Was CU ahead or behind the times during the civil rights movement?
When JoKatherine Holliman Page (A&S’60) began her freshman year at CU-Boulder in 1956, the country was still reeling from the murder of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old Mississippi boy whose brutal beating (reportedly for whistling at a white woman) served as a catalyst for the civil rights movement.
In Montgomery, Ala., the bus boycott was in full force. In Little Rock, Ark., nine black students were suing for the right to attend a traditionally white school. And at universities across the South, students would soon be staging sit-ins at lunch counters, organizing freedom rides on public buses and marching in protests against Jim Crow segregation.
But on the notoriously liberal, mostly white CU campus that began its fight against discrimination in the 1890s, racism — and the movement to defeat it — took a more subtle form.
“The sentiments and gestures on the surface were very kind, but on the deeper level, it was clear we were not accepted,” recalls Holliman Page, 71, one of 35 blacks out of nearly 11,000 students on campus in 1959.
More than 50 years later, Holliman Page and other black alumni look back on the civil rights era at CU with mixed feelings, thankful for the friends made, opportunities offered and strength gained. They recall with pride the progress made by CU. But in light of reports showing that minority enrollment has stalled since 2006 (16 percent minorities of whom 2 percent were black on the Boulder campus in fall 2009), they vow to stick around to assure that things keep improving.
“Things have changed but not enough,” says W. Harold “Sonny” Flowers (Engl’67, Law’71), 64, a Boulder attorney and former member of the Black Panther Party whose mother, educator Ruth Cave Flowers (A&S’24), was the second black female to graduate from CU. He has remained active with the university. “We were all just part of a continuum. It’s not done.”
Leaders in desegregation
In many ways, according to research conducted by CU archivist David M. Hays, CU was ahead of its time in terms of race in its early years.
“If you look at the records of the university, its leaders have always been interested in equality on campus and put their reputations on the line over and over to support it,” Hays says.
CU-Boulder enrolled one of its earliest black students, Franklin Laveale Anderson (A&S’ ex’1899), in 1897 and had accepted 486 blacks by 1939, a time when many universities were still segregated.
During the 1920s, at the apex of Ku Klux Klan activity in Colorado, President George Norlin resisted calls for a purging of Catholic and Jewish faculty and was a member of the multirace campus group, the Cosmopolitan Club, which still exists today. During the 1930s, faculty and students worked together to end Jim Crow policies on the Hill.
In 1947, the Associated Students of the University of Colorado, with the support of the regents, passed a resolution calling for all fraternities and sororities to remove discrimination clauses from their charters within five years. When Alpha Chi Sigma failed to do so, it had its charter revoked. The student body also elected Anthony Ray (Mus’48) as canebearer in 1948, a prestigious honor that began in 1900 and recognized the most outstanding male student on campus by peer vote.
CU football coach Dal Ward began recruiting black players in 1955, signing a tight end named Frank Clarke ( A&S ex’57) from Beloit, Wis., and offensive guard John Wooten (PE’59) from Carlsbad, N.M., at a time when many Southern colleges still banned blacks from playing. When Colorado was matched against the Clemson Tigers in the Orange Bowl in Miami in 1957, Clemson officials said they wouldn’t play Colorado if Wooten and Clarke were on the team.
“Clemson was totally opposed to playing against black players, but our whole team stood together, including the coaches, and said we will go as a team,” recalled Wooten in an interview with Buffalo Sports News magazine. “I have such great feelings for the stand my white teammates took.”
Clemson played the game and was defeated by CU 27-21.
Two years later, when Holliman Page arrived on campus, CU reached another milestone, hiring its first black faculty member, English professor Charles Nilon.
“It was really a big deal for me,” Holliman Page recalls. “I’d never had a black teacher. The fact that he looked like me and he had such an outstanding intellect was really inspiring.”
By the time Milt Branch (Psych ex’66) arrived on a basketball scholarship in the fall of ’62, “CU was considered the most progressive campus in the Big 8 as far as race relations,” he says.
