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Being Under-souled: Black History at Walla Walla College

Being Under-souled: Black History at Walla Walla College

Terrie Aamodt

Published on February 11, 1999 

Walla Walla College, like the entire Northwest, has historically had little racial diversity. Washington State University and the University of Idaho had virtually no black students before the 1950s (for decades the U of I did not have a single black student), and black students began to attend these state schools in significant numbers only when heavy athletic recruiting began in the 1950s.  

Most of the few non-white students who attended Walla Walla college during the early days were from the Orient. Throughout the 1940s the college maintained a tacit, unwritten policy that black students would not be admitted. Student applications were required to include a photograph, and black students were referred to Oakwood College, a traditionally black Adventist institution in Huntsville, Ala. For a time the North Pacific Union Conference subsidized travel for Northwest black Adventists attending Oakwood.  

The motives behind this policy are unclear, since they were never referred to in written records, and the practice of other denominational schools varied widely. While Pacific Union College and some other Adventist colleges had been admitting black students for many years, Washington Missionary College, near the nation’s capital, maintained a whites-only policy because it served as the church’s senior college for white students from the southern states.  

By the 1950s, however, the college was attempting to recruit black students in the Northwest. When Vice President Robert Brown visited predominantly black churches in the 1950s to tell parents that their children would be welcomed at the college, he was met with heavy skepticism. Memories of rebuffs and train tickets to Huntsville were still vividly present. It was not until 1960 that WWC had its first black graduate, Art Bushnell.  

Racial awareness at WWC received a significant boost in 1962 when Don Blake was hired to teach biology. He was the first black teacher at the college, and he had been involved in the passive resistance movement while he was a graduate student in Rhode Island. He had faced numerous episodes of racism in the Northwest, from restaurants that closed their doors in his face to petition circulated by College Place residents that tried to keep him from moving into the neighborhood.  

While Professor Blake continued to participate in civil rights activities while he taught at WWC, the issue was distant from the lives of most students. At WWC in the 1960s WWC, opportunities to learn about other races were very few. For the first half of the decade there were usually only one or two black students in the school at any time. Although students were quite open to involvement in activist issues that affected them directly, such as protesting the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement practically passed them by. The issue was drawn to their attention once more in 1968 after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Journalism professor Roberta Moore participated in a march that began after a memorial service in Cordiner Hall on the Whitman campus and proceeded to the county courthouse. She reflected on the experience in a Collegian article and wondered whether she would have been courageous enough to participate in the risky activities of the civil rights movement. It was a question that few WWC faculty or students were able to answer. 

Don Blake responded to her article, however. He was still a member of the WWC faculty, but he was spending the year in post-doctoral research at Ohio State University. In a letter to the Collegian, he noted that it seemed to be a major step forward just to see a WWC teacher participate in a civil rights march without apparent criticism: “I vividly remember how in March 1964 I was attacked in many ways for my participation in a similar commemorative march in honor of Reverend James Reeb. I received anonymous phone calls and letters condemning my actions. Some of my fellow faculty members asked the administration to censure me for my actions…. In order for one to fully understand any movement, it is imperative that he become personally in volved in it, and for any revolution to be totally suppressed by its opponents, it is only necessary that the good, kindhearted sympathizers remain silent long enough.”  

The openness and inclusiveness that characterized President Robert Reynolds administration in the 1970s accelerated the pace of change. Reynolds commissioned physics professor Claude Barnett to recruit black students for the college, and a number of minority scholarships became available. The 1971-1972 college bulletin for the first time contained a statement that students would be accepted without regard to race, color or ethnic background. 

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In 1971 the Collegian editor, Jim Aldred, noted that the college had 20 black students. After interviewing them he stated that most of them felt recognized as equals with whites, but they also felt at best tolerated or accepted while still misunderstood. Perhaps segregation really does exist, he mused, if only 20 out of 1800 students are black. 

Since 1971 WWC has become a bit more reflective of American cultural diversity, although it is still relatively homogenous and is still relatively distant from many racial issues that transfix the nation. During the 1980s the black faculty and staff at the college increased from one or two to a handful. A diversity milestone was achieved in the mid 1980s with the establishment of the Multicultural Services office, founded by Donna Collins and now directed by Beverly Roper-Archer. That office, along with 1990s groups such as the Black Faculty Fellowship, the various ethnic students’ clubs, multicultural church, the In Tents meetings, and students, faculty, and staff of all backgrounds who have found the richness of cultural diversity both inspiring and empathetic, have increased campus awareness of multicultural issues. 

While WWC is still more racially homogenous than our nation as a whole, the increasing diversity we’ve experienced in the last few years has added a new ingredient to our campus: soul. What is soul? Instead of a tedious definition, a brief example: if you can belt out a heartfelt “Amen” in church without needing a cue or without feeling embarrassed, chances are you have soul. Now it’s true that soul does not permeate our campus, as it did at my alma mater, Columbia Union College. During my undergraduate years there it had outgrown its segregated (Washington Missionary College) past, and one-third of its students were people of color. Still, if you look carefully enough on this campus, you’ll find soul, and when you find it, you’ll know what it is. 

(Note: During Black History Month, the History Club and Pegasus will sponsor a presentation by Terrie Aamodt on the role of blues in American culture. See campus signs for time and location.) 

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