A DOOR ONCE OPENED: Mississippi State celebrates 50 years of diversity on campus

Dr. Richard Holmes stands in front of the Mississippi State YMCA building. Currently undergoing renovation, the building was his refuge as an undergraduate and became a gathering place for black students during the civil rights era.

In 1965, Richard Holmes just wanted to take some summer classes; a few credit hours to transfer back to Wiley College in Texas.
He didn’t intend to become an “integrator.” An “instigator.”
A “role model.”

He had planned to go back to the historically black college he attended as a freshman and where he had friends, a fraternity and a place on the football team.

Sudden fame has a way of changing things.

“I had never thought about going to Mississippi State. I never really thought of it as an option,” the Starkville native recalled. “But I was a pre-med major and needed summer classes to stay on track. Wiley, Jackson State and Alcorn State didn’t offer them that year, so it just made sense to take summer classes back home.

“At the time, I didn’t think about integration,” Holmes continued. “I guess maybe it was naive but I really thought I could quietly take summer classes at Mississippi State then go back to Texas.”

He soon learned that in 1965, there was no way to “quietly” integrate one of Mississippi’s major, public universities. Holmes’s presence on campus drew headlines, stares and television crews, giving the 21-year-old instant fame or notoriety depending on who was asked.

“I still have the newspaper clippings: ‘Negro enrolls at MSU,’ ‘Negro seeks acceptance,” Holmes recalled. “One person wrote to me to remind me to take a bath every day. I had a few classic ones, and I kept everything.

“The whites didn’t bother me; I expected the stares,” Holmes continued. “But the people I went to school with, the people in my own community, a lot of them weren’t happy with me. They were afraid it would cause problems for them.”

Holmes describes the experience as isolating and uncomfortable. Still, he says, it was the best he could have expected at the time. Desegregation was still new and just three years earlier, James Meredith’s integration of Ole Miss sparked riots that killed two people and left hundreds of others injured or arrested.

“I never felt unsafe,” Holmes said of his MSU experience. “I never had any direct threats or confrontation. The university worked hard to make peaceful conditions. It wasn’t optimal or even necessarily a good experience, but considering the times, I could not have expected better.”

In contrast to the loneliness of his first semester on Mississippi State’s campus, Holmes was promised a warm return to Wiley College as word of his history-making MSU enrollment reached Marshall, Texas.

“My friends were like, ‘You’re famous; all of the girls are asking about you,’ and I thought ‘Hey, I’m going back to Wiley,’” Holmes recalled with a chuckle. “But I realized that if I left, the door I opened would close again.

“A young black man in the community said he would come to State that fall if I stayed, so I did,” he added.

Holmes didn’t make the decision to stay lightly. Not returning to the historically black college meant giving up what he calls “the black experience:” smaller, more comfortable classes; a chance to be included; and a chance to have friends.

“There were just the two of us that year. And he didn’t come back,” recalled Holmes, who completed his liberal arts bachelor’s degree in 1969. “The names, the stares and the isolation were too much for him.

“My refuge became the YMCA,” he continued. “I had it to myself, and that’s the one place I felt comfortable. In fact, the only association I had on campus was the janitor who worked there. That’s who I talked to, and the YMCA was my safe haven.”

Sitting in his home office, Holmes looks through his collected papers and photos from his time in school, including newspaper clippings documenting his enrollment and the subsequent desegregation of Mississippi State.

TIMES OF CHANGE

In the years that followed, as Mississippi State slowly gained a more diverse student body, the campus YMCA building remained a gathering place for black students.

“There were so few of us that we kind of stood out and stuck together—like specs of pepper in a pitcher of milk,” explained retired Col. Robert Barnes, a 1972 sociology graduate. “I’m not speaking for every black student at Mississippi State, but we expected there would be some looks and second takes.

“Once you set your expectations, you’re OK,” the Brookhaven native added. “And part of that was the black students informally bound themselves together, especially at the YMCA building.”

A freshman in 1968, Barnes saw the population of African-American students grow from 134 to 416 during his time at Mississippi State. However, he said widespread acceptance on campus and chances to participate in student-life activities were slower to come.
“You have to understand things in the context of the time,” Barnes explained. “Having such a cultural shift in the nation leaves both sides unsure of what’s to come.

“We black students didn’t have a path to follow, except for knowing that Dr. Holmes had attended. We went through it as best we knew how, and that was really just a lot of perseverance and prayers from our parents,” Barnes continued. “Things changed with black students being persistent about receiving fair treatment all of the time, not just some of the time.”