An undercurrent of racism
But despite its glowing image, the university community was not immune to racism. When Holliman Page went to look for an apartment off-campus, one potential landlady listed in the university housing database politely explained, “I would love to rent this apartment to you, but your people leave a ring in the bathtub that never comes out.”
Holliman Page never forgot it.
While sororities were ostensibly open to black members, that seldom played out when rush week rolled around.
“We knew before we went we would never be asked to join a white sorority,” recalls Holliman Page, who joined Alpha Kappa Alpha, a black sorority in Denver.
Even so, in 1962 Mary Mothershed (Soc’64), who was black, was crowned Homecoming queen and named best-dressed female. She also served as resident adviser and freshman camp counselor.
Branch recalls the occasional racist remark by a faculty member or coach but says that what people didn’t say stung the most.
“People weren’t hostile,” he says. “They didn’t call you names or keep you from going certain places. But you felt so excluded. You were never invited, so you had to create your own institutions.”
While the degree of activism on campus paled in comparison to that on some campuses, black CU students undoubtedly made their voices heard.
Holliman Page helped form a local chapter of the ACLU and in 1960 joined dozens in picketing the local Woolworth in solidarity with Southern students who had been arrested at sit-ins.
In 1968, after years of black players quietly complaining about racist treatment at the hands of CU football coaches, fullback Wilmer Cooks (Mktg’69) brought his grievances to the administration, alleging among other things that coaches prohibited black players from dating white women. The players gathered for protest marches and refused to play until their complaints were addressed.
CU President Joseph Smiley responded by forming a faculty-student committee, which ultimately concluded discrimination existed and made nine recommendations for the athletic department. These included creating an integrated staff and making it clear that interracial dating was accepted. One year later, Bill Harris (Edu ex’64) was named special assistant coach, becoming the first black to hold a formal coaching position on the university’s football team.
One year later, when conservative San Francisco State College president S.I. Hayakawa visited Macky for a lecture and stated blacks “had a primitive sense of manhood,” he was greeted by hundreds of jeering students, Black Panther members and other civil rights groups in what escalated into a riot.
“There were marches and rallies and speeches. But some of us were more radical,” recalls Flowers, who still wears a tattoo of a black panther on his leg. “We were not willing to sit down and be dragged away.”
A pivotal moment came in spring 1968 when Flowers accompanied Boulder’s black mayor-to-be Penfield Tate II (Law’68) and a group of student activists to a meeting with President Smiley. They requested more emphasis and funding on recruiting black students.
As Flowers tells it, he quietly set his gun on the table as the group laid out their requests.
“I think there was a concern on the part of the administration that things were escalating, and sooner or later, if something wasn’t done, there would have been a fire or a bomb on campus,” Flowers recalls.
That spring Smiley announced $180,000 would be dedicated to launch an education opportunity program to better prepare students of color for college life. Soon the number of blacks at CU began to rise.
Visualizing the future
Fast forward to 2010 and Branch, Flowers, Harris and Holliman Page have gravitated back to the university in one form or another.
After decades in the airline industry, Branch returned to Boulder and served as president of the Black Alumni Association and as an Alumni Association board member, working to bring alumni together and developing programs to make incoming students feel more comfortable.
Flowers continues to press the university to do more to boost minority enrollment and recruit black faculty. Black enrollment was 488 out of 30,196 students in 2009. Harris served as athletics’ Alumni C Club director for nine years before retiring last year.
And Holliman Page, an accomplished social worker, academic and activist, has finally made peace with a university with which she has long had a “love-hate relationship.”
“Because of my experiences at CU I became acutely aware of my ethnicity and have carried it proudly ever since,” she says.
On May 6, at the Koenig Alumni Center, she stood before a crowd of roughly 100 graduating students at the annual Black Alumni Association graduation ceremony to deliver a commencement speech she describes as “cathartic.”
“It was my own graduation too,”
Her message to them and to herself: Look forward and make a change.
“There is a real need to have people around who remember what it was like and visualize what it can be in the future,” she says. “I’m no longer angry with CU. I want to be part of the solution.”
Lisa Marshall (Jour, PolSci’94) is a freelance journalist and mother of four who lives in the hills west of Lyons, Colo.