Civil Rights Swap

CATEGORY: Alumni
TYPE: Photos

Magazine Cover
Published in Macalester Today

By Paula Hirschoff '66

As the Civil Rights movement intensified in early 1962, Macalester College began a student exchange program with Knoxville College, a historically black campus in Knoxville, Tennessee. Over the next seven years, 28 Macites—including this writer—and 25 Knoxville students attended each other's schools for a single semester. Half a century ago, we learned that domestic cultural exchanges could be just as inspiring, exhilarating, and transformative as the international ones that students flock to today.

It's hard for younger generations to imagine, but 50 years ago was a very different era of race relations in the United States. This article is an attempt to explore this significant Macalester–Knoxville program—a kind of domestic study away program of its time—and to leave both colleges with a record of this historic exchange as plans are being made for a Reunion to mark the program's 50th anniversary (see box on page 22).

In the early 1960s a wave of civil rights activities was sweeping through the South. Sit-ins were targeting segregated facilities, marches were taking place, voter registration drives were under way. With John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson in the White House, attitudes grew more open toward black appeals for justice, and landmark civil rights legislation began making its way through Congress.

Meanwhile, as members of the Mac community discussed civil rights news, they began to seek a way to be more directly involved in the struggle. In the fall of 1960 the Community Council formed Student Action for Human Rights (SAHR), a committee that organized students to picket local theaters in a movie theater chain that was discriminating against blacks in the South. The idea for the college exchange emerged from the students' desire to take further action. SAHR explored possibilities and settled on exchanges with Morehouse, a men's college in Atlanta, and Knoxville College, a coeducational Presbyterian school.

This was not the only exchange between northern and southern colleges during that era. Carleton and St. Olaf, among others, also had student exchanges. In addition, Macalester joined Carleton, Hamline, St. Thomas, and 33 black colleges in a professor exchange. But most of these programs involved multiple schools and did not last long. Even the Macalester–Morehouse exchange did not survive after the first semester.

Between historically Presbyterian Macalester and Knoxville Colleges, however, a connection clicked. In spring 1962 the first Macites went to KC, and that fall the first KCean came to Mac. Subsequently, enough students embraced the program to keep it going throughout the 1960s.

This cross-cultural experience placed us in strange and sometimes unsettling situations. But the 11 Macites and 5 KCeans who were interviewed for this article contend that the experience shaped their lives in crucial, inspirational ways. Most cherish memories of beloved roommates and cross-cultural discoveries, and recall wrenching though maturing moments. Some believe that our country's young people still need this kind of domestic cultural immersion today.

Macites Heading South

Most of the Macalester students who went to the South had led relatively sheltered Midwestern lives. Joan Isfeld Mahaffy '66 and Pat Smith Shufeldt '67 had both grown up on farms in all-white communities. For Marilyn Hoff '64, the break with her past was extreme. She hailed from “a small conservative town in north Minnesota: That was my whole life till I went to KC. I went in open opposition to the wishes of my parents.”

"Civil rights was the issue of our generation. The fights for justice and inclusivity for other groups started with race.”

We Mac students went for adventure, just as students go abroad today, to get away from our college and from Minnesota for a while. But we also went to live out our ideals and take part in the Civil Rights movement. “Civil rights was the key concept,” says Carol Huenemann Eick '64, who helped establish the exchange. “Some of it was really scary but we believed it was important work. Civil rights was the issue of our generation. The fights for justice and inclusivity for other groups started with race.”

In the early 1960s, the Macites who went south participated in civil rights activities. Marilyn Hoff attended a Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) conference in the Deep South over spring break. Driving down with several key organizers, she had to hit the car's floor repeatedly to avoid being noticed as a white woman in a car with black people.

When Susan Moxley Graham '64 joined KCeans in integrating Knoxville movie theaters, the more experienced organizers “taught us how to act. We had to have a dollar ready and politely ask for a ticket. When they refused, we went to the back of the line and started over. We sang freedom songs like ‘We Shall Overcome.' When the police arrested us, we'd sit down and go limp. They'd pick us up and put us in the paddy wagon and drive us to jail where they'd fingerprint and book us.”

Rhoda Goodrich Moeller '65 and I rode the train to KC together in September 1964 and were soon recruited to join the SNCC chapter on campus. We attended meetings, enthusiastically sold SNCC buttons depicting a black and white handshake, and joined an NAACP voter registration drive that opened our eyes to rampant abuse of black voting rights.

Later participants did not consider themselves activists yet had strong feelings about civil rights. Betsy Wiselogle Haskins '69 decided to attend KC because she had “a quiet passion about the equality of all people. Rather than argue, I had to do some kind of action. Living my life was the way I could express my beliefs.”

Letters that exchange participants sent to The Mac Weekly reflected their reactions to the KC experience. Barbara Woodall Streeter '70 described an easy camaraderie and teasing leavened with laughter. Ann Ashwood-Piper '67 wrote that Macites found it easier to relax at KC, and Lynn Sootheran '67 wrote that she was “freer to discover what I'm really like here.”

