By: Mira Costello
Black History Month is often full of figures we know well: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman, Jackie Robinson and Barack Obama cover our February bulletin boards and newsletters. Remembering their legacies and contributions is undeniably important – but many stories of Black joy, achievement and excellence go untold, and some of them happened right here at Indiana University.
In 1882, 62 years after IU was founded and 16 years after the Civil Rights Act of 1866, Harvey Young enrolled as the university’s first Black student. While IU was not the first school to admit Black students – with smaller, private Oberlin admitting students of color beginning in 1835 – its decisions are in stark contrast to public schools like the University of Georgia, who did not desegregate until 1961.
According to an article for the IU Bicentennial Magazine by Carey Beam, Young attended IU for three years before leaving school to teach in Indianapolis Public Schools. It is unclear how many more students of color attended IU between then and 1895, when Marcellus Neal became the first Black graduate of the university. It wasn’t long before Carrie Parker became IU’s first Black female student in 1898, and Frances Marshall became the first Black female graduate of IU in 1919.
However, the 1890s weren’t just a special time for Neal. Preston Eagleson, said to be the second Black IU graduate, joined white classmates on the IU football team in 1893, making football one of the first desegregated sports at IU. However, according to “Beyond the First: Early African-American Athletic Experiences at IU” by Angel Nathan, a group of Black students (pictured) branched away from the school’s team to form their own group of Black players, likely due to the alienation and mistreatment Eagleson faced from spectators and other teams as the only Black player on the team.
This mistreatment had ripple effects: according to “IU Football, Preston E. Eagleson, and the 1885 Civil Rights Act” by Dina Kellams, a lawsuit that followed a discrimination incident against Eagleson in 1894 set a precedent to enforce the Indiana Civil Rights Act of 1885, which ensured equal use of businesses and facilities.
It may feel like we’ve come a long way since then – it is hard to imagine being separated into different classrooms and facilities because of the color of our skin. However, we still wrestle with racism in other ways, trying to rectify the lasting effects of codified racial inequality in our country.
IU Bloomington is only 4.14% Black, and while IU South Bend doubles that at 8% and rising, these numbers simply do not match population demographics: 26.61% of people in South Bend are Black, and over 9% in Indiana as a whole are Black. What is preventing us from reflecting these figures in our campus community?
Improving Diversity, Equitability and Inclusion efforts is critical to the growth, strength and wellbeing of our campus, but those things can seem far away and amorphous, mysteriously couched in diversity hiring initiatives and long-term plans.
Although these campus and IU-wide programs are important, diversity, equitability and inclusion start with individual students. They start with events like the Student Government Association’s MLK Day Speak Out event. They start with stepping out of your comfort zone to attend a meeting for an affinity group you might not be a part of. They start with putting ourselves in the position to be uncomfortable and to learn.
Most of all, though, progress starts with realizing that we are living history.
Population data from World Population Review and United States Census Bureau.
Photo // IU Archives, c. 1913