Racism in 1960’s led to dialogue at Simpson

by Erin Haller

As a fifty-something educational consultant in East Orange, N. J., Garfield Jackson reflects on his years spent at Simpson College as many others do.

There were the football games, the parties, the classes, the musical performances, the finals and the many friends.

But as a black man attending college in the 1960s, Jackson had a mixture of experiences that enabled him to see his race not as a hindrance, but as an opportunity to make a change. Racism would not keep him from following his dreams.

When an admissions representative from Simpson made a visit to Jackson’s hometown something managed to spark his interest.

“I decided to apply and went for a visit,” said Jackson. “It seemed like a nice place so I decided to take a chance.”

And what a chance it was.

The black population in Iowa, and at Simpson, was minimal. There were no more than 12 black students enrolled when Jackson arrived that fall, five of them freshmen. But he was ready to take on the world.

“I was able to function in an environment with people that weren’t as familiar with me as I was with them,” said Jackson. “I knew that I was as good as and as smart as everyone else.”

He experienced ease in his transition through his involvement on the football team. While the team itself struggled during his freshman year, Jackson found comfort in the team atmosphere.

“I kind of established an identity early. I was able to get to know a lot of people in a team situation,” said Garfield, a cornerback and a running back. “I was also then able to develop an identity with the rest of the college and with people in the town.”

Jackson also busied himself with the Madrigal Singers and the track team. He worked diligently toward earning his degree in Spanish.

But problems soon surfaced that allowed Jackson and other black students to find a voice on campus and bring about positive change.

Through conversations with one another during their early months, Jackson and other black students made a discovery that both alarmed and upset them.

“My roommate was white. Before we got to school, he was asked if he was okay living with a black student,” he said. Jackson was never asked if he was okay living with a white student.

Jackson and his roommate, a farmer from rural Iowa, became good friends. But he would not let the issue go away.

Jackson and the other black students took their concern to the top, a step that he said “initiated the dialogue.”

Like many other areas of the country at the time, there were feelings of racism that Jackson and his black classmates faced at Simpson. But they never let that slow them down.

“We encountered some situations that weren’t exactly correct for the time but they were easy to handle. We were young and streetwise,” Jackson said. “The situation wasn’t bigger than we were.”

They had conversations with the college president Ralph C. John and several other top administrators about their concerns with the roommate issue and many others that surfaced along the way. “There were honest, memorable, heartfelt situations for dialogue that were not only in class and workshop situations,” said Jackson.

The issues that Jackson encountered never managed to deter him from enjoying college and getting the most out of his college experience. He was able to grow from the experiences and learn more about himself and what he was capable of as a black man.

“It gave me the confidence to handle it. The way I felt did matter,” said Jackson. “[Racism] wasn’t something to keep you from the way you saw life and the way you operated it. It had a very limited effect.”

Cooperation with the college administration and its willingness to address these concerns prevented such problems from overpowering the entire Simpson community. Jackson appreciated the relationship that developed.

“We could talk about it. It was real and it was discussed,” he said.

An issue surfaced between black students and the Greek system that gave Jackson and other black students an opportunity to make a difference.

They were concerned with their inability to be granted membership into a white fraternity. Discussions with administrators and members of the Greek houses brought about a change that affected those who followed in their footsteps.

“What evolved was the opportunity for black guys after us to rush,” Jackson said. “Because of the issue, others could do it.”

Joe Walt, professor emeritus of history, describes the series of events in his book “Beneath the Whispering Maples.”

According to Walt, Stanley Crosswhite, a freshman in 1966, rushed and pledged Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity. This led to problems between the Lambda Chi Alpha undergraduates and its alumni. President John threatened to suspend the fraternity’s charter if the matter was not resolved by the national executive secretary.

Walt said the pledging of Crosswhite “broke the ice.” The problem was resolved and the door was opened for black students from then on out.

In 1968, the black students elected a black Homecoming court and created the Black Students Organization. Actions such as these drew criticism from the rest of the student body, claiming black students were segregating themselves.

Black students defended their actions by stating they intended to provide “mutual support and a forum for minority concerns,” according to Walt. Walt also points out that the administration aimed at being responsive to the needs of the black students.

The experiences they faced contributed to their college experiences, but did not hinder them.

“We improved academically and socially,” Jackson said. “We were able to take care of ourselves.”

He graduated in 1969 and was hired by the college as an admissions representative, given the task of recruiting more black students to come to Simpson. He stayed in that position for one year before moving on to graduate school but said “I was able to get a good group of black students while I was there.”

Jackson continued to study Spanish in graduate school but eventually felt compelled to move back to New Jersey. Jackson went back to graduate school to study teaching and spent the next 25 years as a teacher and then an administrator. He married and had two children who are now grown. He and his wife still live in East Orange, N.J. and Jackson works as an educational consultant.

His five years spent at Simpson were brief but left a lasting impact for black students who came after Jackson and that small group of freshmen from the fall of 1965.

The successful, meaningful relationship that developed allowed for changes while Jackson was a student and for many years after. Black students learned that their issues mattered to the rest of the college. Jackson called the administration “fair” in the way it addressed their concerns.

“We weren’t a voice in the wilderness,” said Jackson. “We weren’t just passed off.”