Speech given by Dr. Alice M. Scales
Professor of Education Emerita
University of Pittsburgh – Pittsburgh, PA
At Rust College’s 148th Founder’s Convocation
Good Morning … Praise God for this beautiful day and we will be glad and rejoice in it. To President Beckley, administrators, faculty, alumni, students, friends, and others, this is indeed an honor and a privilege for me to be with you for this our 148th Founders’ Anniversary. As I thought about my presentation for today, I thought that we should collectively extend our congratulations to members of the class of 1939, this is their 75th anniversary; to the members of the class of 1989, this is their 25th year anniversary; and to the members of the class of 1964, this is their 50th year anniversary.
Also, I would like to extend a special acknowledgement to the members of the class of 1964 for not only their enormous monetary contribution to Rust College but for their other in-kind support as well. For, indeed their contribution has added more proudness to Rust College. And this proudness has pushed me and I am sure pushed all of you as well to speak a little louder (about Rust College), to dig a little deeper (for Rust College), and to give a lot more (to Rust College). So, thank you members of the class of 1964.
Further thinking within this theme of speaking, digging, and giving led me to invite you to collectively journey with me as I have striven to contextualize how I may have come to not only prepare for but to appreciate this sophisticated labyrinth which is Rust College to us. And know that, for me, this preparation and this appreciation for this College was developed over the years. To begin, I journeyed back to my childhood in this my home state of Mississippi and I attempted to abstract events that may have helped me to prepare for and to appreciate Rust College.
My very early years of farm life, seem to be quite embedded as markers. One memory, which I thought had sealed my fate, was of me working in a large cotton field. I do not recall other people on that day, but I am sure my other family members were there. The memory is of me – I am standing at the end of a row of cotton stalks, at the opposite end of the field from the graveled road and I am watching cars go by; I can’t hear them.
As they passed on that graveled road, large dust-balls formed behind them, but the dust-balls seemed to be moving and attached to those cars. So I watched those cars moving with those humongous dust-balls right behind them, moving at a rather fast pace, I thought. I may have wondered where they were going, but my thought to myself was – I am in this field and “this is my life.” Confined to cotton field No other outlet No thoughts of another life Only what was there, at that moment This is my life Cotton field conundrum But evidently, God’s plan for me had expanded beyond my cotton field conundrum. Another embedded Mississippi childhood marker is about my Dad taking my sister and me to school—my parents were adamant about us attending school.
Specifically, we were riding on a mule with my dad walking beside us on a wet dirt road. In addition to the road being somewhat treacherous for walking, there was a ditch where people had to construct a mini bridge by placing short loose-fitting logs in it, cross the ditch, and then remove the logs. Well, that morning as my Dad started to construct the bridge, a Black man who owned property there and maybe the road also, rushed out of his house, shotgun in hand, and yelling at my Dad not to put logs in that ditch. Imagine my fear; a gun! My Dad tried to explain that he would remove the logs. Eventually, we were allowed to proceed. Fear! I did not know if the man would kill my Dad upon his return trip. Needless to say, I was happy to see my Dad after school that day.
Eventually, my Dad left that farm in Mississippi and moved to Chicago. Later our whole family moved there. This childhood marker, upon reflection, may have also been in the plan to move me beyond my cotton field conundrum with dust-balls. So fear, yes Life quandary Dust-balls rolling New home School continues Speak a little louder, dig a little deeper, and give a lot more. How, why, and through what corridors with such baggage as cotton fields with dust-balls and fear, could I speak, could I dig, and could I give? However, over the years I discovered power in corridors: The corridor to speak, for me, provided Knowledge Courage Experience The corridor to dig, for me, offered Inquisitiveness Research Development The corridor to give, for me, demanded Belief Commitment Action For me, it seems that Rust College, in many ways, became these corridors. So I questioned how and why its presence in these corridors. So for how and why I went to our history.
For, we know that Rust was established in 1866 by Missionaries of the Freedman’s Aid Society (n.d.), but why a college for Black people? Even though, 1866 was only three years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation (1863); it was also the year that the first Civil Rights Act of 1866 was passed by congress. Notwithstanding, it was also one year earlier that, Mississippi and South Carolina enacted the first Black Codes (Du Bois, 1935; Southern Black Codes, 2014).