Few of us actively engaged in civil rights discussions. Says Hoff, “I didn't feel it was up to me to bring up race issues. My job was to get along with people.” Eick recalls, “Some KC students came from difficult situations where their whole family was scraping together the money to send them to school. We felt reticent asking questions. If we just shared our lives, we thought, that would be enough.”

Music was an interest many students from the two schools shared. Several Macites sang with the Knoxville College Choir. For Haskins, the choir experience “symbolized the wonder and value of the Knoxville semester. We were unique individuals coming together in harmony to create a glorious sound. I came away with a lifelong realization that valuing each other and working together to achieve something beautiful—that's the prize.”

Our KC dorm mates also taught us popular dances of the '60s. In spring 1965 Macites wrote in The Mac Weekly that they would never forget trying to learn the Jerk, the Fat Man, and the Twine. “The experience changed my uptight attitude to dancing,” says Hoff. “When you loosen up and let go, it enables you to think more for yourself. In general that was the culture's influence on me—that I could do what I wanted. I never danced the same after that.”

KC men liked to date as well as dance, Dorothy Holmquist Joy '67 wrote to The Mac Weekly, creating “a more congenial social atmosphere” on the southern campus. If Mac women dated KC men, however, they were careful to stay on campus lest they have unpleasant encounters with unsympathetic locals. Judy Anderson Tolbert '65 remembers one such encounter. She and her KC date were sitting on an off-campus bench after dinner when a car with two white youths stopped. One of the white boys started ranting and swearing at the couple, exclaiming, “I could kill her!” Finally they drove away. After that, Tolbert was required to stay on campus for the rest of the semester.

Some of us expanded our cultural boundaries even further by going home with KC roommates. Haskins spent Thanksgiving with a close KC friend with whom she is still in touch. “Her family included me as if I were a long-lost relative. I ate chitlins, collard greens, and sweet potato pie for the first time.” Others vividly recall taking on academic challenges, participating in theater productions, or going on excursions to the Smoky Mountains.

KCeans Going North

KCeans, sadly, were more used to racism, having grown up in segregated communities, attended all-black high schools, and struggled with its impact all their lives. Some were already immersed in the Civil Rights movement.

Unfortunately, negative racial incidents were not confined to KC. Ron Damper, who attended Mac in the spring of '65, saw a Confederate flag and racist words on the door of a suitemate after moving into his Mac dorm, though they were soon gone.

Nevertheless, the KCeans, too, had a sense of participating in something larger than themselves. “I was going to be part of integrating society—that's why I came,” says Frederick Mitchell, who studied at Mac in the spring of '63. Like their Mac counterparts, they were seeking adventure and interaction with other cultures. “Macalester was really my first exposure to white society,” says Dr. Barbara Duncan-Cody, who came to St. Paul in the spring of '66. “We were enjoying ourselves, having new experiences.”

The Macalester welcome, like the one we enjoyed at Knoxville, was friendly and hospitable. “The first weekend at Mac we had a retreat at a large frozen lake where I put on my first ice skates and decided that skating was so nice. Like Hans Brinker,” says Damper. “It was a unique way to get acquainted.”

Wallace Madden, at Mac in the spring of '65, recalls, “I'd been a little skeptical, growing up in the South where water fountains still said ‘whites only.' But at Mac it was as though color was not involved.” His roommate treated him like a brother, and Professor David White's classes, he says, instilled in him a lifelong interest in philosophy and religious theory.

Brenda Monroe-Moses, at Mac in spring '67, describes an Easter dinner at the home of assistant chaplain Al Currier at which KC guests sipped wine as they waited for Currier's sister and her husband to appear. They were startled to see that Currier's brother-in-law was an African American man whom they'd met previously. “That was the first time I'd ever met an interracial married couple,” says Monroe-Moses.

“I was face-to-face with my own stereotypes from the moment I set foot on campus.”

The experience forced KCeans and Macites alike to confront their prejudices. “I was face-to-face with my own stereotypes from the moment I set foot on campus,” says Betty Haskins '69. “I remember thinking at first that everyone in the KC cafeteria looked identical, but as time wore on, rooms became full of individuals I knew; color was no longer an issue.”

KCean Monroe-Moses recalled an incident that expunged a stereotype. She had returned to the Macalester dorm after encountering blatant discrimination while seeking off-campus summer housing. “My roommate, who was an atheist, knew something had happened because I was so down. When I finally told her, she was so sympathetic, almost in tears. It contradicted what I thought an atheist was,” says Monroe-Moses, herself a lifelong Christian.

The Program's Demise

The last KCeans came to Mac in spring '67, although one Macite attended KC in fall '67 and another in fall '68. The program's demise was scarcely noted on campus.

What happened? In the late 1960s the Civil Rights movement was taking a new direction. A rift had opened between the young SNCC leaders and the older, more moderate civil rights champions. SNCC adopted Black Power as its new slogan, and expelled whites in 1966. Other groups introduced Black Nationalism. Sensing that it was time for blacks and whites to organize separately, many white student activists turned their focus to anti-war protests.

