The histories of African-American students at WU and at many other predominantly white universities in the United States frequently begin in the era of student activism, the late 1960s. With his recent project, “Telling Their Stories: The First Class of African-American Undergraduate Students Admitted to Washington University in 1952,” Rudolph Clay is finding and preserving the narratives of black alumni who broke down barriers before the 1960s.
Clay, who is African and African-American studies librarian and head of library diversity initiatives, has been conducting and recording oral interviews with WU’s first African-American students since May 2016. The project is being supported by an Innovation Grant from WU Libraries.
In order to locate the students, Clay teamed with Alumni & Development, the WU Black Alumni Council, and local contacts. When it came time to sit down with his subjects, Clay used a digital audio recorder to capture the conversations. The interviews have been transcribed and will soon be accessible to the public via the WU Libraries’ website. Participating alumni received copies of both the audio recordings and the transcripts.
Because the experiences of these former students aren’t widely known or well documented, having taken place in the early 1950s, “Telling Their Stories” chronicles a new chapter in the history of desegregation at WU and in the world of higher education. The project is ongoing, as Clay continues to seek out and connect with alums. He plans to share the results of the project with other colleges and universities in the region, with the hope that those institutions will engage in similar initiatives.
Clay interviewed WU alum Aquilla Ernestine Brown Jackson in May 2016. Jackson was born in Wilton, Arkansas, on May 21, 1937. Her family moved to St. Louis when she was in elementary school. As a girl, she went with her mother to see a performance by the legendary contralto Marian Anderson. On Saturdays she listened to opera on the radio with her father. When a relative left a piano with her family, she began studying the instrument and developed into an accomplished pianist/organist.
Jackson entered WU in September 1954 and graduated in 1958. Her major was sociology. In 1957, she saw Martin Luther King Jr. speak in WU’s Graham Chapel. She was close to fellow WU student Henry Hampton, the Emmy Award-winning producer of the civil rights documentary series Eyes on the Prize.
After graduating from WU, Jackson became a social worker. She also taught classes in French and music at schools around St. Louis, including Northwest High School and Central Visual and Performing Arts High School. Jackson is a longtime choir director and church organist. The following is an excerpt from her conversation with Clay.
RC: How did you first learn about WU?
AJ: I took Saturday music classes at WU. It was the most wonderful thing, because they taught music theory and history. They gave us tickets to the symphony. Anything you wanted to know about music, they were teaching on Saturday.
RC: Do you remember where the Saturday class met on the WU campus?
AJ: We met in a big room in the Music Department.
RC: Did you consider any other colleges besides WU?
AJ: Yes. I was offered scholarships to other colleges, but if I had gone away to school it would have been too expensive. I was always thinking about the fact that my parents were poor. They couldn’t afford to send me away to college and deal with all those other things that go along with it—living in a dorm and all that.
RC: Do you remember how much WU cost at that time?
AJ: I think it was $300 a semester. $600 a year.
RC: Were there other African-American students in your graduating class?
AJ: I’m thinking there were two. There could have been more.
RC: While you were attending WU, you lived at home with your parents. Can you describe your neighborhood and your home during that time?
AJ: I lived on Newberry Terrace. When we bought our house, it was a four-family flat, and there was a white family still there. We played with them in the backyard, but they soon left. It was a relatively quiet neighborhood.
RC: How did you get to WU each day?
AJ: University streetcar. I took the Taylor Bus to the University streetcar line. That’s how I got there. And sometimes my daddy would drive me.
RC: Can you remember the things that were going on either nationally or locally—political events, or events connected to race relations—while you were at WU?
AJ: Well, the sit-ins, and the arrests—most of these were from CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) or the NAACP. I was a member of CORE and the NAACP. But my mother said, “You cannot get arrested.” I knew she wasn’t playing. She said, “If the police come in one door, you will go out of the other.” She just hated for me to be in the middle of all that, you know. I had to be in it.
RC: Was there a campus chapter of the NAACP when you were at WU?
AJ: Yes. We had meetings on Sundays. Half of the attendees were staff from the English department. They were all white…. But they were very supportive. And we went to sit-ins. We went to picket and to demonstrate. Henry Hampton was there when I was there. He was younger. We were very close, and he was very active in the NAACP, the campus chapter, and in picketing, and all the things that we did.
RC: You saw Martin Luther King Jr. speak at WU, in Graham Chapel in 1957. What was that like?
AJ: It was wonderful. He was wonderful. White people came up to me saying, “I’m so…I just feel so full. I’ve never had an experience like this before.” Because he really spoke well. It was packed. Standing room only.
RC: Looking back on your career and your experiences at WU, what advice would you give to students, especially African-American high-school or college students?
AJ: If they get frustrated, I would just say you can still make it. A lot of people will tell you that you cannot make it. But if you are inspired, you can do it.
Read about other library-related projects and events in the latest issue of Off the Shelf magazine.