Archive for Wednesday, November 14, 1990

BLACK ALUM RECALLS ROUGH START AT KU

November 14, 1990

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When Elmer Jackson was a student at Kansas University in the 1930s, he couldn't attend university-sponsored dances. He had to sit in the balcony at theaters and was not allowed to swim in university pools.

"In 1930, African-American students were not allowed to eat, drink, live or socialize as they chose," Jackson said Tuesday evening during the Heritage Lecture Series, which is celebrating KU's 125th year.

Jackson, now a Kansas City attorney, spoke on "Minority Survival: 60 Years in Review." He was joined by David Ambler, vice chancellor for student affairs, who reminisced about "Rock Chalk Jayhawk: Student Life at KU, 1866-1990."

Jackson, who holds bachelor's and law degrees from KU, said he departed from Kansas City, Kan., with $50.25, the amount of money his mother was able to scrape together for him. He arrived in Lawrence in September 1930. Paying for food and rent was a problem.

But Jackson convinced the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity to allow him to stay in the house even though he couldn't pay rent at the time. He promised to pay the year's rent the following summer, when he would be employed.

IT WORKED out, and Jackson later found a job at the Alpha Chi Omega sorority, where he worked as a waiter and houseman from 1931 to 1935. He earned room and board and $3 a week.

Jackson, who has received KU's Distinguished Alumni Award and Distinguished Service Citation, said he was drawn to KU because of its quality academic program.

"For me, KU was the right university," Jackson said. "Attending college is a major investment of time, money and energy. As I reflect on the last 60 years, I am both proud and disturbed."

Jackson said he is disturbed because black students had a rough beginning at KU.

"For some years, black students were not invited to university-sponsored dances," Jackson said.

So they had their own dances, picnics and teas, said Jackson, who became the first black member of the Kanas Board of Regents in 1970.

Black students also were not allowed to participate in KU athletics until the late 1950s, when Phog Allen recruited Wilt Chamberlain.

Gale Sayers, Jo Jo White, Bud Stallsworth, Danny Manning and others followed. KU also has produced influential black leaders and business executives, Jackson said.

BUT KU NEEDS more black students, faculty members and administrators, Jackson said. To illustrate his point, he called on a Chinese fable about a farmer who had to climb a hill every day to get to his fields. The farmer would carry a stone back with him each trip. When he was questioned about this practice, the farmer said, "I'm moving this hill."

Jackson said black students at KU must remove one stone at a time.

Vice Chancellor Ambler said he has noticed a return to student activism. During his presentation in the Helen Foresman Spencer Museum of Art, Ambler chronicled student life at KU since North College opened to 55 students in 1866.

KU has changed greatly since then, but students still revel in life on campus, Ambler said.

"There is here a special blending of academic life and living on `the Hill' that cannot be separated, that has kept thousands of alumni literally in love with this place," Ambler said.

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