The desire for full equality at the university led to the creation of Mississippi State’s first black student organization, Afro-American Plus, often abbreviated as AA+.

The organization was established in 1968 as a way to connect MSU’s African-American students and give them a united voice. In a 1972 paper documenting the first six years of integration at Mississippi State, Barnes noted that AA+ was formed to push forward the idea of inclusiveness and acceptance at Mississippi State.

In addition to sponsoring speakers on campus, establishing a tutoring service and volunteering in the community, the organization spurred the university’s first concerted efforts at recruiting black students from across the state.

Now, after 50 years of near constant enrollment growth for black students, the university has the highest percentage of African-American students in the Southeastern Conference.

  • Surrounded by his grandchildren, Richard Holmes (center) meets James Meredith (left) who is shaking hands with MSU President Mark E. Keenum (right). By enrolling at Ole Miss in 1962, Meredith was the first to integrate a major Mississippi university. The event was marked by deadly protest and intervention by the National Guard.

  • Black Alumni Weekend attendees walked the red carpet on their way to the Saturday night gala at The Mill at MSU.

  • Former National Alumni Association president Camille Scales Young (left) and Edward Sanders (right) greet gala attendees. They co-chaired the Black Alumni Weekend planning committee.

  • Former Miss Mississippi State University and Miss Mississippi Jasmine Murray performs. She was Mississippi’s first “American Idol” finalist.

  • More than 450 registered for the inaugural Black Alumni Weekend to attend a variety of events including a gala, panel discussions and campus tours.

  • Former Bulldog basketball player Carl Nichols watches as Mississippi State’s first African-American student Richard Holmes signs a cowbell for an admirer.

 

CELEBRATING A SHARED HISTORY

That growth and the challenges, triumphs and changes that came with it were the focus of the university’s inaugural Black Alumni Weekend in March. More than 450 alumni attended the three-day event, which featured panel discussions with black pioneers and university officials; tours of campus; and social events.

Barnes, who was the first African-American ROTC graduate at Mississippi State to be commissioned into the U.S. Army, said it was great to reconnect with classmates and get a better understanding of where the university now stands on matters of student diversity.
“I’m glad it happened,” Barnes said of the event. “I hope this is just the tip of the iceberg and black alumni will be inspired to become more involved with the university.”

Edward Sanders, co-chair of the event, said that was the idea behind planning Black Alumni Weekend.

“We knew the 50th anniversary of Dr. Holmes’ enrollment would be a great time to celebrate the strides the university has made,” the Leland native said.

The 2006 political science graduate said events like Black Alumni Weekend are important for getting alumni involved with the university. Called affinity reunions, events like this can be hosted for any alumni segment—for example the Famous Maroon Band and Greek groups. Sanders said hosting one for black graduates was a way to ensure African-American alumni involvement is encouraged.

“If only milestones like 50 years were marked then the first African American wouldn’t be attending until 2019,” Sanders explained.

“And it would be well into the 2020s before there are a significant number included.

“This affinity reunion was a way to include multiple generations and get a larger number of black alumni on campus,” he continued. “Any group can have an affinity reunion because having alumni back on campus to give insight and network with current students is very important.”

Sanders said the planning committee decided to make the event a whole weekend packed with activities to encourage higher attendance. He said the plan was to maximize alumni’s time on campus, so they could see the changes the university has made, give feedback, and, most importantly in his opinion, form connections with each other and current students.

“If it weren’t for networking with alumni, I wouldn’t be where I am today,” Sanders explained. “You never know who you are meeting that could help you out either today or down the road.”

A political consultant based in Washington, D.C., Sanders credits a couple of Mississippi State graduates for giving him the connections that led first to a position in George W. Bush’s White House and the U.S. Department of State.

Sanders said he chose Mississippi State over other institutions—including historically black colleges and universities—because of its reputation.

“I came to the conclusion that attending a diverse university would give me more experience in how the world actually works, and Mississippi State had a great reputation for diversity and inclusiveness,” Sanders said. “That said, there are things Mississippi State, just like every university in America, can work on.”

A special thanks to Nichole Howard, Office of Institutional Research and Effectiveness, and Neil Guilbeau, Nekita Gandy and Jana Hill of the University Archives for providing additional research for this story.

LOOKING TO A BETTER FUTURE

Finding ways to improve the life of minority students on campus became a main topic during Black Alumni Weekend discussions.

“Even 40 years ago, we were just numbers, a token,” Holmes said of the experience of black students at major universities. “Now, it’s about inclusiveness; making sure all students have the chance to acclimate, succeed and be part of university life.”

