C of C black students share stories of race

Black Student Union President Kalene Parker, Secretary Brandon Chapman and Vice President Robert Taylor hold a discussion at the College of Charleston Friday November 13, 2015. Grace Beahm/Staff

What started as a silent protest in support of students at the University of Missouri turned into a frank discussion about race and inclusion on the College of Charleston campus Friday.

Dozens of students gathered outside at the Cougar Mall to show solidarity with the Missouri students, whose protests prompted the resignations of the university’s president and chancellor on Monday after weeks of simmering racial tension. The events at Missouri have inspired similar demonstrations against racial injustice at colleges across the country.

As they stood in the afternoon sun, Kalene Parker, a junior at the College of Charleston and president of the Black Student Union, took the opportunity to ask students for their help devising a list of demands for the college to make the campus more supportive of students of color.

Sophomore Morgan Godfrey, a white student, said she’d like to see a more diverse faculty. Amber Keitt, a sophomore biology major who is black, proposed making cultural studies classes a requirement.

“I think one of the problems is that just like a lot of white students, they’re insensitive to the struggle we go through and these classes teach the history of minorities in the United States,” she said. “I walk into class and I can count how many people of color are in the classroom. It’ll be five of us in a class of 60.”

This summer Charleston confronted its own painful racial history after a white man was accused of murdering nine black parishioners at Emanuel AME Church. And the college, like the city has its own complicated past. In 1944, 33 African-American students sought to desegregate the College but their applications were all denied. To avoid integration, the college became a private institution in 1949. The college didn’t admit its first black student until 1967.

Today, the College of Charleston’s student population is just 7 percent black. The college didn’t offer an African-American studies major until the fall of 2014, despite Charleston’s deep racial history.

In the spring of 2014, student-led protests gripped campus following the appointment of former lieutenant governor Glenn McConnell — a Civil War re-enactor who takes pride in his Confederate heritage — as the college’s president.

McConnell has since pledged to improve diversity at C of C. This year, the college launched a pilot program to boost minority student enrollment by offering admission to the top 10 percent of graduating seniors at all high schools in seven South Carolina counties starting in the fall 2016 semester.

“Diversity and inclusion are core values of our institution. Moments like this reinforce that the College is a place for dialogue and a campus that welcomes all students, all people,” McConnell said in a statement to The Post and Courier. He was in Columbia on Friday for a legislative meeting.

“Here, at the College, we view diversity as a strength, not as a divider. We know we are a better society when we engage with each other, learn from each other, support each other.”

But many black students at the rally said they don’t feel supported. Junior Robert Taylor, vice president of the Black Student Union, said some of his black friends at C of C ended up leaving to go to the University of South Carolina or Clemson. One friend transferred to North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, a historically black college in Greensboro, N.C., after fall semester of his sophomore year.

“He tried to find his niche, but at the end of the day, if (a school) is not conducive to who you are, how can you blossom?” he said. ”I really do hope this school is different after I graduate.”

At Friday’s rally, Parker and other students said they feel like the college’s student activities board and student government association don’t cater to black students’ interests or support black student-run programming. Even college parties and downtown bars, Parker said, rarely attract black students. Most of her black friends spend their weekends at the more diverse Charleston Southern University in North Charleston.

“There are very few social and academic spaces that are really welcoming for students of color,” said Anthony Greene, an African American studies and sociology professor at the college. “If you don’t take an African American studies course, many black students are finding themselves in classes where they don’t have black professors and they’re maybe one or two black students in their classes.”

“It’s disheartening,” added Marla Robertson, a 2006 C of C graduate and staff advisor of the Black Student Union. She hears students complain about the same issues she experienced as a co-ed. As a sophomore, Roberston remembers walking to her dorm on Meeting Street when two white students started hurling slurs at her. She ran in fear; it was the first time she was ever called the n-word.

While overt displays of racism on campus aren’t common, students say “microaggressions” — subtle and even unintended racial sleights and insensitivities — occur almost every day. Like getting followed for blocks by campus police. Or watching someone cross the street to avoid passing a black student on the sidewalk. Or overhearing white friends sing the n-word in hip-hop lyrics.

“People get uncomfortable when you start talking race and things of that nature here,” Parker said. She recalled a conversation she had recently with one of her biracial friends at C of C, who hangs out with mostly white students.

“She was telling me how a lot of her friends don’t really understand what the big issue is right now because they feel if you stop talking about racism the issue will go away ... That’s part of this huge problem,” Parker said. “(Racism) is something that’s debilitating and repressive to a large amount of people so we need to talk about it.”

Reach Deanna Pan (843) 937-5764.