Observing a history of racial diversity

Butler University boasts a rich history of racial acceptance.
However, some decades of Butler’s history are also tainted with influence from the Ku Klux Klan and segregation.
“Ovid Butler had a very high vision of racial equality, which was, unfortunately, not always upheld,” Sally Childs-Helton, Irwin Library’s rare books and special collections librarian,  said.
Butler’s start was based off the Disciples of Christ church, as well as Butler’s own personal beliefs.
“Ovid Butler believed that all humans of every gender and race were created by God,” Childs-Helton said, “and, therefore, they should all be treated equally.”
Childs-Helton said Butler’s original admissions and student paperwork never included information about race or gender because “they simply didn’t matter.”
Gertrude Mahorney was the first documented black student to graduate from Butler in 1887, but Childs-Helton said because of lacking racial documentation, other black students may have graduated before Mahorney.
Butler continued to operate as an inclusive university until the 1920s, when David Curtiss Stephenson, Grand Dragon  of the Indiana KKK, bought a house half a block from Butler’s old campus in Irvington.
“This was definitely a very strong influence for the university at the time,” Childs-Helton said.
Changes could be noticed in aspects of campus, such as the newly segregated yearbook, which separated black students and white students.
The most influential change to Butler’s structure, however, occurred in the admissions office.
In 1927, former university president Robert J. Aley established a new quota system, which would allow no more than 10 students of color to be admitted to Butler each school year.
Some areas of Butler continued to operate without a racial quota, such as the School of Religion.
Also, the Teachers College of Indianapolis operated under unique abolitionist-inspired guidelines.
Kindergarten teacher Eliza Blaker began teaching at the college in 1882 but only under the stipulation that children of all races and genders could attend her school.
In 1948 after World War II, Butler lifted the racial quota entirely.
However, numbers of black students at Butler didn’t increase much until the 1960s and the civil rights movement.
Childs-Helton said she believes this could be attributed to lingering negative feelings about the racial quota system.
Valerie Davidson, diversity programs director, grew up in Indianapolis, attended North Central High School and said she remembers being discouraged from attending Butler in the late 1970s.
“We used to have college fairs at North Central, where many colleges were represented,” Davidson said. “I remember myself and the other students of color being encouraged to look at state schools and to definitely avoid Butler.”
Davidson said her first impression  was that Butler was exclusively for wealthy, out-of-state, white students. However, her son went on to attend Butler decades later and now teaches in Butler’s College of Business.
Davidson said in the last 23 years she has worked at Butler, she has seen great changes in the social atmosphere as far as race is concerned.
“When I first came to Butler, it was a very polarized campus between white students and African-American students and also between Greeks and non-Greeks,” Davidson said. “I think the university has done an excellent job in recruiting more minority students, but the social changes are what are most influential.”
Davidson said minority students are becoming more involved and beginning to hold leadership positions both socially and academically.
“They became presidents of residence halls, and they began joining Greek organizations that were not historically black,” Davidson said. “This is what prompted the social change.”
However, for some Butler students, the invisible walls of prejudice still persist.
Junior Whitnie Goins said she has felt singled out or excluded at times on campus.
“Honestly, if we didn’t have the Diversity Center, I would be totally lost,” Goins said.
Goins said she has been the only African-American student in her classes many times.
Brittany Moore, Black Student Union president, said she has felt excluded as a minority student and a non-Greek.
Moore said, had she not participated in Welcome Week activities with the Diversity Center as a freshman, she would have had more difficulty socially.
Moore and Goins both said the Diversity Center provides them their most comfortable social setting.
“I wish more students would come in every so often,” Moore said. “There are glass walls and a glass door. People act like it’s a fishbowl sometimes. Really, anyone is welcome.”
Davidson said the next major change she would like to see is more funding for diversity-related programming, such as the diversity lecture series. Davidson said scholarships and grants for minority students, among others, should be a greater priority as well.
Davidson said, however, many of the racial issues she witnessed in the past have disappeared.
“It’s very easy for me to see what has changed and evolved,” Davidson said. “There are types of socialization and interaction occurring between all kinds of students that never occurred in the past.”


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