique. In the wake of Concerned Student 1950’s protests against campus conditions, many alumni have re-examined their campus pride and donor status.
Beckham is not the only graduate with alarming stories beginning freshman year. During one of the first weekends of her freshman year, 2012 graduate Chelsea Drake Marks was making her way to a fraternity party when a black alumna asked where she was going. When Drake Marks told her which fraternity she planned on going to, the alumna quickly deterred her from going because of that fraternity’s history of racism.
“As a black person and as a woman, it’s hard to always feel safe,” Drake Marks said. “(Feeling unsafe) was definitely a feeling you always had when you were going to certain places on or near campus.”
Even dining on campus did not offer students of color a space safe from inappropriate or racist remarks. Once when 2013 graduate Alice McElroy, who is black, went to Mort’s, the server said to her, “Oh, I heard you want the fried chicken.”
It wasn’t always singular shocking events that created an unpleasant culture for students of color. McElroy remembered how microaggressions frustrated her as a student, whether it was black history being considered an elective rather than a core class, or black students being expected to be experts on slavery.
2002 graduate Sam Babalola witnessed great change during his four and half years at MU, including the first black Missouri Students Association president. Those changes felt significant even then. Babalola said that in some cases, however, offensive incidents may have only been motivated by ignorance.
As a Summer Welcome leader and director of student activities for MSA, Babalola interacted with plenty of students in his time on campus. He also held the role of Truman the Tiger for two years.
“I met a lot of people, especially as a Summer Welcome leader, who would say, ‘Wow, you’re the first black person I’ve ever met or I’ve ever had a conversation with,” Babola said. “A lot of it wasn’t necessarily about, ‘Dang, I don’t like this person,’ or, ‘I hate this person,’ but, ‘I don’t know what this person is about and this person is very confusing to me.’”
Babalola maintains a great love for his alma mater, but did say that he empathizes with the protesters because he had similar experiences as a student.
“Living life is an afterthought,” he said. “And always being aware of that was something that was always on my mind.”
Alumni respond to protests
When protests began on campus, alumni of all races banded together in solidarity with Concerned Student 1950. Nearly 1000 former Tigers joined a Facebook group entitled “Alumni for #concernedstudent1950” and some quickly drafted a letter to the university addressing their concerns.
One of the leaders of the group, Merrill Reiter, started communicating on Facebook because she wanted to create a network of alumni across the country to discuss issues and help disseminate information. She said in an email that community is “the foundation of these movements.”
Beckham said one of the strongest MU alumni communities in the nation appears to be based in Chicago.
“I actually got an email (Monday) from a white alumni who is part of a very large church here, and they want to be part of any protest or anything that’s going on,” Beckham said. “I was moved to tears by that because I understand what the kids are going through. It was very encouraging to see that people (of all races) who see the problem, who knew the problem existed well before the protests, want to do something.”
Beckham is a part of an active group of graduates that has expressed its support for the students protesting. While Concerned Student 1950 camped out on Carnahan Quad, some alumni drove to Columbia to offer tangible support in the form of blankets, food and supplies, Beckham said.
Speaking to students, Beckham learned they were scared during the protests because of how these types of things “put a target on your back for the crazies to come out of the woodworks.” Alumni have also offered moral support to students by reminding them that they have supporters all over pulling for them.
McElroy said that many alumni of color have had very positive responses to the protests, especially because she felt a response was long overdue. Black alumni actually wrote their own letter to the university. Over 1000 signed the letter before it was sent on Nov. 9.
“I didn’t need to be prompted (to sign the letter,)” McElroy said. She has stood in solidarity with current students throughout episodes like the hunger strike and Ferguson.
Several alumni also had mixed reactions about the resignation of former UM System President Tim Wolfe.
Babalola didn’t believe that Wolfe was “necessarily a bad person,” he was just “disconnected” to students’ needs and wasn’t capable of prompting the necessary change. Beckham expressed a similar opinion, saying that Wolfe “wasn’t a bad person,” he just had “deaf ears.”
“People don’t need to be villainous in order to be removed from the position they’re in,” Babalola said.
1994 graduate Chris Brown did not specify his stance on Concerned Student 1950’s cause, though he was unhappy with the university for how it handled Wolfe’s resignation.
“I thought the president probably should be gone but I wanted him (to have) due process,” Brown said. “I don’t like when people have this kind of authority.”
Handling future donations
Brown, who usually donates to the Tiger Scholarship Fund, raised another issue facing alumni — how to handle their future financial contributions to MU. Brown has decided to stop donating to the fund not because he disagrees with Concerned Student 1950, but because of “how things were handled.”
Brown said it could be a long time before he donates again.
“I’m pretty irritated with how things have gone,” he said.
Marcia Chatelain, who completed her undergraduate degree at MU in 2001, has also decided to change her donor status. In the past, Chatelain gave small amounts to programs that affected her as a student because she “got a lot out of student life and leadership programs.”
However, after recent events, Chatelain tweeted a photo of a letter she would be sending to MU with a single penny taped inside, saying it would be her “#lastpenny” donated until some of Concerned Student 1950’s demands were met. Chatelain wanted to show solidarity with the protestors and hoped the symbolic gesture would let the group know that alumni stood behind them.
“I think one of the things that Mizzou has to think about strategically is ‘What does it mean when unrest on campus is disrupting its ability to cultivate donations for the long run?’” Chatelain said. She also emphasized the importance of small donors and recent graduates raising their voices since it will be their donations making the difference in the future as their resources grow.
Several alumni of color have expressed differing opinions on the topic.
McElroy said that if racial relations were going to make her stop donating, she wouldn’t have donated in the first place. Beckham took a similar stance and emphasized the need for a stronger presence of alumni of color.
“Actually, I’ve considered increasing (my donations) because I think that we need to have a black or minority alumni network that can establish and push (going to MU) after all of this,” Beckham said.
Recruiting future students
Another major issue raised by recent events is the recruitment of future students of color to the university.
One white alumna, Caroline Merten, who graduated in 2013, said that before Wolfe’s resignation, her confidence in MU had been shaken. As someone who is very active with alumni activities and frequently purchases apparel and spends money on campus, Merten stressed her love for her alma mater. Recent events, however, initially made her uncomfortable encouraging young students, especially those who are non-white or identify as LGBTQ, to go to MU.
Beckham also noticed feelings of discomfort among prospective students. Some of Beckham’s high school mentees are no longer considering MU as an option for continuing their education because of everything that had happened up to Monday night.
He remembers all the controversy he dealt with during his time at MU. He protested the decreases in minority scholarships in 2001 and a Ku Klux Klan march in 2003. And while he faced challenges on campus, Beckham still says that he loved his experience at MU and that he doesn’t want these events to hurt the university.
The changes that occurred on Monday reaffirmed Merten’s pride in MU. “I was talking to other alumni and (Monday) was the first day I feel like I can honestly say that Mizzou is a more progressive place than what people typically think of in Missouri,” Merten said. “It’s on its way to becoming a place where people can feel safe. There’s not been prouder time to be a Tiger alumni than today.”
Beckham believes that MU will be a model for other universities about protesting and opening up dialogues on race and justice.
“I think this is a litmus as well as an example for equality and to open a dialogue about race and justice and collaboration in our country,” Beckham said. “What happened (Monday) is bigger than we are able to see right now.”