Personal stories of growth at Eckerd College

Professor Emeritus William C. Wilbur

From a transcription of Professor Emeritus Wilbur's Amateurs Talk
April 18, 1994

I must refer in this very fragmentary account of the early years to what I think was a defining event in its history which tested whether we meant to be what we seemed to be. I refer to what is known by the early faculty as the 1962 Integration Crisis. This episode stirred deep emotions, and participants in it naturally saw it from widely varying perspectives. Mine is a faculty one, though I base this account on some of the official records and Trustees' oral reports, as well as my own memory.

You will recall that I said earlier that evidently no official Board policy on integration had been laid down in the discussions leading to the support of the College by both Synods, although the General Assemblies of both Churches had issued pronouncements condemning segregation in both Church and society before these talks ever occurred. Almost all founding faculty, I believe, had inquired specifically, before signing contracts, as to whether all races would be accepted, and we were assured that the President and the Board intended to abide by the Church's announced policies. In fact, in a public announcement of the opening of the College, on May 23, 1960, The New York Times said, "It will be co-educational and open to all races." The crucial test of this policy came in March 1962 when an academically qualified African-American junior-college student applied to be admitted to the junior class in September. The President recommended to the Board, through its Executive Committee, that the administration be directed to continue "its present admissions policy of accepting applications from and admitting ... any student who is academically qualified according to the measurement procedures in use by the Admissions Committee." This recommendation, when it went to the full Board, was rejected by a 16 - 13 vote of the Board at its May 30 meeting, and a press release went out stating that the Board had concluded that "consideration will be given by the Board to acceptance of Negro students when the College moves to its permanent campus" - which was, in fact, to be in the fall.

Prior to this meeting, 20 - or perhaps 21, I'm not quite sure - of the 22 faculty and the Dean had sent letters to the President announcing their intention to leave the College should it remain segregated. There had been numerous intense meetings of faculty, both formal and informal, and discussions with the President. Naturally, all of us who were involved remember with great vividness this series of traumatic events. One of my memories, particularly, was that I had left St. Petersburg prior to the May 30 meeting to sail for England on a travel grant. My wife, our two children and I sailed from New York without having heard what the decision had been. I think I called Clark Bowman about midnight and said, "What happened at this meeting?" "Well, we haven't heard yet; it's still going on." So, we went off, and I wasn't sure, when I came back, whether there was to be a job here or not. But fortunately, a series of meetings between a group of faculty, administration and Board members over the summer finally resolved this impasse, and at its October 18 meeting, the Trustees voted overwhelmingly to affirm an Admissions policy which would admit any qualified applicant "without regard to race, color or creed." It was too late to do justice to that young man, and these had been dark days for many students, faculty, administrators and Trustees. Some students said they would not come back in the fall if it was to be a segregated institution. But fortunately, the community began to heal its wounds and, I believe, became stronger in its commitment to its best ideals. At any rate, by 1968, we had 22 African-American students, and our first African-American professor. It was not enough, and we had taken too long to get to that stage, but try to think yourself back to the '60s and you may, perhaps, understand why these things happened the way they did. I'd like to point out - make clear, here - that the two people who did not resign - one or two - were certainly not in favor of segregation; it was a matter of tactics at this particular time. The President, too, was asked whether he would resign, and he said he was not going to remain at a segregated college, but he did not intend to resign at that point because he thought he could bring the Board along, and educate them, and get the College going - and I think we need to bear those things in mind when we think about that.

Another pivotal event occurred - I again quote The New York Times - that I think needs to be appended to this story, so let me read you a piece from the March 23, 1965, New York Times, which bore the headline "College Gets Gift for Selma Protest":

St. Petersburg, Fla., March 22 - Thomas Dreier, an author, lecturer and public relations specialist, announced today that he and Mrs. Dreier were giving Florida Presbyterian College at St. Petersburg $100,000 because three of its faculty members participated in demonstrations at Selma, Ala.

Mr. Dreier, a former newspaper reporter, founded the Thomas Dreier Advertising Service in Boston in the early 1900s, specializing in the writing and editing of house organs for American and foreign corporations. At one time he edited 27 such publications.

Now 80 years old but still active in local civic affairs, Mr. Dreier, who once studied for Roman Catholic priesthood and long has been a champion of desegregation, said the gift was in answer "to those who have criticized the College because its faculty members had the courage to express their feelings at Selma."

Dr. Keith Irwin, Professor of Philosophy; Dr. Alan Carlsten, the College Chaplain; and Dr. Kenneth Keeton, Professor of Language, went to Selma March 7 and participated in a march on March 9.

N.Y. Times 3/23/65 p. 28, col. 4

With courageous colleagues like that, and with friends like Tom Dreier and a host of others, including Trustees who supported us, we had come a long way toward meriting survival.