Breaking Boundaries: Abolitionist aspirations realized through gradual integration
Born in a time when blood was shed over the issue of slavery, Baker University has always been a microcosm of a culture that has struggled toward equality.
Though the majority of early Kansans opposed slavery, individual philosophies did not always support equal rights. A large percentage of early Kansans were “free soilers” who didn’t want slaves in Kansas but didn’t really want a black presence either.
Baker’s founders, however, were true abolitionists. In 1856, the Kansas-Nebraska Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church took a stance against slavery. In a time when treatment of blacks and the question of slavery deteriorated from a philosophical debate to a violent conflict, University Archivist Brenda Day said the men who paved the way for Baker’s official charter in 1858 were overwhelmingly active during the 1850s in fighting for black rights.
“There are so many examples,” Day said. “Our financial agent, Hugh Dunn Fisher, was known as ‘The Fighting Parson.’ The reason he was on Quantrill’s top-five list for his raid on Aug. 21, 1863, was because he would ‘loosen’ slaves. You can’t do much better than being on Quantrill’s hit list.”
However, it wasn’t until the turn of the century that the founders’ hopes of racial equality were realized.
Among Baker’s earliest black students was Robert Benjamin Hayes, 1903. Hayes, who came to Baker from Navasota, Texas, left Baker with a bachelor’s of philosophy and Artium Magister, the equivalent of today’s master’s of arts.
Hayes devoted his post-Baker life to academia, but in a time when black professors weren’t allowed at all colleges, he served a number of black institutions throughout the South and Midwest.
From Baker’s first generation of black graduates to a longstanding career in black academia, Hayes was a true first in black education. When he died in Holly Springs, Miss., in 1944, he left behind a legacy of providing education to people of his race at six institutions in five states.
In the early 20th century, Baker was ahead of its time as a school welcoming all races. As the century progressed, educational segregation began to fall at all levels. In 1954, 13 Topeka parents questioned a once prominent notion that separate was truly equal, leading to the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. For decades, desegregationists fought to integrate black students into historically white universities.
Nationwide, the University environment was beginning a shift toward multi-racial, multi-cultural demographics. Baker had been enrolling black students for almost 70 years, but it wasn’t until 1969 that Baker’s first black professor came to campus.
A New Era
Jesse Milan had already been a first in black education. After the Brown v. Board decision, Milan was hired as the first black teacher in the newly-integrated Lawrence school district in 1954. For 15 years, Milan worked there as an elementary physical education teacher and later as an elementary physical education consultant.
While in Lawrence, Milan was active in promoting civil rights in the community. In 1968, he was instrumental in passing a Lawrence election issue for a municipal swimming pool open to all races.
Milan, who grew up in Kansas City, Kan., said it took some persuading to bring him to campus.
“I was kind of hesitant. Dr. Lowell Gish (then chair of the education department) sent a group of students to my home to convince me to accept his offer,” he said.
Milan said the decision proved a milestone in his life and the lives of those who had been accustomed to racial strife.
“When I was a kid, my mother would always call me her little professor,” he said. “In 1969, when I signed that contract as an assistant professor of education at Baker University, I took that contract to my mother in the hospital and said ‘Mama, you planted the seed.’”
It was that philosophy that inspired Milan to provide the same service for others. As Baker’s first black professor, he said he felt a responsibility to serve as a role model for Baker’s black students.
One of his first actions was to call a meeting of black students on campus. The result was the creation of Mungano Wa Wanafunzi Weuzi (Brothers and Sisters in Unity), a Swahili name suggested by a Kenyan student at the time. Milan said the objective of the new organization was to teach black students how to get involved, understand leadership and succeed.
Milan and Mungano were key in developing a number of traditions and standards that continue today in the effort to provide black students with the recognition and the ambition to succeed. Today, Mungano is a multi-cultural organization open to all students.
In late 1970, Mungano members began an annual candlelight march and vigil.
“The idea was to reawaken these kids, to pay tribute to those who died in fighting for civil rights, irrespective of race, for they made sacrifices to give us our rights we have today,” Milan said.
Another tradition focuses on prospective students. Fifth-graders from Bertram Caruthers (formerly Hawthorne) Elementary School in Kansas City, Kan., come to Baker’s campus for a day to experience college life, mingle with Mungano members and inquire about higher education. Milan said the experience, which continues as an annual event, gives children inspiration to continue their education.
“The students sit in class and see how college students act in the classroom,” he said. “They have a tremendous impact on those kids. Some of them have never been outside the city limits of Kansas City, Kansas.”
In more than a century since Baker saw its first black graduate, the percentage of racial minorities at the University has grown to more than 15 percent. From one black student in 1903, Baker’s student population has diversified considerably with 600 minority students, half of whom are black, enrolled in Baker’s four schools. A philosophy does not always reflect reality, and in the 150 years since Baker’s first abolitionists pushed for racial equality, those notions have gradually reflected truth on Baker’s campus.