Two years earlier, the Wade-Davis Bill (1864) which created a framework for the Reconstruction Era was passed by congress, but vetoed by Lincoln. Three years earlier, slaves were legally freed, as the Civil War continued. Four years earlier, the D.C. Emancipation Act of 1862 ended slavery in the District of Columbia (U.S. National Archives & Records Administration, 1862). And, five years earlier in 1861, as a tactic to unify the country, Lincoln began his quest to abolish slavery (The War Years 1861-1865, n.d).
So, within five years leading up to 1866: 1. Lincoln began his quest to abolish slavery in 1861, 2. Slavery was abolished in DC in 1862, 3. Slaves were legally freed in 1863, 4. A framework for Reconstruction was formulated in 1864, and 5. Mississippi and South Carolina enacted the first Black Codes in 1865. Also, the year before Rust was established, and Black Codes were enacted, the 13th Amendment (1865) which outlawed slavery, was ratified. And, in that year provisions for health care, education, and technical assistance were made available.
But with Black Codes (Du Bois, 1935) in play, Black people remained in a disenfranchised state, unable to avail themselves of privileges put forth by the 13th Amendment. Nonetheless, in 1866 the year Rust was established, Blacks were granted citizenship through the 14th Amendment (it was ratified in 1868) with rights equal to Whites. Even so, Black people were still massacred; their homes, schools, and churches were burned, and White terrorist organizations were established and active (Time Line of African American History, 1852-1925).
Those Black Codes then continued to make provisions for, not only the operation of terrorist organizations but they continued to limit the civil rights and political powers of Black citizens. Even with these terrorist operations and political uncertainties, the Missionaries continued with their mission of, “establishing [and supporting] schools and colleges for Negroes in the South” (Freedman’s Aid Society, n.d.). Those schools and colleges were in response to Black children and to Black adults hunger for knowledge (Allan, 1866).
Furthermore, those schools and colleges were empowering vehicles to be used in preparation for citizenship privileges in spite of terroristic barbarism. So within the context of: 1. Lincoln’s push to abolish slavery, 2. Slaves being legally freed, 3. A framework for Reconstruction, 4. Passage of the 13th Amendment, 5. Black Codes, 6. Terrorist organizations, and 7. Black people hungering for knowledge, we come to a well established reason for Rust College in those corridors. So we are here, at the beginning, 1866. But in the ensuing years we know that Rust College, through its educational mission, became a mainstay for many who walked those corridors during and after the Reconstruction Era by speaking louder, by digging deeper, and by giving more. Now, I invite you to shift ground with me for a moment to remember a few special Rustites who spoke, who dug, and who gave.
One was Ida B. Wells; she walked those corridors during the Reconstruction Era. She was born a slave during the Civil War in 1862, later she cared for her siblings, worked her way through Rust College, moved to Memphis in 1880, and became a teacher, journalist, and activist. Inequality between the races angered her. You may recall, from history, the highly publicized case that describes Ida B. Wells riding on a train from Memphis in 1884 when the conductor insisted that she move from her seat in the regular passenger car to the smoking car; she refused to move. She knew that the smoking car accommodations were not equal to regular passenger car accommodations.
Also, she knew that “the law stated that accommodations should be separate—but equal” (Duster, 1970, p. xvi). So, she detrained at the “next stop, returned to Memphis, and sued the railroad” (p. xvi). She won her case and was awarded $500 in damages. Unfortunately, the decision was overturned. Later in 1892, when “three young Negro businessmen were lynched in Memphis” (Duster, 1970, p. xix), as part owner and editor of a small newspaper, she wrote and published articles in that newspaper which condemned not only the lynchers but also the Whites who allowed lynchings to occur.
So here we have a Black woman publicly condemning White people for lynchings, and this was during the Jim Crow Law (2014) era when the rights of Black people were severely restricted. Of note is the fact that her life was threatened and her newspaper destroyed, but she continued her crusade against “lynching and other forms of barbarism” (Duster, 1970, p. xxxii). Ida B. Wells spoke, she dug, and she gave through corridors.
To speak, she expanded in the corridor of Knowledge Courage Experience To dig, she excavated in the corridor of Inquisitiveness Research Development To give, she participated in the corridor of Belief Commitment Action Ida B. Wells: Born into Slavery Black Codes Reconstruction Jim Crow Laws Journalist Activist Crusader Separate and Unequal Many attended Rust College before and after Ida B. Wells and surely we all commend them on their excellent choice.
For now though journey with me, after the enactment of the Black Codes in 1865, the end of the Reconstruction Era in 1877 (Card, 2005), and the beginning of the Jim Crow Law era in 1880. Needless to say, the citizenship rights of Blacks were in disarray. But in the midst of Jim Crow, in Meridian, Mississippi, Alvin Childress, another Rustite, was born in 1907. His mother was a teacher; his father a dentist.
