Alumni Column: Colgate For Equality: Lessons In Understanding

In reflecting on truly memorable experiences during my four undergraduate years at Colgate, there is one in particular that stands out. 

I was a sophomore on the varsity tennis team. That year, March 1963, we began our season according to tradition with a southern “swing” during our week-long spring break playing college teams throughout Washington DC, Maryland and Virginia. (Times have changed. Today, Colgate’s tennis teams, men’s and women’s, go to Puerto Rico for their spring trip!) Our transportation at the time was via Colgate vans, two 14-passenger vans if memory serves. 

During the final weekend of our 1963 southern trip, we played two matches with what was then Hampton Institute, now Hampton University, a well-known historically African American college in Hampton Roads, Va. On Saturday morning, we arrived on campus and were greeted not only by Hampton’s tennis team and coach, but also by Hampton’s then president, an African-American gentleman and friend of Colgate’s coach Perry Rockafellow. The Hampton President hosted us, along with the Hampton team, at a sumptuous luncheon at his own residence and thanked us profusely for coming to Hampton Institute to play its tennis team. If I’m not mistaken, he said he was honored by our visit.

We then went out and played our matches. Afterward, the entire Hampton team invited our team to join them that evening in downtown Hampton Roads to enjoy some camaraderie and good times. We did so, and as we walked the streets of Hampton Roads, I could not help but notice the stares and the disdainful looks from the passers-by. Seemingly, black and white young adults, enjoying themselves together, was then an unusual and unwelcome sight. Be that as it may, we all had a wonderful and memorable time together that evening, visiting venues frequented by black people exclusively.

And the next day, Sunday, we again played tennis, only now against our newly acquired Hampton Institute friends rather than our tennis adversaries of the day before. And after the match, after packing up our belongings, and after saying our goodbyes, we departed Hampton Institute en route to our final destination of Hamilton, N.Y., some ten to twelve hours down the road. 

We were sad our spring journey was over, but we were gladdened by the wonderful experiences of the preceding two days. We were also very hungry, as young college students would be after three or more hours of tennis. So we asked our captain and van driver, Andrew Zelman, to stop at the nearest diner so we could eat before truly setting out. He agreed and did so. We pulled into the first diner and jumped out of our van with Andy leading the way. No sooner had we reached the door of the diner when Andy turned around and said, “Back to the van guys, we’re not eating here!” 

“Why?” we asked in unison. And he pointed to the sign on the door that read “Whites Only.” 

OK, surely up ahead there are other diners. And there were, many others all with the same sign: “Whites Only.” All with the same result, Andy pointing to the sign and signaling to us back to the van.  It wasn’t until very late that night or early the next morning, somewhere in southern New Jersey, perhaps on the Jersey Turnpike, that we were finally able to locate a restaurant open to all.

In reflecting on that experience, and where my life has taken me since, I believe it was life-changing. Would I have chosen to go into the Peace Corps after graduation had my eyes not been opened by that experience to the inequities and injustices based on race and ethnicity throughout our country and the world? Would I have chosen college teaching and administration as a life-long profession, with my focus on issues of equity and justice?  And, on a matter more directly related to my Colgate years, would I have pledged a fraternity whose by-laws precluded membership for ethnic and religious minorities, something I had done the year before? 

I hope that I would have learned the lesson taught to me by my long-lost friends at Hampton Institute and my mentor-for-life Andrew Zelman (who knows absolutely nothing of his influence on me) on my own. I’ll never know. What I do know is that I’ve had a wonderful career, and I feel good about what I’ve tried to do as an educator. And I look back on this Colgate experience as the true beginning. I also know that there is much still to be done, and as a retiree and thus wearing a very different cap, I hope to continue to work to increase interracial understanding and respect.