Kalamazoo, MI
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From Blackface to Black Power: K’s Changing Racial Climate in 1950s and 1960s

Anne Dueweke presents K's racial history (Janay Johnson / The Index). Anne Dueweke presents K's racial history (Janay Johnson / The Index).

Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership (ACSJL) Staff Fellow and the Director of Faculty Grants and Institutional Research Anne Dueweke, K’84 held a discussion for her fellowship project with her Student Research Fellow Allia Howard ‘17 highlighting the racial changes seen on K’s campus from the 1950’s to today.

“I will examine the College’s history through a social justice lens. As a result of this work, I hope that the College can come to terms with threads of racism, classism and other ‘isms’ woven through our institutional history, celebrate themes of social justice that characterize the College’s past and present, and showcase the stories of people in Kalamazoo College’s history who have been marginalized and silenced,” Dueweke said about her project and one aspect of her project was the talk “From Blackface to Black Power.”

During the 1950s, the climate of Kalamazoo College was very different from what we know today. The school was a very religious campus with chapel everyday and rules were implemented governing student behavior. There were a total of 350-570 students at K and a total of 22 black students during the 1950s. The biggest events on campus were Homecoming in the Fall and a Homecoming Queen was elected each year. A Christmas carol service took place every winter and the Christmas story was read for the whole campus. Minstrel shows were another large campus event that took place during the 1950s but had started years earlier. Minstrel shows comprised of dances, songs, and comic routines performed by white actors in black face. Minstrel shows imitated slave dialect and characters were dressed in rugged clothes.

The shows titled “Darktown Jamboree” and “Showboat” grew so popular they were performed off campus for the greater Kalamazoo community in 1951. With this branching out into the community came backlash and the members of the Minstrel shows were forced to reevaluate the shows. There were changes made such as actors no longer performing in blackface and making fewer offensive jokes so the Minstrel shows could still be performed.

Over the next five years, Weimer Hicks, the President of Kalamazoo College, was in constant contact with the members in charge of the shows to try to diminish the offensiveness of the shows. With Hicks came more changes to K’s campus such as the K-Plan and study abroad.

In 1960, the English department brought James Baldwin to campus to give lectures, meet students and attend classes and his influential presence was felt all across campus. Racial consciousness was beginning to rise after Baldwin’s visit but there was still uneasiness and timidity especially with national events during the 60s such as sit-in strikes, the March on Washington and the Birmingham church bombing.

By 1968, the number of black students on campus doubled during the time of the civil rights movement. Many black power speakers visited K and were shocked there was no black student union. This sparked the movement to establish the Black Student Organization on April 16, 1968 based on the black power principles of giving back to the Black community and learning about that community. With the establishment of BSO came ridicule and opposition from student commission and President Hicks. BSO peacefully protested for the rights they deserved as a student organization after many back and forth correspondences with President Hicks. BSO was asking for relevance and support during the 1960s and fought as hard as they could to foster a campus culture that was supportive of their needs.

Dueweke and Howard stated they feel in the short term, there were more black admission staff and faculty, however, they did not stay for long. In the long term, there was not a long lasting impact of BSO activism in the 1960s on Kalamazoo College.

“We wanted to share these events with you about Kalamazoo College’s history because one, they are not well known and two, they can help us understand something fundamental about K’s culture,” Dueweke said.

1 Comment on From Blackface to Black Power: K’s Changing Racial Climate in 1950s and 1960s

  1. Baldwin’s visit to my freshman composition class in ’59 had a lasting impression on me. He sat through, talked through, the whole period. The first author I had ever seen, in my classroom yet,, and Black. A life changing awareness!

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From Blackface to Black Power: K’s Changing Racial Climate in 1950s and 1960s