Union College takes a step forward

Reconciliation at last

Kyle Berg

Standing before the Board of Trustees, I nervously grip the microphone and begin. “There isn’t much written on what happened on this campus during that time, so the bulk of my research was interviews of alumni willing to share their experiences and scouring old yearbooks.” I have 90-seconds to get my point across, share my part in this plan and pass the microphone to Chris Blake.

From the 1930s to the 1960s, Union College participated in racial discrimination and segregation on campus. My point was that Union did take part in this, and my part was to insist that a formal apology be made by the college.

This realization started just about a year ago as I stood at a piano in Woods Auditorium with a group of students. Some of us, myself included, were less than excited about performing an original production titled “Fifty Years Later.” The play was centered on the Civil Rights movement, an era none in the room, save Dr. Robison and Dr. Lynn, had been around to experience. I lamented going to practice for the first few weeks, especially when we had to sing the protest songs for the Movement.

Then Oscar Harriott showed up.

Harriott, a native of Kingsway, Jamaica, and whose father attended Union College in 1946, came to shed some light on why the songs we were singing were so important. It was then that the curtain of naivety was pulled back and I saw a truth that I had blissfully ignored. My church and my school had taken part in discriminating against people of color.

Gathered around that piano, Harriott shared with us that his father had to stand with his cafeteria tray in hand until a white student invited him to sit down. If no white students invited him to sit, he was forced to eat standing against the walls of the same kind of room that you and I enjoy our meals in now.

When Harriott, a third-generation Adventist, went to college in the ’60s, he decided to attend the University of Nebraska–Lincoln instead of Union. He remembered the stories his father had told him about the college and chose to attend the public university, knowing both were going to judge his skin rather than his character.

He continued to tell more stories of segregation and discrimination at Union College from his wife Barbara and Raymond Taylor, his brother-in-law. During his senior year, Raymond was not able to room with his best friend, who happened to be white and with whom he had spent all summer working alongside. This deeply wounded Raymond to the point that he left Union College and since then has not stepped foot on this campus, nor in any Seventh-day Adventist church.

Harriott’s late wife, Barbara, has a story that is most unsettling yet deeply inspiring. The Rees Hall chapel pews used to be segregated. There was a golden cord that separated the last third of the pews, forbidding the students of color from sitting in the front two-thirds of the chapel. During one particular chapel, where white students performed a skit with black face paint, pretending to be people of color in a disrespectful way, Taylor had had enough. She went to her room, came back down with scissors in hand, and cut and ripped the cords from the wall.

That night, when practice was over, Harriott’s stories lingered, leaving me unsettled to say the least. I wanted to do something, but I didn’t know what to do. I decided I wanted to do more research on the subject of Union College’s role in segregation and discrimination during the 1930s through the 1960s. I made it my research topic for Dr. Ed Allen’s research assignment in the class History of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

Later that month, Harriott came back and spoke for a Martin Luther King Jr. function at Woods Auditorium. Chris Blake’s Conflict and Peacemaking class organized the event, and the cast from “Fifty Years Later” sang a song and performed some lines. The most significant portion of the evening was how Harriott’s stories struck others in the audience—especially Blake’s class, which began to draft up a formal apology letter on behalf of Union College.

After the Board of Trustees heard about the research, process and most importantly Harriott’s stories, they voted to approve the formal apology letter on February 9, only a little less than a year later.

“This will go a long way,” Harriott said in regards to the impact the formal apology will have. He believes that more alumni of color may return for alumni weekends and perhaps start the healing process for his brother-in-law Raymond.

This was a dark time during our Adventist college history; but by illuminating it, reconciliation has begun, and hopefully hearts broken long ago will begin to heal.

Kyle is a senior studying language arts education.