Alumni reconnect during first ever Black Alumni Weekend at Centre
Jim Davis ’68 arrived at Centre from Campbellsville, Ky., in the fall of 1964, unaware that he would be one of the first three African American students at the College—and the only male.
“I had no idea that they didn’t have black students around,” he said in telling his story to an appreciative audience last Saturday during Centre’s first Black Alumni Weekend. “After a while you start to feel lonely.”
The numbers of African American students increased enough by his third year that his overall experience became more collegiate, and he recalled fondly particular professors, especially his chemistry teacher William Sagar.
“He was really a good guy,” said Davis, a retired chemist with Kimberly-Clark who lives in Atlanta.
Davis was one of seven alumni and a current student from six decades who spoke during the Saturday session about their undergraduate experiences at Centre. Taken together they presented a vivid picture of the breadth of change during their years, both at the College and in the nation as a whole.
By the time Sean Smith ’04 arrived from Louisville, nearly four decades later, he could appreciate the trail established by the efforts and commitment of those who had preceded him.
“We had a group in front of us,” said Smith. He singled out James Smith ’80 (no relation), a chemist for many years with Procter and Gamble who attended the weekend, as one who served as a role model, said Sean Smith, by “coming to every Diversity Student Union meeting” on campus.
Raymond Burse ’73, recently retired vice president and general counsel with General Electric in Louisville, came up with the idea for Black Alumni Weekend and was M.C. for the “Reflections by the Decades” session.
The highlight for him was reconnecting with friends who had shared both his Centre experience as well as his ethnicity.
“Seeing Gordon Benning ’70 (‘GG’), Zenobia Middleton Skinner ’70 (‘ZZ’), Tony Olinger ’72 (‘Rock’), John Mason ’69 and Shelia Burks ’75 was extra special,” he said. “Many of them I had not seen in 40 years.”
The recollections of Centre through the decades followed a lively history of African American students at Centre by Eric Mount and Hal Smith (also no relation), both of whom were enthusiastic champions of Centre integration, Mount as a faculty member and Smith as dean of admission. Current student Jamari Jones ’14 and Centre admission counselor Greg Chery ’11 also spoke.
Several speakers acknowledged the crucial role then Centre president Thomas A. Spragens played in bringing change to the College. When he was hired in 1957, it was with the clear understanding that he planned to enroll black students. And having recruited them to Centre, he continued to advise, encourage and enhearten them throughout their years as students, in many cases remaining close until his death in 2006.
The importance of having an advocate resonated throughout the presentations. For those who attended Centre in the early days of integration, Max Cavnes, a history professor and dean of men, provided that connection—but more so for the male students, Burse noted with some surprise.
“The male graduates all talked about what Max Cavnes meant to each of them and the role he played in their education and lives,” said Burse. “The female graduates from that period had no one supporting them like Cavnes supported the men.”
Burse noted that when he arrived in 1969, he was one of 10 African American students in the school, out of a total enrollment of 750.
“Given those numbers I wonder how we made it but now know that it was the relationship that the 10 of us shared plus the support network,” he said. That network included Spragens, professors such as Harold Hansen, Charles Hazelrigg, Charles Lee and John Walkup, and coaches such as Herb McGuire.
To Burse’s mind, the weekend accomplished its goals.
“We were able to reconnect with those there during our tenure and to connect with those before and after our tenure,” he wrote in a post-event message to participants. “It was a grand and meaningful time, but, more importantly, it was a start. It is clear that we need to do this again.”
Sean Smith and Spencer Overstreet ’16 have set up a Caucus of Centre Black Alumni page on Facebook to help maintain the momentum of the weekend’s connections.
And Assistant Vice President and Associate Professor of Education J.H. Atkins, the Centre staffer who helped organize the event, is already planning a second Black Alumni Weekend, probably next spring.
“To see both the young and the more mature alumni coaching/networking with each other and with our current students, the sharing of struggles/successes across the generations, provided some the opportunity to move forward,” Atkins said.
by Diane Johnson