Black History Celebration
St. James Baptist Church
3:00-5:00 p.m., Sunday, February 22, 2015
Chancellor Gearhart Speech
I want to thank Pattie Williams and D’Andre Jones for inviting me to be part of this year’s Compassion Fayetteville program, as well as Pastor Curtiss Smith for providing us with a venue to talk about compassion as it coincides with Black History Month.
I also want to thank Mayor Jordan for all he has done to promote equality and justice.
It’s always a privilege to share a podium with you.
Now, I should start by saying that I am no authority on Black History – or any history, for that matter.
Insofar as we are the author of our own lives, though, I can address what I have seen and experienced, as well as what I know of black history as it intersects with university history.
By now, I hope it is well known that in 1948 the University of Arkansas became the first southern institution of higher education to desegregate without being forced to do so by court order.
This happened when Silas Hunt enrolled in the School of Law, and was soon followed by Jackie Shropshire, George Haley, C.C. Mercer, Wiley Branton, and George Howard—whom we now recognize as the six pioneers.
This was a watershed moment in the university’s history—its first attempt to be on the right side of history.
I wish we could say the university truly embraced and encouraged these students, but when, in fact, it merely allowed them entry.
Well documented is the fact that Silas Hunt had to study one-on-one in the basement, and that a rail was erected between black students and other students in the classroom until professors finally complained.
It was a struggle for black students to find a restroom, a place to live, or even a friendly white face.
The years following Silas Hunt’s admittance into the School of Law were extremely difficult for those who came next.
Vice Chancellor for Diversity and Community at the University of Arkansas, Dr. Charles Robinson, documented their struggles in the book he co-edited with Dr. Lonnie Williams, Remembrances in Black, an oral history of African American experiences at the University of Arkansas.
The book makes for extremely heartbreaking reading as early students recount the obstacles they faced and the isolation they felt.
Melvin Eugene Dowell, the first black student born and raised in Fayetteville to attend the university, commented that he felt like “a non-existent black spot.”
Billie Rose Whitfield Jacobs said, “We very strongly felt the university’s lack of concern for our wellbeing and interest in our education.”
She added, “The lack of concern may have been more devastating than had we been openly harassed.”
Sharon Bernard, the first black woman to attend the School of Law in 1966, said they were, “treated like lepers.”
Because so many of her contemporaries were forced to sit at the back of the bus, she said she always sat in the front of the auditorium.
Consequently, there were always ten empty rows behind her.
While I will never really be able to comprehend what they went through, I am able to contemplate my place in a segregated society.
I was born in Fayetteville in 1952.
My first exposure to black society came from a member of this very church.
Her name was Nelly Dart—Mrs. David Dart—and she worked as a domestic maid for our family for many years.
In fact, my entire youth, all the way through college, included Nelly Dart.
She came to our home three days a week and on special occasions.
Nelly was a kind soul who cleaned, cooked, and essentially raised the four boys in the Gearhart family.
When my mother had the fourth son, Nelly declared that if Ms. Joan—that’s what she called my mom—if Ms. Joan had one more child, she would most assuredly quit.
Mother stopped having children.
Nelly was funny, clever, thoughtful, devoted, caring, proud, responsible, and loving.
We loved her very much.
Nelly died in a fire at her home many years ago.
She never had children of her own, but raised many nieces and nephews.
I think about her often these many years later.
One thing I remember is the time I found her examining a photo at home of me and Dr. Ralph David Abernathy, the civil rights leader.
He’d spoken at Westminster College, where I studied, and I had the opportunity to take a photo with him.
In my ignorance, I thought she might not know who he was.
But Nelly told my mother on more than one occasion how much she appreciated that photo.
That was when I first realized that Nelly had aspirations, awareness, and a political consciousness far beyond what she felt comfortable expressing around us.
And as I look back on Nelly’s devoted service to my family, I realize that at its base, her service—one might call it servitude—was actually quite wrong.
Because I grew up in a segregated south.
Black people sat in the balconies of movie theaters.
Black people did not use the city swimming pool.
They sat in a segregated area in school.
They lived in a segregated part of the city.
They were not on the Razorback football team or otherwise engaged in the social life of its students.
Certainly, there were no black members of the Fayetteville Country Club.
They were denied professional and educational opportunities critical to advancement in our society.
So while my family provided Nelly with a living, we were complicit in an economic system that marginalized her and forced women like her to work menial jobs just to survive.
Simply put, we took advantage of her circumstances, and her lack of options.
While I still have great fondness for her, that feeling is now tempered by a sense of guilt that we exploited her situation.
We were indeed, part of a bad system of segregation.
I think the most repulsive part of those years is that most Arkansans lived under those rules and made little attempt to change society.
I suspect they may have felt a twinge in their hearts that it was wrong, but it was just the way it was, and we lived that way for decades.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would describe it as the “appalling silence of good people.”
