‘Reflections of the Past, Promises for the Future’

Panelists Ronald Arceneaux, Regina Tippens, Gene Locke, Charles Szalkowski and Jan West sitting at table.

From left: Ronald Arceneaux, Regina Tippens, Gene Locke, Charles Szalkowski and Jan West.

It’s been 50 years since Rice University admitted its first black student – a feat that could not be achieved until the school’s original charter limiting enrollment to white students was changed. Rice alumni, trustees, students, faculty, staff and other friends of the university gathered to mark this historic occasion with a Feb. 18 evening reception and forum titled “Reflections of the Past, Promises for the Future” at McNair Hall.

Akilah Mance standing at lectern

Akilah Mance

“We are here to look back at a time in Rice’s history when our campus was not like the robust, diverse student body that we see today,” Akilah Mance ’05 said in her welcoming remarks. Currently the president of the Association of Rice University Black Alumni (ARUBA), Mance is co-chair of a yearlong celebration of 50 years of black undergraduate life at Rice, along with Donald Bowers ’90, Monique Shankle ’86 and Angela Berry Roberson ’90.

“The saying goes, ‘Change is inevitable, but progress is optional,'” Mance said. “As a university, Rice changed, along with our nation and educational system. We must stop to reflect on how our university became the inclusive community we see today.”

In 1963 a unanimous Rice Board of Governors filed a lawsuit to allow the school to modify its nonprofit charter with the state to admit students of all races, and in 1964 Raymond Johnson became the first black student to enter Rice. He was a graduate student working on a Ph.D. in mathematics, and he was one of “two Rice trailblazers” that Mance gave special recognition to in the audience for the Feb. 18 forum. The other was Thomas Freeman, the first African-American professor to teach at Rice.

Mance credited Johnson for paving the way so that in 1965 Jacqueline McCauley and Charles Freeman III could enter Rice as the first black undergraduates, “forever changing the Rice student body,” she said. McCauley and Freeman eventually transferred to other universities, but “because of their courage,” Mance said, in 1966 Linda Faye Williams and Ted Henderson enrolled at Rice and became the first black undergraduates to attend and graduate from the university.

It was also during 1966 that a state appellate court upheld the modification of Rice’s charter. Two alumni had sued to keep the original charter intact.

After presenting these historic details, Mance turned the program over to several speakers and a panel discussion for “a better understanding of Rice’s journey and the remarkable people who opened the doors for hundreds of students who would come after them.”

President David Leebron standing at lectern

David Leebron

President David Leebron said the more than half a century of segregation was “truly shameful, not just at Rice, but around the nation.” He commended ARUBA for stepping forward with “remarkable enthusiasm and organization” to celebrate the dramatic transformation of the university over the past 50 years.

“We are at a wonderful moment in our history to celebrate the remarkable diversity of our campus and yet at a time also in our history where we can recognize that there is more work to be done,” Leebron said. “We celebrate a true partnership between the university and the alumni that we are, in fact, so proud of,” he said. Rice has produced “remarkable alumni,” some who have gone on to serve the world and some who have stayed at Rice in faculty and staff positions to participate in Rice’s progress, he said.

Leebron acknowledged Board of Trustees Chairman Bobby Tudor ’82 and trustee Teddy Adams ’91 in the audience and thanked them for the unanimous decision made by their predecessors on the Rice board more than 50 years ago to end segregation. Leebron also noted that Raymond Johnson’s decision to come back to Rice in 2009 to teach “was undoubtedly one of my favorite moments since becoming president.”

Melissa Kean standing at lectern

Melissa Kean

Centennial historian Melissa Kean ’96 shared insight on Rice’s history and the board’s decision to desegregate. “It is a mistake for us to project our interests and our concerns back onto this group,” she said. “We live in a very, very different world than Houston, Texas, in the early 1960s. They are not people who thought like us, who believed as we do. They had a radically different mindset than the one that we live with today.”

When the board tried to recruit Kenneth Pitzer from Berkeley to be Rice’s third president with the hope that he would “aggressively pursue outside sources of funding” for the university, Kean said, Pitzer told them, “I can’t come to Rice unless you desegregate.”

Kean noted that the board voted unanimously to desegregate at the first board meeting Pitzer attended as president, but they delayed making the announcement for nearly two years because of concern about how alumni and the city would react.

“It was a case of more or less doing the right thing for less than the ideal reason,” Kean said.

Allen Matusow standing at lectern.

Allen Matusow

Allen Matusow, the William Gaines Twyman Professor Emeritus of History, said he came to Rice in 1963, before desegregation, and taught history for nearly half a century before retiring last June. “We have been accepting black students at Rice for 50 years, and so many of them have done so well in their careers and their contributions to the world,” he said. “Many of our African-American students feel a real connection to Rice, which is why so many of you are here tonight and why there’s ARUBA.”

Matusow focused his presentation on Charles Freeman as the first black undergraduate male admitted to Rice and called it “a cautionary tale.” “It’s actually the story of a 17-year-old who comes to Rice and is swept up by historical forces that he doesn’t understand and can’t manage and is almost destroyed by it,” he said.

