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being african-american at albright
by Jennifer Post Stoudt
In 1948 Joseph E. Coleman walked across the stage during his Commencement ceremony, proudly shook President Harry V. Masters’ hand and received the first degree awarded to an African-American student at Albright College. Coleman went on to be a research chemist, patent attorney, author and Philadelphia’s City Council president from 1980 to 1992.

Joseph E. Coleman '48He also left an important legacy at Albright. The Distinguished Joseph E. Coleman Award provides financial assistance ranging from $8,000 to $12,000 to qualified students of color. Students must show academic excellence as well as community and/or extracurricular involvement.

As important as Coleman’s accomplishments, he also set a precedent for many African-American students at Albright. The racial barriers that existed at Albright began to come down.

Today, 53 years later, Albright is proud of its increased diversity. The College has a higher percentage of minorities on campus than many comparable colleges. There are 18 percent minority students within the full-time, traditional student body. This bodes well as the minority population in Berks County is only 6.5 percent, according to the 1990 Census of Population & Housing. And, Albright was named in The 100 Best Colleges for African-American Students. The listing cited Albright’s “friendly and largely cordial faculty and student body.”

However, despite the percentages and accolades, there still are many barriers left to break.

When Leslie Mardenborough ’68 decided Albright was where she wanted to attend college, she says she was warned by other African-American students that, “it was going to be difficult. There’s no social life for Negros,” they told her.

Mardenborough, a management consultant and Albright Trustee member, learned there were also many challenges to face. Going to Chapel was one of them. “People would tell me where the black church was,” she says. When she ran for Homecoming Queen as an independent “several people said I shouldn’t run.” And, when she and a platonic white, male friend attended a movie together, Mardenborough was called into the Dean of Women’s Office and reprimanded. “I was a very angry person about the racial climate at Albright,” she says.

Then-Chaplain William R. Marlow ’49 says, “It was a time of lots and lots of attempts to understand black-white issues.” One attempt, says Marlow, was a trip during winter break 1968 to Kirkridge Protestant Retreat Center located outside of Bangor, Pa. “We got a group of black and white students together for five days to discuss racial issues and to try to understand the feelings that go along with race. It was a very high-powered get together,” he says.

Although the communication exchanges were good, it was a frustrating and tiring few days. In fact, Mardenborough recalls, “the day before it was over, all of the black students had to leave because we couldn’t take one more day of trying to explain our position to white students who wanted to know but just didn’t get it.”

Marlow says the students were simply exhausted. “A lot of the white students wanted the black students to explain their hurt and how it felt. But the black students said, ‘You can’t depend on blacks to tell you about prejudice. You have to figure it out for yourself.’” There were many frustrations during that trip, he says.

Wayman Clark ’72, regional human resource manager for Encompass Insurance Company in Reading, says his experience was probably different than most African-American students attending Albright at that time because he was an athlete. “Being involved in athletics kept me pretty shielded. Plus, you were more popular when you played sports.” Although he says he did experience some racist comments such as, “You’re black. You must play basketball. Or, you’re black, you must be fast,” Clark says, “I just took that in stride. The guy who said it ended up being one of my best friends. Some folks didn’t handle comments like that very well though.”

The 60s and 70s was a time of great student activism and movements for change on campus. According to Eugene Barth’s Discovery and Promise: A History of Albright College, 1856-1981, “one of the student requests for change was to enroll a larger number of blacks, and other minority members in the student body.” In response to this demand, however, the admissions committee had declared that this objective was already part of their policy aims but that they were difficult to achieve.

Although members of the Afro-American Society were hired to solicit black students, Albright College discovered, along with many other colleges and universities, that the pursuit of a more culturally diverse student body was not easy to achieve. Many black students preferred to attend schools where there were already a large enough student body of fellow blacks to insure meaningful social interchange.

Nearly 30 years after the retreat in Kirkridge, Charnita Zeigler-Johnson, Ph.D. ’92 says racial issues were a part of her college experience as well. “People used the ‘N’ word, SGA members didn’t support the African-American Society, signs were torn down, people protested a rally for peace after the Rodney King incident and sorority ‘pranks’ attacked the integrity of African-American students,” she says.

"I was at times appalled by the comments and assumptions that people would make about the students of color.”

— Charnita Zeigler-Johnson, Ph.D. '92

Zeigler-Johnson, a postdoctoral fellow in the Center for Clinical Epidemiology and Biostatistics at the University of Pennsylvania, says her freshman year was one of the most difficult because the campus was less diverse than she had anticipated. “People, in general, were friendly,” she says. “However, I was surprised at the limited cultural experiences and ‘sheltered’ upbringing that many in the student body had experienced. I was at times appalled by the comments and assumptions that people would make about the students of color.”

She adds, “I think that many of the African-American students at that time shouldered the frustrations of being non-white at Albright. I remember calling home after KKK signs were posted in the Campus Center one year. My mother basically reminded me that that is the world that we live in, and that I must learn to excel in that world. So, I began to look at my time at Albright as just another one of life’s challenges rather than as an obstacle.”

