Mizzou Legacy

The timeline for what led to the recent controversy at University of Missouri stretches back well before 1950, says Devoney Looser.

November 13, 2015
 

Watch the video of former University of Missouri System President Tim Wolfe sitting in the red convertible, stopped by Concerned Student 1950 protesters a month ago in a homecoming parade. Wolfe and his wife appear to deliberately not make eye contact with protesters who were his students, his constituents. The students also say his driver tapped them with the bumper of his car. Wolfe’s bungled definition of “systematic oppression” a week ago finally spoke what his silence had already communicated. He didn’t get it.

Media-created timelines allow us to grasp how several months of problems on the Missouri campus led up to this historic moment of administrative resignations and sparked so many other campus protests. But these timelines could stretch back for years, as the Concerned Students’ invocation of the year 1950 suggests. The students could have dated their struggles back to 1839, the year of the university’s founding (the campus built, as protesting students’ T-shirts put it, on their b[l]acks), or to the 1860s, when Missouri as a state found itself on both sides of the Civil War. Instead, the group chose to honor 1950, the first year African-American students were admitted to Mizzou after a court ruling desegregated the university.

One of them was Gus T. Ridgel, who became the first black student to graduate with a master’s degree, in economics, in 1951. I met Ridgel one night in 2012. He was in his 86th year, and I had the privilege to serve as his driver. I was then an English professor at Mizzou, married to a university administrator. My husband hosted Ridgel’s visit, accompanying him to the football stadium and eventually to the field, where Ridgel would serve as honorary coach. My less glamorous job was to drop them off as close to the stadium as possible.

This may sound easier than it was. An endless series of roadblocks and checkpoints exists near the stadium. I had to persuade officer after officer to allow me beyond the supposed last point possible for cars to travel, explaining to each that the elderly black man in the front seat was a VIP of the university, wanted on the 50-yard line.

Most of these officers were white, and I am white. I was keenly aware how much my race and his age worked in our favor, as I successfully persuaded each man to let me pass and get Ridgel to the stadium. It’s not hard to imagine situations in which we could have been stopped or turned back rather than waved through. I cried as I told my young sons about it later -- the privilege I had of driving this important, brave man, as well as the privilege I enjoyed that allowed me to breeze though security checkpoints.

Ridgel has spoken publicly about how, when he moved to Columbia in 1950, he was denied service at local restaurants and coffee shops, as well as how the university first wanted to charge him double for his room when no one would agree to be his roommate. (The student body president who initially volunteered to do so backed out after fellow students threatened to ruin his father’s business, according to Ridgel.)

Ridgel’s return to Mizzou’s campus in 2012, the night I met him, was not only to serve as honorary coach but also to speak to the dozens of minority graduate students who today hold scholarships awarded in his name, the Gus T. Ridgel Fellowships. Mizzou has succeeded in getting some things right since 1950.

Yet the people whom Ridgel faced down in 1950 are the ones most often memorialized on the Mizzou campus. They include Frederick Middlebush (1890-1971), who enjoyed Mizzou’s longest-running presidency, of nearly 20 years. A prominent campus building is named after him. The university grew eight times its size under his leadership, combined with the good fortune of the GI Bill. Public relations materials claim that Middlebush “wanted to expand the university and create more opportunities for all students.” Unfortunately, it doesn’t take much digging in Middlebush’s voluminous papers in the university archives to see that that statement is partial at best.

Middlebush was a powerful man not only on Mizzou’s campus but also on the national scene. A member of President Truman’s anti-Soviet-expansion Committee on the Present Danger in the 1950s, Middlebush served alongside Edward R. Murrow, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Arthur Goldberg and Samuel Goldwyn. He flew first-class and was photographed with his arm around fur coat-wearing Hollywood starlets. He died a hero to the university.

He no longer deserves to be seen solely in those terms. Middlebush played a key role in continuing segregation on the University of Missouri campus prior to 1950. It has long been known that he was instrumental in working to try to deny African-American applicant Lloyd Gaines admission to Mizzou’s law school in the mid-1930s. There are documents showing that Middlebush and administrator Thomas Brady even worked to prevent black students from other schools from coming to Mizzou to participate in a United Nations conference held on the campus in 1947.

Let me repeat that: black students from other campuses were denied admission to a United Nations conference at Mizzou. Brady apparently believed that in doing so he and Middlebush were upholding state law. Then there is a “confidential” letter from Brady to Middlebush, listing the names, hometowns and majors of those who encouraged students or “pressed the issue of negro participation” in the UN conference. The handwritten memo lists four students, three faculty members and two ministers. It’s hard to imagine that Brady and Middlebush drew up this confidential list of people who “pressed” the issue in order to write them thank-you notes.

Once Ridgel and other black students matriculated to Mizzou, Middlebush, to his credit, made changes, at least nominally. Brady wrote to Middlebush that he expected they’d treat “negro students” in all respects as they did other students. Mizzou, like many college campuses and our nation as a whole, is still working to transform such tepid statements from 1950 into unflinching pledges in 2015.

Frederick Middlebush certainly spent time with African-Americans in Columbia, Mo. He must have spent a significant amount in the company of at least one black man: his driver. Columbia’s African-American community has recognized as one of its elders and heroes the late Anderson Logan (1911-2008). One of the many university and community contributions on Logan’s résumé is having served as Middlebush’s driver during the years his boss was working to prevent Gaines’s admission to Mizzou Law.

Learning this makes me feel honored to have once been able to serve as Ridgel’s driver. There is much to be undone, as well as to be done, at our nation’s universities where race relations are concerned. The symbolic issues go far beyond Confederate flags. The names of men like Middlebush remain on many of our campus buildings, although Mizzou’s are by no means all named after white male university administrators who now seem on the wrong side of history. (One building, Arvarh E. Strickland Hall, is named after its first black faculty member.)

It’s true that few people are aware of Middlebush’s antiblack activities -- or have seen fit to investigate and publicize such things. It’s questionable how much of this history former president Wolfe knew, for instance. But the newly named interim president, Michael Middleton, certainly knows it well. He was a campus activist at Mizzou during his student years in the 1960s, having founded the university’s Legion of Black Collegians. He went on to have a distinguished career in law and an enormous impact at Mizzou thereafter. His lists of firsts and organizations founded will no doubt be widely reported in the news media in the coming days and deserve to be.

The resignation of Tim Wolfe this week, and the naming of Middleton as his interim successor, may not bring change as soon as many would like. But it at least seems to close off the likelihood of a future filled with more Middlebush Halls and Wolfe Halls and to open up the possibility for a greater number of Strickland Halls and, one could hope, Ridgel and Middleton Halls. We rightly ought to reserve such honors for those we can embrace wholeheartedly as honorable.

Bio

Devoney Looser is a professor of English at Arizona State University.

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