The African American experience at Southeast Missouri State University began more than 40 years ago with the enrollment of Roberta Slayton and Helen Carter. Both women were admitted after the Supreme Court ruled in Brown vs. the Board of Education.
Since that time, African-American students have continued to excel, through times of challenge and adversity. Their experience is a significant part of the Southeast culture that has enriched the campus and Cape Girardeau communities.
African American students created a community and developed rituals embraced by the entire campus. Our students and graduates have gone on to distinguish themselves in all fields; education, entertainment, business, sports, the media to name a few. Their beginnings were here and their efforts paved the way for future generations of Southeast graduates.
The 50s: Pioneers
The 1950s were a conservative period in our country. Southeast’s student population mirrored that of many other institutions across the country – all white. The Brown vs. Board of Education decision, provided the impetus that led to the admission of African-American students at Southeast. Students were primarily left to fend for themselves. There were no support systems for those early students; and little if any social interaction or participation in campus activities. Students were very isolated, and looked to the Black community of Cape Girardeau for emotional and social support. Those were difficult times for the African American student, yet they continued to enroll, persevere and some to graduate.
The 60s: Emergence
The 1960s was a time of the Civil Rights movement, Vietnam, and civil unrest. African-American student enrollment and graduation rates started to increase in 1963. It is during this period that African-American athletes were recruited for the teams of Southeast. Although Ron Staton became the first African American athlete in the 1950s; Curtis Williams was the first African-American athlete to distinguish himself in basketball and track in the 1960s. Walter Smallwood and Mike Smith were the first African-Americans to play football at Southeast. Walter set several school and conference records as a football player as did Curtis in basketball and track. In the physical education department, Emanuel Balland was the first African-American graduate assistant.
The assassination of Martin Luther King stunned the nation and campus. This event brought together the Southeast African American students to honor Dr. King. A eulogy was given by Herman Williams, one of the student leaders at that time.
Southeast Negro Activity Council 1968
In 1968, Carl Nelson and other students formed the Southeast Negro Activity Council (SNAC). This organization was officially recognized by the University in 1969, when Gwen Shields as its first president. SNAC was the first formal support network for African-American students.
By the end of the sixties, African-American student enrollment was approximately 70 with the many of them being athletes. Students were primarily from St. Louis, Cape Girardeau and the Bootheel of Missouri.
The 70s: Movers and Shakers
The 1970s witnessed the emergence of Black consciousness. SNAC became the Association of Black Collegians (ABC). This industrious group began several African-American celebrations including Black History Month and the Black Ball. Dan Wimberly created the Ebony Affairs program which was aired on the campus radio station. Steve Clay wrote for the Capaha Arrow, the campus newspaper. Black Greek organizations began with the founding of Alpha Phi Alpha (Xi Gamma chapter) in 1979.
African-American students began participating in more campus wide organizations i.e., hall councils, Student Activities Council, student government and academic clubs. Sandra Hendricks began a tradition of African-Americans performing with Terpschorie. African-American students became cheerleaders were on the pom-pom squad, Linda Branion, and played in the Golden Eagles marching band.
African-American faculty and staff were hired towards the end of this decade. Mr. William Thompson, was one of the first African-American faculty hired in 1977. Charles Taylor was the first African-American graduate teaching assistant, with the department of History. Dr. Edward Spicer hired as special assistant to the president, emerged as a significant role model and advocate for equality and diversity. His efforts and support of the students and brought forth many changes on campus. Jackie Ayers and Peter Daniels both Southeast graduates began their careers in student services here. Rochell Smith was on the staff in the Nursing Department.
The African-American student enrollment was approximately 200-300 students during this time. Eighty (80) students graduated in 1972. This was the largest graduating class of African-American students in Southeast’s history. Herbert Daniels of Cape Girardeau (class of 1975) was of of the first African-American students to make the deans list. Beverly Logan of St. Louis (class of 1978) also made the deans list.