His initial goal was to become a doctor. But after enrolling in Rust College as a pre-med student and taking numerous courses in science, he became involved in theater and later switched to acting. He graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Sociology. After graduation, he went to New York City in 1931 to pursue a career as a thespian. He worked as a writer and drama coach at Columbia University.
In the 1940s he became involved with the American Negro Theatre. It was also during this time that he auditioned for and earned the role of Amos Jones, owner of a taxi cab company in the famous Amos ’n’ Andy show (Encyclopedia of African American History, 2009). That sitcom, as some may recall, made its television (TV) debut on CBS in 1951. But, the Black community and the NAACP strongly objected to its characterization of racial stereotypes and forced its cancellation in 1953 (Rao, 2008). In opposition to the cancellation, Childress strongly defended the sitcom by pointing out that it was the only network TV program to show Black people in non-servitude roles.
His position was viewed as controversial or supporting stereotypes of Black people. Acting jobs for him diminished after that show. But, he was invited to make guest appearances on other TV shows and he worked as a Los Angeles social worker until his acting comeback in later years. In September of this year, an article about Alvin Childress appeared in the New York Times newspaper. The first sentence in the article reads as follows: “A graduate of Rust College, actor Alvin Childress made his first New York stage appearance in 1931” (Hal Erickson, 2014). The article further highlights him as a teacher, his Broadway success, and his role in films. Alvin Childress spoke, he dug, and he gave through corridors.
To speak, he accelerated in the corridor of Knowledge Courage Experience To dig, he replenished himself in the corridor of Inquisitiveness Research Development To give, he contributed in the corridor of Belief Commitment Action Alvin Childress: Born Free Jim Crow Laws Educated Parents Focused Devoted Racial Controversy Actor Separate and Unequal And, now, for one more Rustite whose presence is echoed daily through her mother (Emma Elzy – Emma Elzy Residence Hall) on this campus.
Ruby Elzy, resident of Pontotoc, Mississippi was born in 1908 after the Reconstruction Era and when Jim Crow Laws were in full effect. Even with those Laws, Weaver (2004) in his book, Black Diva of the Thirties: The Life of Ruby Elzy, points out that “Whites in Pontotoc were much more tolerant and accepting of Blacks as people” (p. 12) than Whites were in other Mississippi towns.
In Pontotoc, it was common for Black and White children to befriend each other and it was in the home of one White friend that Ruby was often mesmerized as she listened to her friend’s phonograph playing beautiful music with beautiful singing voices, the likes of which she had never heard before (Weaver, 2004). One day after listening to that beautiful music at her friend’s home and overhearing stories about singers wearing beautiful costumes, Ruby rushed home and eagerly described in detail what she had heard to her mother – Emma Elzy.
And, smiling with happiness, joy, delight, and optimism she told her mother that she wanted to be a singer and wear beautiful costumes. But, with sadness, Ruby said that a little Negro girl could not do that (Weaver, 2004). Her hopes were squashed. Well, one can almost feel Emma’s heart break as she calculated (in her mind) the chances of her daughter, a little Negro girl in Mississippi, becoming a famous singer. But, not to be discouraged, Emma knew that Ruby had to have an education beyond what was offered in Pontotoc. With prayer, Emma contacted her Methodist friends and was able to get Ruby accepted into Rust College.
Ruby’s singing talents were discovered at Rust College and eventually, she was accepted as a student into the Music Department at The Ohio State University where she graduated in 1930 at the head of her class. Later in 1934, she graduated from the Julliard School of Music (Weaver, 2004). She was a sought after renowned classical singer and performer. In the 1935 opera, Porgy and Bess (Porgy and Bess – Synopsis, n.d.), Gershwin cast her in the signature role of Serena. In 1937 she was presented in concert at the White House by First lady Eleanor Roosevelt. She performed on Broadway, sang worldwide in concerts and on radio, and appeared in several films. Her last performance was in the revival of Porgy and Bess in 1943. Sadly, during an operation, she died at the early age of 35 (Weaver, 2005).
