Friday, September 2, 2016

I just read “Georgetown University Plans Steps to Atone for Slave Past” in the New York Times; I then made the mistake of looking at the comments from readers. This moved me to write up a little family history.

My grandfather, Hoyt Blackwell, was born (a white man) in 1890 in Lancaster County, South Carolina. He worked as a rural mail carrier until World War I, during which he served in a heavy artillery unit in the U.S. Army in France. After the war he attended Mars Hill College, a small 2-year institution in the mountains of western North Carolina. He graduated in 1922, and continued his study of the Bible and ancient Greek at Southern Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, Yale Divinity School, Union Seminary in New York City, and the University of Edinburgh, Scotland. He returned to Mars Hill college as a Professor of New Testament Greek. In 1938 he was selected by a unanimous vote of the College’s Trustees to serve as the 18th President of the school; he served in this role until his retirement in 1966. My grandfather was Old School, in every possible sense of the word. He was a Baptist minister. As far as anyone knows he never drank a drop of alcohol in his life. He drove nothing but Fords. He was witty but never ironic. He loved boxing on TV. He was the warmest, kindest person I have ever known. I was born when he was already 78 years old, but he lived another 20 years.[1]

One of the few things Mars Hill College has ever had in common with Georgetown University is a similar history with regards to slavery. Georgetown sold slaves in 1838 to pay off debt. Mars Hill was, if it is possible, even more literally “built” on slavery. In 1859 the school was founded as The French Broad Baptist Academy (named after the French Broad River) on donated land. As collateral for a construction loan, one of the school’s benefactors, J.W. Anderson, put up his slave, Joe Anderson. Joe was held in jail until the school finished paying the building contractors.[2]

In 1961 my grandfather, as President, oversaw the racial integration of Mars Hill College, which had hitherto admitted only white students. This was six years after the University of North Carolina desegregated, but as a private institution Mars Hill was not subject to the Supreme Court’s ruling of 1954 (Duke University, another NC private school of some repute, didn’t admit African American students until 1963).

My grandfather had, by all accounts, wanted to integrate the college for some time. It is not hard to imagine that this was a tough sell in a community so conservative that no one thought to self-identify as “conservative”, in which all authority was in the hands of white men who got shaved by a barber every day and never went outside without a hat.

But in 1961 Oralene Simmons, a 17-year-old African American woman living just down the road in Asheville submitted an application to attend the school. Who can calculate the depth and quality of virtues she must have possessed to send that letter? Courage, confidence, ambition, optimism, faith in humanity.

Oralene Simmons was the great-great-grandaughter of the slave Joe Anderson. Oralene knew his story. She knew who she was.[3]

Her application was an explicit and audacious challenge, a demand for reparations.

President Hoyt Blackwell knew it, too, and seized on Simmons’ application as a chance to do something good. My grandfather had to convince a number of the Trustees and Faculty to allow an African American woman to enroll in the school. He needed an argument to overcome the kind of old fashioned, bullhorn-not-dog-whistle, illustrated by Norman Rockwell racism that nowadays even racists claim to disavow.

My grandfather took Oralene Simmons’ application to these folks, and it was the reparations aspect of her story that opened enough minds to open the doors of the college to her. Oralene Simmons enrolled at Mars Hill and is today a celebrated alumna. Joe Anderson’s grave is next to the official residence of the College’s President and marked with an elegant memorial. My grandfather served as President for five more years, retiring at age 76; the main administration building at Mars Hill University is named Blackwell Hall.

My point: In 2016, so very many people are eager to share with the public their outrage at Georgetown University’s “awarding preferential status in the admissions process to descendants of the enslaved.”

But back in 1961, the idea of making reparations for an ancestral sin was so obviously righteous as to persuade unreconstructed white racists from the hollers of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

So people will gripe and complain as an honorable institution offers a token of reparation and reconciliation that is largely symbolic, but that will provide a real benefit to a few people at little cost to others. In 45 years, I predict, people who care about Georgetown University will celebrate this decision and wonder why it came so late.

  1. It was cool to go to the VA Hospital in Asheville with him. They had a poster assigning priority of service based on which war people had served in. Since there were never any veterans of the Spanish American War in the waiting room, he always got served first.  ↩
  2. This part of North Carolina had a complicated relationship with the institution of slavery. Mars Hill, North Carolina, is about 25 miles as the crow flies from Cold Mountain, the setting of Charles Frazier’s book, which is as good a source as any for understanding this part of America during the Civil War. The short version is: Rich white folks, the kind who were benefactors of Baptist Colleges, had slaves, and we can conclude that J.W. Anderson, at least, saw no irony using a human being as collateral to build a school whose motto would be Pro Christo Adolescentibusque (“For Christ and for Young Men”).  ↩
  3. The Asheville Citizen-Times has a good article with some oral history from Simmons herself.  ↩