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Being Black

Establishing identity at UM for over half a century

  • 8 min to read
Being Black

The University of Montana’s first two Black female students sat across from the dean of students in 1967. He told them that they were recruited to help integrate the University campus and asked them to live in separate dorms.

The two strangers, united by their solidarity in a new environment, squashed his hopes for integration. They wanted to live together.

The University, spurred by complaints of interracial dating between white females and Black football players and faced with federal cuts due to the lack of minority students on campus, recruited Esther Doss, now Thamani Akbar, and Dee Daniels. Until the fall of 1967, the only other Black students on campus were eight athletes.

Daniels, whose grades earned her a scholarship at the school, saw an opportunity to pursue a great education. She still holds her college years as a highlight of her life due to the wonderful students, teachers and the people she met. The life changing experiences that formed her future — living in the Northwest and her first singing role in a band — began in Missoula.

The 10 UM Black students, including Akbar and Daniels, established one of the first Black Student Unions (BSU) in the nation and pushed the University to institute what became the third-oldest Black studies program in 1968. The program inspired the founding of the Native American studies program two years later.

Despite low and dropping numbers of Black students and faculty 51 years later, Black students carry on the legacy of challenging a predominantly white institution and student body to confront race and racism in a state known for its “wild west” persona

“I got a chance to get an education. Little did I know it was going to be more than an academic education,” Daniels said. Daniels grew up in an integrated neighborhood in California, so she did not experience much discrimination until moving to Missoula. “I was pretty naïve,” Daniels said.

The majority of white students had never seen a Black person before, Daniels said. Students knocked on the door to ask if Akbar and Daniels’ skin could be rubbed or washed off.

“I kind of felt like I was in a zoo on the wrong side of the bars because everybody was looking at you all the time,” Daniels said.

But the experience of living in a predominantly white town in the 60’s helped Daniels understand her Black identity. For Daniels, Black identity is knowing who you are as a person of color and the history that goes along with that.

BSU continues to force campus, Montana and the Northwest to probe race relations over a half century past its founding. UM hosted the second annual Black Solidarity Summit this past weekend. The summit, inspired by similar conferences hosted in more urban areas, tackled Black identity for college students attending predominantly white institutions. 

“[The conference] is a safe space for a ton of Black students from predominantly white colleges to find their Black identity,” Natasha Kalonde, current BSU president and a junior majoring in history at UM, said.

Kalonde and BSU lost a member and friend to suicide in fall 2018. She planned the summit in his honor, inspired by his struggle with his Black identity as a biracial man living in a small Montana town.

“Black identity is not just Black culture, but what you bring to Black culture as an individual,” Kalonde said. She originally lived in Los Angeles before moving to Bozeman her junior year of high school.

As a Black student it can be difficult to find who you are on white campuses while trying to fit in, Kalonde said. It took her almost two months to attend her first BSU meeting as a freshman because it wouldn’t fit in with other predominantly white students’ behaviors.

The first BSU president, Thamani Akbar, who graduated in 1970 with a degree in social work, remembers a great education at UM. She also remembers white students treating Black students like they didn’t exist. Missoula wasn’t a warm place for Akbar. She and the other Black students created BSU to form a sense of community while they pushed for a Black studies program.

Akbar recently retired from 30 years of counseling and teaching in higher education to be a life coach. She worked with at-risk, low-income first-generation students to increase retention and graduation at Rutgers and UC Boulder. It is a very difficult environment emotionally for a young person to go through,” Akbar said. She said someone needs to prepare students to navigate predominantly white campuses for them to succeed.

Akbar thinks UM needs to reach out to places with predominantly Black populations to recruit African American studies graduate students to teach at UM. The lack of Black professors in the AAS program concerns her.

Akbar said white students need to look at AAS classes as part of developing their career because they will be working with people of color.

“That is where Black studies is a service to the white students at the University, that it is part of their professional development,” Akbar said.

Attending UM as one of the 89 Black students on campus can be isolating. Kalonde uses BSU as a space to talk about the micro- and macroaggressions, actions caused by prejudices, that often happen when she cannot speak up.

In BSU, Kalonde found support and mentorship. When a prospective student’s parent told her she was too dark to be an honors student and her coworkers stayed silent, she could talk about it with BSU members.

“[The parent] put me in a place where I had to be quiet,” Kalonde said — a choice between confronting a possible student’s parent and losing her job, or brushing off his racist comment.

In the early ‘70s, the students faced direct racism in the form of bullying and renter discrimination. Dee Daniels said the n-word was often hurled at Black students walking across Higgins bridge, and landlords refused to rent to Black students when they tried to move off campus.

In 1970, the Black women’s dorm room was vandalized, clothes torn from their closet, and “their books were also thrown all over the place and their posters of Brothers Malcolm and Martin were torn,” according to the Watani, the BSU newspaper.

The racism made Daniels angry, but it made her want to make a positive difference. To her, she had a chance to get an education the opportunity to make a change in Missoula’s race relations.

“I didn’t go there for that, but it happened, and I think a lot of positive things came out of that,” Daniels said.

The 10 Black students at the University, in the wake of community activism concerning racist landlords refusing the students housing, approached the president of UM with demands for a Black faculty member.

UM’s decision to hire a Black professor seemed like a huge step to Daniels as nationwide, most universities had not yet taken steps to address Black studies or student unions.

Ulysses Doss, who prior to accepting the teaching position at UM worked with Martin Luther King Jr. in Chicago, joined the faculty at UM and began recruiting students. Doss went on to lead the Black studies program for 25 years.