In 2000 she was posthumously named as one of the charter inductees into the Mississippi Music Hall of Fame (Weaver, 2006). As a Mississippi jewel, in spite of Jim Crow Laws, Ruby spoke out against prejudice and discrimination. On one occasion she stated that “we only want to be considered as men and women with the right to work [and with] … ‘malice toward none,’ [and] with liberty and justice for all” (Weaver, 2004, p. 175). Ruby spoke, she dug, and she gave through corridors. She spoke in the first corridor by gaining and sharing her Knowledge Courage Experience She dug in the second corridor through her Inquisitiveness Research Development She gave in the third corridor through her Belief Commitment Action Ruby Elzy: Born Free Jim Crow Laws Mesmerized Determined Disciplined Proclaimed Opera Singer Separate and Unequal Phenomenal Rustites! All Persevered Restrictions Squelched Stances Taken Plans Executed Accomplishments Realized Speak a little louder, dig a little deeper, and give a lot more.
To you members of the class of 1964, we know that during your graduation year, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed into law. Even though it legally rendered Jim Crow Laws null and void, still unequalness persisted in public places and employment. But you, on that graduation day with your degree in hand, were empowered to challenge unequalness. Again, more proudness; and for all of us alumni and students who have merged together in these Rust College corridors to not only dispute unequalness but to show equality, proudness! Our equality has been shown in such life roles as parents, caregivers, administrators, political office holders, law officers, medical and educational professionals, and scholars and researchers. I am, as I am sure you are, still using Rust College corridors to demonstrate equality. Moving forward from my earlier described childhood markers of cotton field conundrum with dust-balls and fears—suffice it to say—their expanded presence, I believe, were key reminders to me persevering for equality, along my journey.
As with us all, we have markers which we use to not only view our world but to function as well. In other words we have our own key markers. And I dare say that Ida B. Wells, Alvin Childress, and Ruby Elzy had key markers as well. As for me, I think, over the years, thanks to God, I transformed my markers of my cotton field conundrum with dust-balls and fears into my serviceable friends. How, you may wonder? Well, in brief, as serviceable friends, thankfully I embraced them, and accepted them for what they had become for me. In retrospect, I think, all along, they have been my cheering squad, wearing bright bold colored costumes, dancing, waving pom-poms, twirling batons, promenading, tumbling, singing, and playing music in high-stepping marching bands, with a formation that spelled out my name, A – L – I – C – E; and all the while yelling for me to Go ALICE! Go ALICE! Go! Go! Go Study! Go Teach! Go Research! Go Write! Go Publish! Go! Go! You can speak, you can dig, and you can give. Go! Go! Go! Go! So, I did. Now, similar to my cheering squad, I am confident that all of you have cheering squads.
So in celebration of this our 148th anniversary we are going to come together as one cheering squad to do a Cheer. I’ll go over the cheer once – then we’ll do it together … Go! Go! Go! Go! Go what, Speak a little louder Go what, Speak a little louder Go what, Speak a little louder Go what, Speak a little louder Go! Go! Go! Go! Go what, Dig a little deeper Go what, Dig a little deeper Go what, Dig a little deeper Go what, Dig a little deeper Go! Go! Go! Go! Go what, Give a lot more Go what, Give a lot more Go what, Give a lot more Go what, Give a lot more Go! Go! Go! Go! So as we extend our corridors by: 1. Entering, 2. Seeing, 3. Hearing, 4. Feeling, 5. Taking, and 6. Sharing, we will speak a little louder, we will dig a little deeper, and we will give a lot more. Thank you.
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The Emancipation Proclamation (1863). Retrieved from http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/featured_documents/emancipation_proclamation/
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Hal Erickson, R. (2014, September 13). About this person, Alvin Childress. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/movies/person/12839/
Alvin-Childress Jim Crow Laws. (2014). Retrieved from http://www.nps.gov/malu/forteachers/jim_crow_laws.htm
Porgy and Bess – Synopsis. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.israel-opera.co.il/Eng/?CategoryID=394&ArticleID=999&sng=1
Rao, S.A., Jr. (2008). Amos ‘n’ Andy. In N.L.M. Brown & B.M. Stentiford (Eds.), The Jim Crow Encyclopedia: Volume 1, 2 (p. 25). Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
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The War Years 1861-1865 (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.nps.gov/liho/historyculture/waryears.htm
Weaver, D.E. (2004). Black diva of the thirties: The life of Ruby Elzy. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi.
Weaver, D.E. (2005). Biographies: Ruby Elzy (1908-1943). Retrieved from http://www.afrovoices.com/elzy.html
Weaver, D.E. (2006). Ruby Elzy: A Mississippi jewel. Retrieved from http://mshistorynow.mdah.state.ms.us/articles/16/ruby-elzy-a-mississippi-jewel