Macite Haskins recalls having been the target of anti-white anger in KC classrooms. “It was unnerving. The incidents were isolated and far outweighed by friendly acceptance. But I was glad for the confrontation too. Black Power literature was required reading for later classes, but I'd already experienced the Black Power movement firsthand.”

Streeter, the last Macalester participant, was called to the dean's office in 1969 after returning to campus and told the exchange would end. KC was losing money by financing Macites when KCeans were no longer coming to Mac.

"When you enter an experience like this, you don't know that parting will be so painful.”

Abandoning the program meant that future Mac students would never experience the intensity of that special exchange. And it had been intense: Leaving Knoxville College was wrenching for some students, judging by an excerpt from one of Tolbert's letters home: “Last night I got very sad about leaving KC so I went out for a walk and sat and cried at the drugstore. I've become so attached to this place . . . living in such a warm, friendly place for four months makes leaving very hard.”

I, too, had trouble leaving, as my journal from that time shows: “It would be so wonderful to stay on after finals. I want to keep attending SNCC meetings with Yogi and Bobby, talking to Ligens all afternoon, having late-night silly sessions with Ramona and D, going to dinner at Grohmans with Ron, Harry, Rhoda, Shirley. When you enter an experience like this, you don't know that parting will be so painful.”

Enduring Legacy

On a deeper level, however, the program has never ended for many of its participants. Each interviewee described influences that have endured over a lifetime. “It was pretty inspiring to me,” says KCean Mitchell, who has stayed in Minnesota. To KCean Monroe-Moses, the experience was “transformational,” a time of serious maturing in her life. She believes it helped her negotiate life in new arenas, such as politics. She later became one of the first African Americans elected to local office in Jackson, Tennessee. “It made me less fearful of seeking out new people, new experiences,” says KCean Duncan-Cody. “It was a big factor in opening my mind to ideas and different points of view.”

Macites were no less emphatic about the impact. “It was a deep, life-changing experience,” says Haskins. “Knowing that I could act on my principles gave me a strength I have used ever since.” Judy Tolbert '65 says that the KC semester “totally shaped” her. Later she studied black history, taught high school courses incorporating black history, founded and led an African American dance troupe, and helped organize Martin Luther King, Jr. birthday celebrations in Fairbanks, Alaska.

Susan Graham '64 views her KC semester as “the beginning of where my life went.” She and her husband, a U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) administrator, have lived and worked in African countries and become close friends with many African American USAID staff whom they met in the field.

As for me, I know that the rich experience of African American culture convinced me that my life should be filled with friends of many ethnicities and races. I served in the Peace Corps in Africa twice, earned a graduate degree in cultural anthropology, and have spent 20 years volunteering with a racially mixed group at the National Museum of African Art.

But many believe the program had a greater impact, one that went beyond its effects on individual participants. Says KCean Duncan-Cody, recalling her return from Knoxville, “Everyone wanted to know what we'd done and how we were treated. It was a big thing to come back to KC and tell our stories. Most people were really interested. We were talking it up like little ambassadors.”

“Programs like this were one of the things that helped in the whole trek toward better relations between the races.”

Convinced of the program's broad influence, Carol Eick '64 points out, “Consider all the friendships and family relations of those involved.” Says KCean Damper, “Programs like this were one of the things that helped in the whole trek toward better relations between the races.”

Adds Susan Graham '64, “It was very different from the protests. It was people to people.”

In the intervening decades, the country has indeed made strides toward better race relations. But Black and White America are still separate cultures in most regions of the country. The races still do not mingle easily outside school and workplace settings. Meanwhile, many parents spend freely to send their youngsters abroad for cultural exchanges, and colleges enthusiastically collude in this, with a focus on exotic foreign experiences.

But whatever happened to domestic exchanges? Says Knoxville exchange participant David Fisher '69, who has taught for decades at Collegiate School, a private boys school in Manhattan, “I have so many students who have been all over the world but hardly west of the Hudson and certainly not far into the American South.” Indeed, opportunities to cross our domestic divides are rare. “In our communities we are more alienated and isolated from each other than ever,” says KCean Monroe-Moses. “I don't interact with whites in a social way, yet that's how you build bridges. We're still moving away from each other. Yet what happens to some of us happens to all.”

Despite immigration, globalization, multiculturalism, and tourism, immersion into another culture—either at home or abroad—is still an uncommon experience for most Americans. Challenging our cherished belief systems can be uncomfortable, even threatening. Yet as Macalester and Knoxville Colleges together demonstrated half a century ago, such experiences help us develop a deeper empathy for others, connections across cultural divides, and a fuller understanding of who we are as Americans.

Paula Hirschoff '66 spent a semester at Knoxville College in the fall of 1964 and will be attending this June's reunion. A writer/editor and former adjunct professor, she lives in Washington, D.C.

PUBLISHED: 05/01/2012