Fortunately, Hosea Baker ’02 sees a somewhat different Albright today. Although Baker says he was “apprehensive and frightened” when he started Albright as a freshman because it was his first time in a predominantly white setting, “that changed pretty quickly. I started meeting new people, joining organizations… I got more and more comfortable on campus.”

Baker, a Joseph E. Coleman scholar, is a resident advisor, campus tour guide and highly involved in campus life. The Student Government Association (SGA), Gospel Choir and African-American Society are just a few of the organizations of which he is a member. He is also the founder of the Xion Step Team, a three-year-old organization that now boasts approximately 70 members. Stepping, a form of dance and performance in the black community, has become popular on Albright’s campus.

Most people at Albright hadn’t experienced stepping before, he says. “But I found some other people who stepped, we got together and got out there during Orientation in front of a predominantly white group…and they loved it!”

But despite his involvement in campus activities, Baker admits that the social life for African-American students does need to improve. “There really isn’t any diversity within the organizations and social activities,” he says. For example, “The RSA dance is catered to white people. The music is just not what we want to hear. We want music with soul. That’s why we started the step team, to introduce black culture to the campus.”

Mardenborough says that when she started college she didn’t realize that she was going to school for the social life. “But it’s part of the experience.”
Kim Jackson, associate dean of academic services and director of multicultural affairs, points out that concrete steps need to be taken to institutionalize and retain the black presence on campus. There are currently no black Greek organizations on campus, she says. In addition, “African-American students perceive the social life here as dominated by parties without music and lots of alcohol. They like dancing and a lot of them do not drink. So they end up hanging out themselves.”

Tiffenia Archie ’92 agrees. “We had to create our own social life. We took a lot of trips to other predominantly black schools like Lincoln and Cheyney, and we were famous for our Court parties.”

tiffenia archie '92During Archie’s freshman year, the African-American Society, which originally began as the Afro-American Society in 1969, was re-established. “I really felt good about that,” she says. The group was successful, she says, simply because “we did stuff together. We held Kwanzaa celebrations, coordinated off-campus trips and held Admission phone-a-thons to help recruit other students of color.”

Now, Archie, director of academic support, disability support and minority retention at Albright, is advisor to the organization. “I’ve come full circle,” she says. “The group is even stronger now because there are more members. It’s really grown a lot and is very active on campus.” However, she says, it still has the same basic agenda as it did in its inception…African-American awareness on campus.

“When I was in school I think the college had some of the right ideas, but I find myself back 10 years later and feel that we’ve only made a few steps.”

Jackson says Albright is not unlike many other college campuses. “In general, there’s a common theme that runs through the experiences of African –American students on predominantly white campuses. “Their sense of belonging, satisfaction with the college, socialization opportunities and general involvement in campus dictate their experience,” she says.

Without a critical mass of black students, they’re less likely to participate in campus programs because the programs aren’t designed with their needs in mind. They even feel inhibited from taking part in any but all-black organizational activities, states the article, “Facing Stereotypes: A Case of Black Students on a White Campus” published in the September/October 2001 Journal of College Student Development.

However, in 20 years the percentage of African-American students on Albright’s campus has grown from less than one percent in 1981 to seven percent in fall 2001. Albright’s commitment to a diverse student body is clear. Vice President of Enrollment Services and Dean of Admission Greg Eichhorn says, “Albright has a stronger minority population than most of our peer schools.” However, he notes, “We don’t have enough minority role models within the faculty and staff. That’s our biggest challenge as far as recruiting minority students.”

A.J. Anderson, admission counselor and assistant football coach, knows this first hand. Anderson is the only male African-American administrator at Albright. “Students come up to me all the time and ask me about the college because they know I went to a similar school. They want to know how I dealt with being on a predominantly white campus.” When the students have concerns about racial issues, he says he tells them they “have to do what they have to do. I tell them that they’re going to meet other people from different cultures and with different religions and backgrounds. This is what the whole college experience is about.”

I tell them that they’re going to meet other people from different cultures and with different religions and backgrounds. This is what the whole college experience is about.”

— A.J. Anderson, Admission Counselor and Assistant Football Coach

Most importantly, though, Anderson says he stresses to students that they are at Albright to have fun and get an education. “Students are here to be successful whether they are black, white or any other color.”

The College is doing a good job in trying to recruit more minorities, he says. “We’re always trying to think of things that will appeal to minority students. But there has to be something here that they can see…black fraternities, more black administrators and faculty…it would be easier to recruit minority students if we had these things,” he says.

Despite the difficulties and challenges through the years, Archie says she is glad she chose Albright. “Albright prepared me for life, not just academically, but in general. I went to graduate school with someone who went to an all-black college and she didn’t know how to cope at grad school.”

She adds, “I was worried about how I was going to do at grad school, but I did better than classmates who came from Yale and Harvard. I went to grad school very prepared…prepared to be a person of color in a predominantly white environment.”

“Albright has changed me,” says Baker. “My best friend is a white guy, Jared Secrest ’04. I never would have thought in a million years that my best friend would be white. Back home my friends are all black.” He adds with a chuckle, “Jared introduced me to hunting. I never did that before in my life!”

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