Having been one of only a few African Americans on campus when he finished his bachelor’s degree, Holmes said he noted small strides toward inclusiveness when he returned to Mississippi State to earn a master’s in microbiology. However, he left Starkville in 1973 to pursue a medical degree at the other MSU—Michigan State University—around the time more significant efforts were made, including the creation of an office of minority student affairs, which has borne his name since 1991.

Known as the Holmes Cultural Diversity Center and housed in the Colvard Student Union—whose namesake was president when Holmes enrolled—it serves as the hub for all minority students on campus, much like the YMCA did in the early days of integration.

“Having this center on campus gives underrepresented students a home away from home," said Ra’Sheda Forbes, the center’s associate director. “It helps them see that they are valued and Mississippi State is invested in their success.”

Student success, she said, is the center of the HCDC mission. It was also one of the biggest topics of Black Alumni Weekend: how to retain minority students and ensure their success.

“We had alumni at that event who were enrolled when there were only 15-20 black students on campus, but now that demographic makes up a full 19 percent of enrollment,” Forbes said. “That shows how much university diversity has improved in 50 years, but what the alumni would really like to see are more black students being retained and graduating.”

Forbes said part of increasing retention is ensuring that students don’t feel isolated or overwhelmed by their new academic environment, which is why the HCDC has established many programs meant to aid studying and help students engage socially.

The Peers Assisting with Students program, or PAWS, specifically works to pair freshmen and transfer students from underrepresented groups with upperclassmen to help ease their transition into university life. The center’s Men of Excellence and I.D.E.A.L Woman programs connect minority students with people outside of the university to help them achieve their career goals.

Forbes said the idea is to give students other people to look up to both in class and out, something the 2008 biological sciences graduate said helped her adjust to university life when her parents pushed her to attend Mississippi State instead of the out-of-state historically black university she had her sights on.

“My parents convinced me to give Mississippi State a try, but I didn’t want to,” Forbes recalled. “One of the things that helped me was, within the first few weeks, I met someone who became a mentor for me. As a result, I stayed and ended up loving my time here. Now, my job is to do the same for new students.”

In addition to providing a gathering place, the center serves as an institutional support system and a channel for communication between all minority students and the university.

“Mississippi State is committed to ensuring that all students feel welcome here regardless of race, socio-economic status or sexual orientation,” Forbes said.

She explained that the center has programs to help all underrepresented students have the best university experience and that university personnel and partners know how best to serve members of minority groups.

The university provides Green Zone training to help faculty and staff understand how to support veterans, particularly those who might have post-traumatic stress disorder. Through the HCDC, it also offers Safe Zone training to encourage supportive environments for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning individuals.

Forbes said additionally, the diversity center also supports international students as they acclimate to their new homes by connecting them with people in the community and resources at the university. Off campus, the university provides municipal training to help civil servants understand how best to work with underrepresented groups through their jobs.

“It can be difficult at times because diversity is something people are often afraid to talk about and will dance around,” Forbes said. “But supporting diversity doesn’t mean taking something away from a majority. It’s about helping us celebrate our differences.”

Still, despite the efforts of the HCDC and university administrators, many say it is not enough. In addition to wanting to see increased retention and graduation rates of minority students, many at Black Alumni Weekend expressed a desire to see more racial diversity in the university’s faculty ranks.

“A lot of students coming out of high school, especially minority students, look to faculty as mentors and advisers,” Sanders explained. “So to be able to see faculty who are more reflective of the student population and who can relate to students’ backgrounds would be a plus for recruiting and retaining minority students.

“Not many universities can say they’ve been as successful at recruiting African-American students as we have,” Sanders continued. “To be able to say we also lead the way in minority faculty and staff would be a competitive advantage.”

During a BAW panel on the state of minorities at MSU, university officials discussed how the university has established several hiring initiatives to address this issue, including providing additional funding to recruit highly sought after individuals who can bring not only diverse backgrounds but also research and prestige to the university to help further its education, research and service missions.

Holmes said that’s the goal: to hire faculty who are talented and will benefit the student body, and just happen to be from a minority group.

“Diversity and inclusion are two different areas to get involved in,” Holmes said.

“When I enrolled at Mississippi State, there was diversity, which was me, and inclusiveness just meant I could attend and get a degree," he continued. "Since then, Mississippi State has demonstrated a commitment to diversity and has made strides toward inclusiveness. It’s being included in the academic process that makes the difference, and that’s something we can all continue to work on.”

By Susan Lassetter | Photos by Megan Bean