Pre-1968 Foundations of African American Student Recruitment at the U of I (edited)
Joseph H. Smith
Joseph H. Smith served the U of I as an administrator and English professor from 1964 to 1994. He is a former Marine who did his undergraduate work at Howard University and his graduate work at Harvard.
“Between the idea and the reality…
Falls the shadow”
The history of the recruitment and support of African American students at UIUC can be viewed through the lens of the above quote from T.S. Eliot’s “Hollow Men.” In 1964, when aggressive recruitment efforts began, until the programmatic climax in 1968, only reflection will show quite a different picture from the one that persists today that it all began with the 500 Program in 1968.
The political nature of the 1968 events is so ingrained in the students and the administrators who entered the university at that same time that they celebrate it as the beginning of things: “Nothing happened before we came.” For such a wrong-headed impression to persist in a place of learning is a negation of the very concept and value of learning.
Joy Ann Williamson’s book, Black Power on Campus: the University of Illinois 1965-75, is a comprehensive treatment of the 1968 events, as well as an account of previous events leading up to 1968. The Black Power emphasis and the casual treatment of institutional goodwill, invites the historical distortion, even though she accurately states, “The University used knowledge gained from previous programs to cleave together a new program and, with the support of the Board of Trustees, SEOP [Special Educational Opportunity Program, also called the 500 Program] was born.” (p. 66.)
Given the above acknowledgment, one wonders how she could accept the administrator of the SEOP program crediting “Black students with precipitating institutional change that had not been entertained.” Strange! The record shows that at least as far back as
1963, University President David Dodds Henry, in his State of the University address, stated “…we must offset some of the disabilities arising from racial and social inequality by building psychological and special assistance ‘ramps’ for young people who need them.” He subsequently created the All-University Committee on Human Relations and Equal Opportunity. This committee early on requested that “an experienced professional person be added to the staff of the admissions office to work with counselors and staff of high schools.”
A search led to me. I was appointed as Assistant to the Dean of Admissions and Records and Assistant Professor of English. Neither the Admissions Office to which I was appointed, nor the Chicago School District, was ready for my recruitment of inner-city Black students. In time, the Superintendent of Chicago Schools became more accepting of my mission than did the Dean of Admissions and Records at the university. The Dean even forbade me to use the term “recruitment” in describing my mission. Despite his lack of enthusiasm, my visits to the inner-city schools brought results. They were productive because in making contact with the students, I came to understand the psychological and financial obstacles that prevented them to even think about coming to that forbidden world “downstate.”
Fortunately, the Human Relations and Equal Opportunity Committee that President Henry had appointed saw to it that the campus faculty became involved in our discussions about overcoming exclusion, and President Henry held a university-wide conference at Allerton Park to examine the problem and recommend solutions. As part of these deliberations, the LAS Summer Work-Study Program was proposed. This involved the application of financial, housing, and counseling resources in order to recruit inner-city students. Its value for handling the unforeseen problems encountered by the students was inestimable.
Against this background, the university felt ready for the recruitment and support of a large group of African American students. The Richard Spencer Report laid out an objective of enrolling approximately 200 “disadvantaged” students. This was to be the triumphal culmination of years of discussing and analyzing the problem of minority exclusion. Because we wanted to be sure that we left no preparatory stone unturned that might diminish the chances of the program succeeding, the decision was made to hold off it actual launch until 1969.
Alas, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in 1968. Incendiary nonnegotiable demands gripped the campus. Black students demanded 1,000 new students. Negotiations settled for 500; hence the 500 Program of that year. The memory of the pre-1968 initiatves was lost. It has become a mere footnote in the prevalent historical narrative. My aim in writing this article is merely to salute those who struggled during the creeping, crawling formative years.