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African American Students at Gustavus Adolphus College,1963–1982

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Black and white photograph of students at Gustavus Adolphus College c.1972.

Students at Gustavus Adolphus College c.1972. Photographed by staff of the Gustavian Weekly student newspaper for an article published on December 8, 1972.

Founded by Swedish Americans in St. Peter in 1862, Gustavus Adolphus College attracted a mostly white student body for much of its history. In the 1960s, the college took steps to diversify its campus by recruiting and retaining African American students from the South. This effort made Gustavus unique among Midwestern liberal arts colleges.

Prior to 1965, most students at U.S. colleges and universities were middle- and upper-class whites. Throughout the country, laws, attitudes, and tuition costs kept most African Americans and other minorities from pursuing college degrees. Major changes in the enrollment process emerged against the background of the nation-wide civil rights movement.

Though earlier attempts had been made to diversify the Gustavus campus, real reform did not occur until the 1960s. College president Edgar Carlson thought that the school should seek out students from underrepresented groups because of its affiliation with the Lutheran Church. As a result he began talking to the college’s Board of Trustees about raising funds to do so. With the board’s support and donations from the Lutheran Church in America (LCA), Carlson raised enough money to sponsor a black student recruitment program.

The program began in the summer of 1963. Carlson gathered administrators Howard Holcomb, Owen Sammelson, Bruce Gray, and Paul Tillquist to discuss the college’s lack of racial diversity. After the meeting, Carlson sent Gray and Sammelson to Tennessee, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas. The two achieved little success that year, bringing in only seven African American students.

In a 1972 Gustavian Weekly article, Gray recalled that the Gustavus initiative was among the first attempts by a Midwestern school to send staff on recruitment missions in the South. He noted that only Columbia, Harvard, and Yale were also recruiting from the South at that time.

Prior to 1965, the only non-whites to graduate from Gustavus were international students. Thus, the three African-Americans who graduated in 1965 were among the college’s first non-white American graduates.

As the school continued its recruitment efforts, black students established a Black Student Organization (BSO) to help new students feel at home while away from home. The BSO formed in 1967. It was not a club, or a social group or like a fraternity or sorority. Instead, the BSO aimed to serve the needs of black students and to improve their on-campus experience.

In 1968, Gustavus introduced a program called DEMOS (Deferred Matriculation of Students) to serve disadvantaged youth in Minnesota. DEMOS was designed for students who displayed promise but failed to meet academic requirements.

Although some students succeeded in the DEMOS program, including future Gustavus English professor Philip Bryant, most did not. A lack of positive results, together with concerns from white students and their parents about money being spent on the program, led to its demise in 1970.

Despite the end of the DEMOS program, campus diversity continued to increase. African American attendance reached its peak of seventy-nine students during the 1970–1971 school year. There were thirteen African American graduates in 1971. The BSO remained active, bringing poet Don L. Lee to speak on campus in 1969.

The success of Lee’s visit led the BSO to start an African-American Culture Series (AACS) in 1970. The series lasted until 1972. Prominent African American figures were brought to campus. They included civil rights worker Fannie Lou Hamer, former San Francisco 49ers player Bernie Casey, poet Gwendolyn Brooks, novelist/poet Imanu Amari Baraka, and Emory Douglas, a prominent Black Panther activist.

In spite of programs like the AACS, African American enrollment declined between 1971 and 1977. It fell further between 1977 and 1982. Gustavian Weekly writer Gary Binon observed that the growth of opportunities for black students nationwide and a lack of recruiting funds available to the college contributed to the decline.

In the early twenty-first century, diversity is again a priority at Gustavus. Thirteen percent of the Gustavus student body is non-white. The Diversity Center, established in 1999, hosts programs that aim to make the college an accepting place. These include an Asian Culture Club (ACC); a Diversity Committee; an International Cultures Club; and a Pan-African Student Organization (PASO).

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Binion, Gary. “Black Student Enrollment Declines at Gustavus.” Gustavus Weekly 93, no. 18 (April 19, 1983): 5–7.
http://www.arcasearch.com/usmngus/

“Black Gustavus.” Gustavian Weekly 1, no. 4 (September 28, 1972): 6.

Brock, Thomas. “Young Adults and Higher Education: Barriers and Breakthroughs to Success.” Future of Children 20, no. 1 (Spring 2010). http://futureofchildren.org/publications/journals/article/index.xml?journalid=72&articleid=523&sectionid=3589

Hietala, Tom. “The Nigger as Student.” Gustavian Weekly 84, no. 4 (October 27, 1972): 6.
http://edu.arcasearch.com/usmngus/

——— . “The Nigger as Student: Part Two.” Gustavian Weekly 84 no. 5 (November 10, 1972): 6.

——— . “The Nigger as Student: Part Three.” Gustavian Weekly 84, no. 6 (December 8, 1972): 6–7.

Hustswit, William P. “A Different Kind of Civil Rights Work: The Gustavus Adolphus College Black Recruitment Program.” Master’s Thesis, University of Mississippi, 2004.

Palm, Adam and Kerry Schanno. “Diversity at Gustavus: A Milestone A Mission.” Research Paper, Gustavus Adolphus College, 2009.

Related Images

Black and white photograph of students at Gustavus Adolphus College c.1972.
Black and white photograph of students at Gustavus Adolphus College c.1972.
Black and white photograph of Ron Ford, coordinator of the Black Student Organization at Gustavus Adolphus College in the 1970s.
Black and white photograph of Ron Ford, coordinator of the Black Student Organization at Gustavus Adolphus College in the 1970s.
Black and white photograph of students at Gustavus Adolphus College c.1972.
Black and white photograph of students at Gustavus Adolphus College c.1972.

Turning Point

African American enrollment at Gustavus reaches its peak of seventy-nine students during the 1970–1971 school year. Thirteen of the students go on to graduate that spring.

Chronology

1862

Gustavus Adolphus College is founded.

1944

Edgar Carlson assumes the presidency of the college.

1963

Carlson and admissions staff begin to discuss efforts to diversify the campus.

1965

Three African American students graduate from Gustavus.

1967

The Black Student Organization (BSO) is established.

1968

Gustavus introduces DEMOS, a program designed to help students from diverse backgrounds in the state of Minnesota.

1970

Seventy-nine African American students enroll at Gustavus, setting a new record. BSO introduces the Afro-American Culture Series (AACS).

1972

Gwendolyn Brooks visits the Gustavus campus as a part of the AACS.

1977

African American enrollment at Gustavus begins a decline that continues until 1982.

1999

The Diversity Center opens.