The color lines in Montana may not look the same as they did in 1967, but they haven’t disappeared.

Daniels, who left Montana after graduating and became a professional performer and music educator, is saddened but not surprised that issues of racism still appear on campus in the years since BSU was founded.

“If people ever wonder whether something is right or wrong, if you just put yourself in the other person’s place it wouldn’t take very long to figure it out. But as long as you keep refusing to do that, I think the movement towards peace and freedom is going to remain slow,” she said.

For Hannah Coburn, a junior studying psychology who grew up in Missoula, having a Black identity often meant other white peers assumed her knowledge of stereotypical Black culture.

Growing up as the only Black student besides her brother, “I was learning at the same pace, the only thing that was different was the color of my skin,” Coburn said. “Even if you don’t know, people assume that you have this Black identity attached to you whether you know anything about it or not.”

Coburn said people think about Black identity in more of a superficial sense, like music and food. She competes in hurdles and long jump for the UM track team. When people learn Coburn is a track athlete, a sport she’s run since kindergarten, they latch on to that part of her identity.

She also spends her time knitting, journaling and drawing, and she hopes to pursue a profession in insurance policies concerning the accessibility of long-term mental health treatment after graduation.

An increase in diversity of student body and professors would create a better learning environment says Coburn. “The more influx of different minorities on campus, the more aware you are of what is going on,” she said.

Murray Pierce, assistant to the vice provost for student success and administration representative for BSU, said increasing and maintaining a diverse student-teacher community is important because students of color learn better from teachers of color.

Students graduating from UM will likely not work in monochrome companies, Pierce said.

“Having the tools necessary to succeed in that environment is critical and that is an obligation the University has to keep at the forefront,” Pierce said. Pierce was a student at UM in the ‘70s on an athletic scholarship. He graduated in 1978 with a political science degree and now works as the director of Missoula’s youth courts.

BSU helped him adjust to an environment with a lack of diversity. “It provided some sense of insulation against demonstrated threats against people of color,” Pierce said.

With his tall frame and added backdrop of being different, Pierce was forced to adjust his introverted personality. It strengthened his resolve as a young man, and he returned in 2009 to mentor BSU students.

“It was the beginning for me of an organization designed not only to support the people that made up the organization but also designed to deconstruct racism on campus, in the community, and in the country,” Pierce said.

BSU tackles issues involving racism and discrimination that affect all marginalized communities. Pierce said the group is still critical at UM in its role of supporting students of color as well as other minority groups on campus. He thinks the increase in dialogue at UM is the biggest improvement since he attended the school.

To Pierce, the campus is on the right track, but UM is still changing.

He’s seen students in BSU work to change the campus and Missoula. “It’s been incredible for me to work with young people again, to see their exuberance, to see their movement towards success — to see them initially struggle and then find themselves, who they are in this community and in this country, too,” Pierce said.

Sierra Pannell, a senior studying social work and African American Studies, began attending BSU meetings this year.

Though she struggled to “feel Black enough” growing up in Missoula to join BSU, the student group provides a place for her to find support for exploring her Black identity.

“Black identity is a culmination of good and bad experiences — the racism but also the music and TV shows we can find ourselves in,” Pannell said.

Being the only student of color in a class concerning race gives Pannell anxiety. She feels emotionally and mentally uncertain about speaking up in majority white classes.

There is always a sigh of relief when another nonwhite student walks into the class, she said.

“There is a lot of inner dialogue white people don’t have to go through when they walk into a class dealing with race,” Pannell said. She thinks more teachers of color would reduce the racist comments white students say in classes.

She hopes any efforts made by the University to increase diversity come from a place of genuine desire to create a more inclusive environment, not a surface level desire to look better. She questions if diversity is genuinely wanted at the University or if it just looks good.

Black student enrollment decreased slightly more than overall enrollment from fall 2017 to fall 2018, according to the Montana University System. However, the previous five years, while overall enrollment fell, Black enrollment crept higher. One-year and two-year retention rates for Black students, as well as other minority students, are lower than white students.

As part of UM’s “Strategy for Distinction,” the UM Diversity Advisory Council has pushed for the increase in recruitment of underrepresented students as well as the hiring of a chief diversity position that would be involved in University decisions at a senior level. The council also suggested that UM develop a strategy for the retention of all underperforming groups. The acceptance of the council’s suggestions have not been finalized.

Paula Short, UM spokesperson, did not respond to requests for comment on campus diversity and enrollment by press time.

Despite Kalonde’s lack of Griz athletic gear, she said people sometimes assume she plays basketball or volleyball upon meeting her.

“No, I actually just study history,” she responds.

She believes UM should go out of its comfort zone by recruiting in urban, out-of-state areas and including admissions material beyond images of skiing and hiking that don’t appeal to all students. She wants the University to focus on recruiting people in urban areas for academics, not just sports. Kalonde said the recruitment of Black athletes can make it seem like people of color are only here for sports.

“There are a lot of Black students interested in politics and social activism,” Kalonde said. “It’s very unique to UM, but we don’t put it out there.”

Kalonde chose UM over MSU because she was interested in political science. Despite the low numbers of Black students at UM, Kalonde encourages prospective Black students to go out of their comfort zone “because society is not [their] comfort zone.” She sees the lack of diversity at UM as an opportunity for students of color to gain skills in interacting in a predominantly white environment that mirrors many jobs and businesses.

“[UM is] a liberal arts school,” Kalonde said. “It’s not a sports academy.”