Being black at Butler

Jill McCarter | News Editor | jmccarte@butler.edu

A look at the past, present and future of black students’ experiences and enrollment at Butler University.

Walking down the sidewalks of Butler University before her freshman year during an admissions tour, Kazmyn Perry realized that if she chose to attend, she would be in the minority.

Still, when the time came to enroll, Perry weighed the options, and decided that Butler would provide her with valuable degrees in psychology and Spanish.

When Perry started classes in the fall of 2008, she was one of 37 black students in her class.

Among four-year, private, not-for-profit institutions, black students make up 16.7 percent of the total enrollment.

At Butler, 136 students—less than 4 percent of the total population of full-time students—identify themselves as black.

IPS and Butler

During her first two years of high school at Arsenal Technical High School on the east side of Indianapolis, Perry said she never heard about Butler. The school was never brought up in discussions with friends and she said she never saw admissions counselors visit the predominantly black school.

“I’d lived in Indianapolis for a long enough time that I thought I would have heard about it,” Perry said. “I just never knew.”

During her junior year, Perry moved to Franklin Central High School—a predominantly white high school. Within months, Perry started hearing people talking about Butler.

Throughout its history, the university has not had many students coming in from the predominantly black Indianapolis Public Schools system.

When Tom Weede, vice president for enrollment management, took office in 2007, he collaborated with then-President Bobby Fong to encourage and nurture a relationship with IPS.

Since then, Weede says that university officials visit the seven IPS high schools and find a way to make Butler a financial possibility for students.

“We really take our relationship with the community seriously and this is one of the ways to build that relationship,” Weede said.

Weede said that in the past three years, there has been a significant increase in the number of applicants from the school corporation.

“We’re moving in the right direction,” Weede said. “I’m hopeful that things will get better so there isn’t that stigma out there that we’re not trying. We have been, and we will continue to do so.”

Black Greek Organizations

Butler Student Ambassadors tell the story of seven black women who gathered on a predominantly white campus and created a black sorority.

Sigma Gamma Rho, founded at Butler in 1922, is the only black Greek organization ever created on a predominantly white campus.

Now the organization is struggling to recruit members and earn funding.

A university policy implemented in 2007 requires that an organization must have at least four members to be recognized by the university.

Recognition means that an organization can publish in the Butler Connection, fundraise on campus, apply for Student Government Association grants and vote in SGA assembly.

Right now, there are three members of Sigma Gamma Rho.

Perry, the president of the sorority, said that it’s important for the chapter to exist because of its historical significance.

“Since we’re the first chapter, I feel like a lot of the other chapters look to us to lead,” Perry said. “If we’re not even recognized by our own university, how can we really lead and set an example that is effective?”

Director of Greek life Becky Druetzler said the policy makes sense and has seen the effects it has had on organizations.

“I realize why this could present a problem in some respects, and it has created some issues with more of our organizations geared at diversity,” Druetzler said. “But I don’t see how it could impact the organization’s ability to recruit members.”

Butler’s History

Butler was one of the first universities to allow women and all races to enroll when the university first opened its doors in 1855 as North Western Christian University.

“Butler was extremely radical when it first opened its doors,” Sally Childs-Helton, special collections and rare books librarian, said.

Butler administrators have looked to regain some ground on minority enrollment since troubles in the 1920s seemed to have damaged the community’s perception of the university.

The early 1920s in Indiana marked the fruition of the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, and its powers became evident at the university.

“It didn’t take long for people to realize what kind of control the Klan had on nearly every aspect of the city,” Childs-Helton said.

D.C. Stephenson, who had just been named to the Klan’s highest ranking found a new home in Indianapolis.

His home—modeled after the KKK’s national headquarters in Alabama—could be seen from the campus library.

“Black students were discouraged from coming to Butler,” Childs-Helton said. “It was just too big of a risk.”

In 1923, then-president Robert Aley declined to make an official endorsement of an anti-Klan union. Board minutes do not include conversations, but the public perceived this move as Aley’s—and thus Butler’s—indifference on or support of the Klan.

“There’s no smoking gun to point to why he did or didn’t do it,” Childs-Helton said. “But I’m confident in saying that it made people wonder.”

In 1927, a policy that would only allow 10 black students admittance each year was passed by the Board of Trustees.

“It does sound horrible, but there were other places that were much worse,” Childs-Helton said. “The administration was still trying to live up to the vision the founders had for the university.”

The policy was lifted about 20 years later, though Childs-Helton said that administrators have found it to be difficult to recover the population.

“Damage was already done,” she said. “We lost credibility and it’s been hard to come back from that.”

During the civil rights movements in the late 60s and early 70s, black students enrolled at the university did not face opposition from other students, but rather were ignored, Childs-Helton said.

“No one was being openly hostile,” she said. “On the same note, no one was openly embracing. They were tolerated and ignored.”

Minority relations became a staple in discussions between administrators and a regular topic in the pages of The Collegian in the late 1980s with the administration’s creation of a minority task force.

The Diversity Center

The Diversity Center was one of the results of a 1986 minority task force to increase the university’s relationship with minorities.

At the recommendation of the task force, administrators saw the creation of such a center to attract more students to the university.

For some like Perry,  the diversity center is its own kind of oasis.

“The Diversity Center is the best thing we have on campus,” Perry said. “We’re all like a family there.”

Sierra Marcee, a sophomore communication sciences and disorders major, said the Diversity Center is convenient to use since she commutes to campus, but feels that it’s under-utilized by the campus as a whole.

“People have this misconception that it’s all about African-American students at the center,” Marcee said. “But if anyone took the time to look around and see that there are a lot of organizations down here, it would start to take away from that misconception.”

Looking Ahead

Butler administrators hope to continue to build the relationship with the community and hope to increase the population.

Some students, though, said that the focus should stop being on the students that could come, and move to the students that are at Butler.

“I don’t care if they’re working to foster the growth of the population,” Perry said. “Fix what we have.”

For other students, too many conversations can make the topic bigger than it is and further encourages a separation.

“Don’t talk about it,” sophomore Marcus Harvey said. “Stop having the conversation and stop pushing it.”

Harvey, an arts administration major, said that the conversations and push by administrators to appeal to black students seems to have gone too far.

When he started the admissions process, he was set up with a black admissions counselor. When he discussed his experience with other black students, he said they all had the same black admissions counselor.

“People shouldn’t be put into boxes,” Harvey said. “There are so many attributes to a person and skin color is just one of those things.”

The way the university advertises itself to black students in the community only hinders the relationship, Harvey said.

“Saying ‘We have black kids, we have black kids’ doesn’t do anything for anyone,” Harvey said. “It makes me uncomfortable and it makes you uncomfortable, so it should stop.”

“We don’t want to stop talking about it,” Weede said. “It’s on the forefront of our minds and the discussion should keep going.”

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