Fortunately, things have changed in the decades since.
At least most Americans now know that those years of segregation were wrong in every way.
It has taken years to correct the worst of our society’s offenses.
It has taken years to apply the basic tenets of justice, fairness, and equality to all people regardless of race, religion, creed, and origin.
Since my youth, we have seen advances in the enforcement of civil rights, the creation of opportunities, the ease of accessibility, and the spread of understanding, compassion, and inclusivity.
The existence and purpose of Compassion Fayetteville are evidence of that.
But I am disappointed, as I am sure many of you are, that we are not further along.
Less than two weeks ago, I read a column by Kaya Herron, a student ambassador for Philander Smith College, who attended a House Committee to discuss a proposal to divide the Robert E. Lee and Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday.
I can’t do justice to what Miss Herron wrote, but clearly she did not think these two should be sharing a holiday, as they do now.
I will read you her conclusion regarding this state of affairs:
“Arkansas is still a Confederate state that institutionally supports racism by celebrating a holiday for a non-Arkansan who advocated for slavery and secession from the United States on the same day federally proclaimed to honor the legacy of a civil rights leader, diametrically opposed to Lee’s ideology and practices.
“The legacy of King has not been protected in Arkansas and the struggle for equality, racial peace and justice is nowhere near its conclusion.”
It’s impossible to disagree with Miss Herron.
The fact that these two share a holiday is a slap in the face to everything Martin Luther King Jr. represented and accomplished and a slight to all the progress that’s been made over the last several decades.
As a university, though, I feel we have made great progress since the six pioneers were so coldly received.
In fact, this spring more than 700 alumni are expected to attend the Black Alumni Society reunion, which has become a major event on our campus.
Since 2008, diversity at the university has increased 80 percent.
A number of new programs, scholarships, and partnerships have been launched to serve underrepresented students, largely through the efforts of Dr. Charles Robinson.
They include Razorback Bridge Scholarships, summer ACT academies, and the Delta Schools College Completion Consortium.
Consequently, we have a growing student body of more than 1,30o African American students who are active in student government, fraternities and sororities, academic societies, and undergraduate and graduate research opportunities.
They are also campus leaders, deans and vice chancellors, department chairs, faculty, and coaches.
They are vital to our university, and making critical contributions to its success and national reputation.
We do, though, have some work to do in terms of diversifying our faculty and staff.
Simply put, we would like the numbers to be higher.
But we’re making real progress, and we’re getting there.
My work as chancellor of the university will conclude this summer, but I’m confident that the team we have in place will continue to get results and be a beacon of hope.
Related to the larger mission of compassion, I would like to add, briefly, that we have lots of work to do as a country.
We’re currently undergoing a debate about the rights of people who are different in their sexual orientation.
It is a caustic debate to say the least, and I don’t want to impinge on anyone’s religious beliefs.
But I will say that I believe in a God of fairness and equality and goodness and inclusion.
I simply cannot understand why anyone would want to discriminate against any person for any reason—black, white, red, yellow or Republicans.
This nation is also engaged in a raging debate about undocumented persons and illegal aliens.
It is a complex issue to say the least, and one that has few good solutions.
I’m not going to venture out on that political limb this afternoon, except to say that I do believe passionately that it is wrong to keep a young person who came to this country as a child through no volition of their own, from getting a college education and becoming a responsible citizen.
I have met hundreds—if not thousands—of them, and all they want is an education.
As the greatest nation in the world, we should be able to allow them to get that education.
I started with some quotes from Remembrances in Black, and I would like to end with a couple.
Many of you will remember author E. Lynn Harris, who passed away a few years ago, well before his time.
- Lynn attended the University in the 1970s, and admitted to feelings of alienation and unhappiness during his time here.
Later, he did say, “I came [back] in the fall of 2003 as a visiting professor…The whole experience has been so different and so rewarding.
“I feel a part of the community and I feel a part of Fayetteville.”
I was really encouraged to read that.
One of the last of the original six pioneers, C.C. Mercer, also passed away not too long ago.
In regards to the university, he remarked, “I don’t think they are as good as they ought to be, but I don’t think they are as bad as a whole lot of folks are claiming them to be.”
As usual, we could depend on C.C. for straight talk.
And I couldn’t agree more, and I know the university will keep trying to be as good as it ought to be.
Finally, I want to say that I was too young to understand that behind Nelly’s good cheer and tireless efforts on my family’s behalf, there was a lot of pain.
There were unrealized dreams, limited opportunities, daily indignities, and the chronic fears and frustrations of being a second class citizen.
I know better now, and I hope as chancellor I’ve helped the University of Arkansas become a little more welcoming, inclusive, and compassionate, in all the ways it was not for Silas Hunt and those who followed him.
Martin Luther King said, “Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable… Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.”
Thank you so much for your dedication to creating a more just and compassionate world.
I think my friend, Nelly Dart, would be proud of you.