The hill … hanging out at circle in front of Towers … the jock house on Sprigg … parties at the white house … Sylvester and the dance at memorial … Bid Whist at the UC between classes … the home run that Joe Williams hit at Capaha Park … Dr. Spicer … how the Black of Cape took us in … our basketball team going to the national championship … Herman Williams speech after the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King … Alpha parties … Cedric (Kyles) before he became the entertainer … kickin’ it in the Graystone with the Phi Beta Sigmas … making the Deans Honor Roll … meeting Alex Haley at President Stacy’s home … working in the cafeteria … singing in the choir … dormitory life … the Black Ball … Biology … the campus Million Man March … Greek Step Shows … going to an 8 a.m. after partying all night … meeting my future wife … making the adjustment to being on my own … graduation day … our ABC meetings … the Alpha death march … classes in Academic in the winter … basketball in old Houck … the way our campus looked as the seasons changed … the friends I made … cramming for finals … Homecoming and the parade … Michael Davis…
The 80s: Black Pride
African-American enrollment increased to nearly 800 students during this decade. Many students were recruited from the St. Louis area. While this enrollment was the largest to date, a tension between African-American rural and urban cultures began to emerge. This unexpected adjustment did not stop the students from socializing together, expanding organizations, and succeeding academically.
Alpha Kappa Alpha (1981) and Delta Sigma Theta (1983) sororities came into existence in the 1980s. Phi Beta Sigma (1986) fraternity was a very active group on campus. Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity and Omega Psi Phi interest group began. Greek step-shows became a homecoming tradition.
The St. James Choir later known as the Black Fellowship Mass Gospel Choir was popular in the Cape Girardeau and University communities. Umoja, an organization to promote Black Unity, strengthened the African-American student community.
The students of the eighties had many talents. The men and women’s basketball and track teams were highly successful due to significant contributions from African-American student athletes; Pat colon, Otto Porter, Jewel Crawford, and Terry Mead to name a few. The men’s basketball team won the MIAA championship and were nationally ranked. Cedric Kyle, a.k.a. “Cedric the Entertainer” and Joe Torrie, attended Southeast during this decade. ABC brought celebrities such as Alex Haley, Julian Bond, Dick Gregory and Shirley Chisholm to the Southeast campus to help commemorate Black History month. The first campus-wide Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Breakfast was held in 1984.
Samuel Hylton in 1987 became the first African-American appointed to the Southeast Board of Regents.
The 90s: New Beginnings
This decade witnessed leadership in mainstream student organizations. Derrick Hudson was the first African-American elected to student government president. Colby Potts and Karen Price won the Southeast Man and Woman of the Year award. African-American alumni began sending their children to Southeast.
Monique Maxey was one of the first African American Governor’s Scholars. Denise Leonard was the first African-American female graduate student in the College of Science and Technology. Trent Ball graduated from the Education Administration and Counseling master’s degree program with Academic Distinction (4.0 GPA). The first four Heartland Alliance for Minority Participation Scholars (scholarships for Science and Technology) enrolled in 1997.
The community lost an important hero with the sudden death of Dr. Edward Spicer. Drs. Paul Keys and Shirley Stennis-Williams, the first African-American Deans; Dr. Kimberly Barrett, the first African-American Dean of Students; and Dr. Leonard Clark, Assistant to the President, hold key leadership positions. Patricia Washington, a Southeast Alumn, was the first African-American woman appointed to the Board of Regents in 1994. Mr. Harry Schuler worked with students to create Ebony Players and expand the Black Fellowship Mass Gospel Choir. Schuler was instrumental in the creation of the successful TRIO programs on Southeast’s campus. His efforts enhanced the retention and graduation of African-American students.
African Americans continued to succeed despite the tremendous decline (less than 400 students) in African-American enrollment. Students responded to this problem with organized, pro-actions. Danielle Carter, Tiffany Ford, Shawn Harris and other African-American students, made use of an opportunity to work with Southeast’s then new President, Dr. Dale Nitzschke, to create the Minority Student Programs Office in 1996. This office, under the leadership of Trent Ball, has given students the foundation needed to connect to the greater University community.