Matusow said Freeman flunked out of Rice and then flunked out of Texas Southern University, where he was indicted for murder because he was part of small group accused of inciting a riot that led to the death of a police officer. The charges were dropped, due to a mistrial. Freeman came back to Rice in 1970 and flunked out again. Matusow noted that Freeman is one of about only five students he flunked in a course during his five decades of teaching. Freeman eventually got a B.A. from Lamar University and went on to earn an MBA and a law degree.

When Matusow heard Freeman speak at a meeting during the 1980s, “this was a different Charles Freeman,” Matusow said. “He was centered. He was calm and collected. He was compelling and he was reasonable.” Matusow learned that Freeman had converted to Islam. “I think he was a religious person, and he found his identity largely in his religious belief,” Matusow said. “There is something in the end inspirational about this story,” he said. Freeman died of cancer in 2003.

Monique Shankle standing at lectern

Monique Shankle

Monique Shankle ’86, president-elect of ARUBA, introduced a panel of four alumni who collectively attended Rice between 1966 and 1974 to share their experiences and perspectives on what campus life was like in the years after desegregation.

Jan West ’73 was the only black student at Brown College when she came to Rice in 1969 as a “shy 17-year-old from Port Arthur.” She had attended the same high school as Charles Freeman, and she said her guidance counselor questioned why she wanted to go to Rice “because Charles couldn’t make it, and after all, his parents were professional.”

“I realized that I had to be successful because people were going to judge the people that came after me and decide whether they had an opportunity or not, based on what I did,” West said. “That’s a very difficult burden for a young person. But I really wouldn’t change it because it gave a whole perspective to my life.”

West focused on academics and recalled that when she made the honor roll the first year and the announcement was sent to the Port Arthur newspaper, the paper did not list her name until her father made a visit to the newspaper and advocated on behalf of his daughter. West said this discrimination occurred every time she made the honor roll, and her father always spoke up on her behalf. She now works in Multicultural Community Relations in the Rice Office of Public Affairs.

Charles Szalkowski ’70, who is white, entered Rice in the fall of 1966, the same time as Linda Faye Williams and Ted Henderson. “They were the only black kids on the campus, so of course I remember them,” said Szalkowski, who described himself as a “clueless kid” from Amarillo, Texas, at an “amazing time” when the movements for civil rights, women’s rights, ecology, gay rights and anti-war protests were shaping history.

“I looked at Ted and I looked at Linda and I thought, ‘My goodness. How tough it must be for them,'” he said. He classified students as either “jocks” or “weenies.” He said weenies were students who “were in their rooms with the door shut studying. They were introverts.” Szalkowski said Williams and Henderson were weenies because they were usually studying in their residential college room, in the library or in the lab. “I think that made it even more difficult for them to make friends,” he said. But their hard work paid off: “When Ted and Linda walked across the stage and got their diplomas, they both got standing ovations.”

Regina Tippens ’74 came to Rice from Dallas in 1970 and was the only black cheerleader among five girls on the squad. “The Athletics Department was supportive in a way I had not anticipated,” she said. When the Owls beat Texas A&M, Rice treated the team to dinner. “Restaurants in College Station weren’t that open to African-Americans,” Tippens recalled. The cheerleaders were encouraged to “hang with the bus” so they could enter the restaurant with the team.

During her freshman year, Tippens became part of a small group of activists who wanted a black student union where students could socialize and support each other. When they heard that a basketball game would be televised from campus, they made signs for a protest outside the gymnasium to call attention to their cause. They were given space for a black student union, the forerunner to today’s Black Student Association.

“I wanted to make my best effort to be a positive Rice student and leave an impression on the majority white student body and the administration that we deserve to be here,” Tippens said. “And my experience at Rice definitely helped me when I began my career in corporate America. I was always the first black female in any role that I had.”

Ronald Arceneaux ’74 came to Rice from New Orleans on a football scholarship in 1969. “I did really well my freshman year,” he said. But when he was asked to play on the basketball team, “I lost concentration on my studies and I lost my eligibility and I left Rice,” Arceneaux said.

He said he didn’t want to feel that he had failed, so when several friends invited him to come back to Rice, he accepted the challenge. “I had impressed them enough academically to know that maybe I didn’t have the support system I needed,” Arceneaux said. “I had failed, but I could still get up.”

He came back to Rice with “a beautiful wife and a beautiful daughter.” One of Arceneaux’s fondest memories is a photo of him hugging his father on the football field after making a touchdown. “I had picked him up like three feet off the ground, and he had the biggest grin on his face. That was the moment that made everything. It really resonated,” he said. “The greatest experiences were not those where your blackness stood out, but it was those where you were just enjoying the college experience.”

Gene Locke, Harris County commissioner for Precinct 1, of which Rice is a part, moderated the panel discussion and told the audience: “I say to Rice University, you’re not responsible for the past. But you’re damn sure responsible for the future.”

Full video of the program:

About B.J. Almond

B.J. Almond is senior director of news and media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.