When two professors at The Citadel sat down to propose plans for their school's future, they first had to confront its past.

They wrote an application for a national grant to establish a campus center devoted to racial healing.

J. Goosby Smith, assistant provost for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, and Larry Daniel, dean of the Zucker Family School of Education, did not shy away from the military school's fraught history.

The college played a big role in slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction and the Jim Crow era, the professors wrote. Notably, they said, the school waited until 1966 to admit its first African-American student — a dozen years after the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling.

It was not until the 1990s that the college stopped playing "Dixie" at its home football games. As recently as three years ago, in 2015, several students dressed up in garb emulating the Ku Klux Klan in a stunt they called "Ghosts of Christmas Past." A Confederate flag still hangs in the chapel.

As a backdrop, The Citadel's home is in the Lowcountry, which bore witness to twin tragedies in 2015: Walter Scott, a black man, was fatally shot by a white police officer after a tussle over a Taser, and a self-avowed white supremacist gunned down nine black worshippers at Emanuel AME Church.

"We were telling a story, good, bad and indifferent, about the past, present and future," Daniel said. 

The Citadel was ultimately one of the 10 schools nationwide to receive a $30,000 grant from the Association of American Colleges and Universities for the creation of a Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation Center. The grant is renewable for up to three years.  

Other schools to receive the AAC&U grant are the Austin Community College in Austin, Texas; Brown University in Providence, R.I.; Hamline University in St. Paul, Minn.; Millsaps College in Jackson, Miss.; Rutgers University in Newark, N.J.; Spelman College in Atlanta; the University of Hawaii at Manoa; Duke University in Durham, N.C.; and the University of Maryland-Baltimore County in Baltimore. 

The AAC&U was surprised to receive The Citadel's application, Daniel said. The writing was so moving, he added, that one person reviewing the application teared up. 

Both professors believed preexisting diversity programs were strong factors in The Citadel receiving the grant — the programs were laid out in the grant application. Daniel said The Citadel has taken major strides to increase diversity among its students and faculty in recent years. The school created a Diversity Equity and Inclusion Council and named Smith as an assistant provost who would focus on these efforts. 

"As an institution, we recognize what we need to do," Daniel said. 

The public military college established its center last September. One of the projects at the center is a new concept for the school: "CitListen" sessions. The sessions use a new racial healing circle methodology to bring people together. 

Smith teaches in The Citadel's Baker School of Business and has an academic focus on inclusion. She said racial healing circles are novel in that they do not force conversations about race. Rather, the circle brings people of various races together to have authentic conversations.

"The contribution of it is to show people how quickly you can form a bond with a person you view as different by talking about the things that unite us as human beings," she said. 

A typical circle brings 10 to 20 people together in a relaxed setting. The group is asked to respond to non-threatening questions designed to facilitate trust. The first question is a typical ice-breaker, such as, "What is your name and your favorite flavor of ice cream?" Questions gradually become more intimate, such as, "When was the last time somebody trusted you?"

On Tuesday, during the first "CitListen," Smith and Daniel invited faculty and staff from The Citadel as well as members of the local media. 

Four broadcast journalists and several staffers sat with each other for about an hour and a half. The first question was, "When was the last time you had a belly laugh?" The second and more probing question was, "When was a time you needed your voice to be heard?" 

In theory, the story-oriented approach makes the methodology accessible to participants. 

Stanton Adams, who works for The Citadel's marketing team, participated in the circle Tuesday. Diversity initiatives like this usually spur a knee-jerk reaction, he said, but the circle was effective because it was accessible.

In his daily life he normally talks a lot, but this circle gave him a chance to listen and deeply absorb information about other people. 

"In our current climate, I feel like there's often so much talking and not enough listening," he said. "Hearing that background allows you to have a window into who a person is." 

A recent graduate of Clemson University, Adams said he wished he had access to something like this during college. 

"I think we're at a critical turning point on college campuses where this work is more important than ever," he said. 

Tessa Updike, The Citadel's archivist, also participated in Tuesday's healing circle. This was her second such experience and she was struck by how different the experience can be with a different group of people.

"We encounter so many people in our daily lives, and I think many of us make assumptions about each other based on those brief interactions," she said. "This program is designed for us to leave our busy lives outside the room, and to take the time to listen, and to share our own unique experiences, which can be very powerful."

In 2019, there will be CitListen sessions the public can participate in. 

The Citadel is working with the city, the Charleston County School District, the YWCA of Charleston, the Charleston Police Department and the Trident Urban League on this and other projects related to racial healing. 

To learn more, contact the professors via email at inclusion@citadel.edu.  

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Reach Hannah Alani at 843-937-5428. Follow her on Twitter @HannahAlani.

Hannah Alani is a reporter at The Post and Courier covering race, immigration and rural life across the Palmetto State. Before graduating from Indiana University and moving to Charleston in 2017, her byline appeared in The New York Times.

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