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Rosenblum: Revolutionary civil rights idea is reignited at Mac reunion

  • Article by: GAIL ROSENBLUM
  • Star Tribune
  • June 7, 2012 - 8:53 AM

Knoxville College in the 1960s was a flourishing place, with classical music, rigorous academics, winning sports teams and a robust student body of 1,100.

Make that 1,128.

The additional 28 students, hailing from Macalester College, transferred to the college in eastern Tennessee as part of one of the boldest civil rights efforts you've likely never heard of.

Last week, many of those 28, who are now in their 60s, reunited with their classmates from the historically black Knoxville College (KC) for an enlightening discussion. It would be a shame if that standing-room only affair, which took place during Macalester's larger reunion, remained locked in that classroom.

Theirs is a story we should all hear, and not just because it's a source of pride. Their recollections and revelations are a reminder of how far we've come, and of work still unfinished.

"It's amazing what we did," said Carol Huenemann Eick, the panel's moderator and one of the first Macalester students to attend KC in 1962. "It was a little program with a huge ripple effect."

Johnny Ford, a former mayor and Alabama state legislator, is no less effusive. "For those of us who grew up in segregation, what you did was an experiment," he said. "But you really helped to change the South."

The idea for a semester-long exchange between the St. Paul school and KC and, to a smaller extent, all-black Morehouse College in Atlanta, grew out of students' desire to champion civil rights. By the end of the seven-year run, 55 students were changed by their willingness to cross geographic, racial and ideological borders. They shared dorm rooms, ate together, sang, danced and traveled together -- to the Smoky Mountains and the South Dakota Corn Palace -- and fought honestly against their biases and those of their parents.

Marilyn Hoff, from Fergus Falls, defied her parents by going to KC in 1962, which, she said, "was the pivotal decision of my life." She danced with abandon and cherished the diminished boundaries "about what was considered correct behavior. It felt more real," she said of her semester at KC. "People were more in touch with their emotions."

Her mother later told a friend, "Macalester ruined Marilyn."

Ronald Damper left the South on Sept. 15, 1963, the day four girls attending Sunday School were killed in a bombing at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in his hometown of Birmingham, Ala. A few of the girls, ages 11 to 14, were friends of his sisters.

He arrived at Macalester two years later with $18 and a foot locker and was greeted with a KKK sign and confederate flag on the door of a suite-mate. The sign and flag were soon pulled down, and Damper didn't face many troubles again.

KC's Brenda Monroe-Moses came to Macalester in the spring of 1967 and was stunned to see a white maid cleaning her dorm. She rushed to tidy up her room, worried that the cleaning woman would judge her.

Macalester's Sue Moxley- Graham was arrested outside a segregated Knoxville movie theater in 1963 as she and other students sang "We Shall Overcome."

While it's all suddenly fresh again, it's the stuff of history books to Alana Horton. A 20-year-old Macalester junior, she was, by decades, the youngest person in the room. Horton was stunned that she had never heard about the student exchange and stunned, too, to realize how wild the idea remains.

"Even today, it would be a radical proposition for a college like Macalester to have an exchange with a black college, or an evangelical college," Horton said, adding that she thinks it's a great idea. "Everyone would learn something."

The exchange program ended when the Black Power movement gained steam and KC's president, a big supporter of the exchange, moved on. But lives were altered.

Macalester graduate Paula Hirschoff earned a graduate degree in cultural anthropology and volunteers with a racially mixed group at the Washington, D.C.-based National Museum of African Art. Pat Smith Shufeldt, who grew up on a farm, moved to South Carolina 40 years ago. "I would never have moved to the South had it not been for the Knoxville experience," she said.

Damper became a successful businessman, with clients including McDonald's. "Macalester," he said, "gave me the confidence to compete."

Now Damper needs his friends' help again. KC is in financial peril. It has lost its accreditation and is down to slightly more than 100 students.

Suddenly, the Macalester alumni are 20-years-old again. They form a steering committee to explore ways that Macalester and KC can re-connect. Visiting professorships? Summer jobs for KC students? Some write generous checks to KC. And they talk about holding another reunion, next time in Knoxville. Monroe-Moses gently corrects them.

"This is not a reunion," Monroe-Moses said. "This is a union. This means more now than when I was here in 1967."

gail.rosenblum@startribune.com 612-673-7350

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