Photo by: University of MN

By Ken Foxworth

Sometimes we wait for other people who we think are smarter than us to stand up for the truth and fight on our behalf. We think that we don’t have the strong, intelligent voice the others have, so we go silent. But, sometimes they have other agendas.

Currently, the University of Minnesota is in the process of changing the names of four buildings named after presidents and vice presidents who have been shown to have racially discriminated against students and faculty during their tenures in the 1930s and early ’40s.

These buildings are Coffman Memorial Union, Coffey Hall, Middlebrook Hall and Nicholson Hall.

On October 4, 2018 U of M President Eric Kaler and Executive Vice President and Provost Karen Hanson charged members of a task force to “recommend actions regarding the specific buildings…and to utilize tools to gather community feedback on the buildings in question.”

The advisory recommendations of the task force will be considered by President Kaler and Provost Hanson, following which President Kaler will present recommendations to the Board of Regents on the four buildings in question. The president has made a presentation to the Regents on the renaming but has not identified any specific individuals whose names would be considered for this honor.

I visited the president’s office and asked the senior secretary if any African American names had been presented to the president; she told me none at that time.

I was stunned and shocked that the African American faculty had not at least recommended for that honor three iconic African American former students, faculty and administrators who gave their lives to the University of Minnesota campus and showed minority communities that they were welcome there.

These three administrators changed the way the University of Minnesota invited businesses, corporations, students and faculty to the University, a method of practice the University is still using today. I refer to Dr. Josie Robinson Johnson, Dr. Frank Wilderson, and Dr. McKinley Boston, Jr. Limited space here does not allow a full description of their extensive contributions to the U of M, but briefly:

Dr. Johnson served on the University’s Board of Regents between 1971 and 1973. She accepted the University’s offer of a senior fellowship in 1987 and directed its All-University Forum as diversity director from 1990 to 1992. That year, she became responsible for minority affairs and diversity at the college as the associate vice president for academic affairs. The U of M has established the annual Josie Robinson Johnson Human Rights and Social Justice Award in her honor.

Dr. Wilderson came to the U of M in 1962 as an assistant professor in the educational psychology department, then moved up to a full professorship. He was selected by students to help them negotiate and end their 1969 takeover of Morrill Hall.

He secured the Dr. Martin Luther King Scholarship around 1975 with funds coming from private donations, and he started the University of Minnesota Student Legal Services to help students with legal issues. The U of M president recruited him to run both the men’s and women’s athletic departments, and he was part of a six-person committee that went to Washington, D.C. to entice the Kennedys into bringing the Special Olympics to Minneapolis.

Dr. McKinley Boston, Jr. completed his undergraduate degree in education at the University of Minnesota in 1968, earned his master’s of science degree from Montclair State College in 1973, and completed his Ph.D. at New York University in 1988.

He was employed by the University as vice president for student development and athletics, serving as the chief student affairs officer for those services and programs that support and enhance student’s academic experiences and contribute to their healthy personal and social development. During his tenure at the U of M, Dr. Boston generated through sponsorship and fundraising over $75 million in support of student life and intercollegiate athletics.

He is published and active in a number of social justice strategies aimed at supporting noncustodial fathers and their desire to be partners in rearing their children.

This is just a sample of the many positive contributions these three remarkable human beings have made as members of this great institution. We have to stand up and SHOUT to this community that Dr. Johnson, Dr. Wilderson and Dr. Boston all deserve to have their names on campus buildings in recognition of their outstanding service.

[Editors’ update: On Friday, April 26, the U of M Board of Regents voted 14-1 against renaming any of the campus buildings.]

This article originally appeared in the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder. 

COMMENTARY: Let’s stand up for Black excellence at the U of M

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