UI brings African American alumni to speak about experiences


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Orville Townsend came to the University of Iowa in 1962 on a football scholarship. As an African American, Townsend experienced the beginning of integration at the UI. Also a letter-winning athlete in fencing, the alumnus said that despite the legal changes, many of the students kept themselves segregated.

Living in the dorms, he said, the few African American students at that time stuck together.

"You knew you were being discriminated against," he said. "But there was nothing you could do about it."


The UI integrated the dorms when Townsend was here in the 1960s. However, even after that, finding housing was difficult.

"White athletes would sign the lease, then everyone would move in," Townsend said chuckling. "But that began to improve as laws passed."

Experiences such as Townsend's provide a scope of how both society and the university have progressed on the issues over the years.

"It's important to provide a sense of direction to students now to see what the university has come to so they can compare their own experiences," said Richard Breaux, a professor of ethnic studies at the Colorado State University and moderator for a panel discussion held Tuesday evening.

The panel, "Black Hawkeyes," is a part of a five-day program to examine past discrimination in the state and the city.

The UI has a history of educating African Americans.

Alexander G. Clark Jr. was the first African American student to graduate from the University of Iowa, in 1879. He went on to be one of the first in the nation to earn a law degree.

Since that time, officials say large steps have been taken to welcome African Americans on college campuses, including the UI.

"You can look back and be out [of the university] only 10 or 20 years and be amazed how much Iowa has changed," Breaux said.

Forty years later, the UI has a thriving African American student population, university officials say.

The school first began tracking ethnic diversity during the 1978-79 academic school year, when 602 students were African American, compared with 819 African American students in the fall of 2011.

"It's reasonable to say it was a smaller percentage then," said UI Libraries Archivist David McCartney said. "It was less likely for opportunities compared with more recent times."

Townsend was not the only African American who found living situations difficult.

"The reason I didn't come to Iowa [for undergraduate work in the 1950s] was because black students couldn't live in the dorms," UI alumna Betty Ferguson said, who first attended college elsewhere before coming to the UI to earn a master's in social work in 1972. "I also had never had a black teacher."

Ferguson said she noticed the biggest changes when Willard "Sandy" Boyd became president, and other panelists agreed.

"He made the clear difference at this university for people of color," said UI alumnus and panelist Ted Wheeler. "He made sure everyone was treated fairly."

Boyd, now a UI professor of law and president emeritus, said efforts to eliminate discrimination were an important part of his presidency.

"The burden should never be on the person discriminated against, rather it should be on the university," he said.

Affirmative attitude was taken to expand recruitment, and the administration opened up the campus for all ethnicities, genders, and persons with disabilities.

"It's the simple notion of we want to treat others the way we want to be treated," Boyd said.

Billie Townsend, a UI administrative services coordinator in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, said the problem that faces the UI is not recruiting but retaining.

"In my opinion we have a great record for recruitment of brilliant minorities, especially African American faculty, staff, and students," she said. "But our retention rate and our nurturing of these faculty, staff and students still leaves a lot to be desired."

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