By: Alexis Morales, Bicentennial Intern, Class of 2019, Business, Northwest
When we think about Indiana University, we think of an institution that fosters limitless opportunities. We think of a system of campuses, spread across the state of Indiana, each offering a world-class education to students from all backgrounds and walks of life. We think of an institution that sends imaginations soaring with the promises of knowledge, experiences, and open doors.
Some alumni even refer to Indiana University [IU] as a second home because of the support and tools it has provided to them as they pursued new chapters in their lives. This is the IU we have all come to respect, cherish, and love. However, IU did not always extend its promise of a better life to all students equally; even beloved institutions can harbor tarnished histories.
On the morning of Tuesday, May 16, 2017, I was fortunate enough to meet Ms. Kathryn A. Fields Blackwell. She shared her story with me of her time as a student at Indiana University Bloomington for Indiana University’s Bicentennial Oral History Project. Through interviews with alumni, like Ms. Blackwell, we can showcase the successes and opportunities that an Indiana University degree can provide. The following account is Ms. Blackwell’s story.
Kathryn Blackwell, one of eleven children, was born in East Chicago after her family moved up from the South to seek a better life. From a young age, her parents infused in her the importance of an education. Upon graduating from high school, she decided to first save up for college, and after working for a year and a half, she fully committed herself to Indiana University Bloomington [IUB]. She chose IUB because it was an in-state school, so the tuition was cheaper for her as a resident of Indiana.
Ms. Blackwell supported herself through her education by working various jobs, such as cleaning homes for white families in the Bloomington area. In 1947, she graduated with her bachelor’s degree in education from IUB as a first-generation college student. However, as a black female student in the 1940s, her student experience was very different than that of her white peers.
Click below to hear about where Ms. Blackwell resided while attending IUB.
“I felt isolated,” admitted Ms. Blackwell. “We [black students] had a special relationship because we were all going through the same thing and we were so close together…we did have fun, even though we were excluded from most things.” Ms. Blackwell explained that most of their fun was “self-contained,” as blacks were not allowed to visit many places in town.
A notable exception was the theater, where they were allowed if they sat in the balcony. However, the open discrimination she and her fellow black students faced did not prevent her from finding ways to enjoy her student experience. She would often invite friends over to Elms House to dance and play bridge. Ms. Blackwell found community in a local church, and she even has fond memories of walking all the way across town in heels to attend services.
Ms. Blackwell does not believe the discrimination she faced as a student was solely the result of the fundamentals exhibited by IUB.
To fight discrimination, Ms. Blackwell became a member of the YWCA club, a nonprofit organization with the motto “Eliminating Racism, Empowering Women.” She was also a member of the newly established NAACP chapter on campus.
The very next morning after the chapter’s creation, KKK signs were hung on almost every tree in the central part of campus, a symbol of the dissent many students expressed toward this movement.
Ms. Blackwell could not recall ever seeing any black faculty or staff on the campus. She explained that black students knew which of the faculty members discriminated against blacks. As a result, black students would warn each other to be cautious around certain instructors who did everything in their power to fail black students.
During the 1940s, certain professors on campus did not believe that black students, like Ms. Blackwell, were capable of being intellectual students. Ms. Blackwell even recalled a time when one professor went so far as to stand behind her while she completed an assignment to ensure she was not cheating. Despite being angered by her professor’s lack of confidence in her abilities, Ms. Blackwell used the incident as further motivation to excel.
In terms of professors, Dr. Ruth Strickland was quite an exception. Deeply admired by Ms. Blackwell, Dr. Ruth Strickland was a professor who seemingly defended black students who were mistreated. Ms. Blackwell’s parents were also a source of hope. “You can make it,” encouraged her mother and father. “You’re going to have to go through some things. You’re going to have to take some things, but you can make it.”
Listen to Ms. Blackwell’s response below when asked why she would attend IUB even though she knew she would be subjected to racism.
After World War II, Ms. Blackwell noticed an increase in the enrollment of veterans at IUB. The size of the student population had tripled due to the GI Bill. As a result, housing became scarce on campus. Single men were housed in the university’s fieldhouse, and men who had families began living in trailers provided by the university.
Although these living conditions may not have been ideal, the GI Bill indirectly created the first integrated housing on campus because the increase in the student population forced IUB to house black and white men together.
Ms. Blackwell also expressed that after World War II, certain items were in short supply, but black students particularly had a difficult time shopping. Even if the grocery stores had items in stock, they often times would claim they were sold out if a black shopper inquired. “You learned how to survive,” said Ms. Blackwell. As a result, she and her friends would have their black friend, who passed for white, do some of their grocery shopping.
Despite the racism, Ms. Blackwell excelled and received multiple awards. She was granted membership into Alpha Lambda Delta, an honor society for freshmen; Phi Lambda Theta, an honor society recognizing women in education; and Mortar Board National College Senior Honor Society.
After graduation, Ms. Blackwell began her job search, but only whites were receiving job offers. Before she even submitted her application to a school system in Northwest Indiana, the white superintendent was already trying to find reasons not to hire her because she was black.
Albeit this constant belittlement of her qualifications, even in her pursuance of a professional career, she got the job under the pretense that she would be able to work in a racially mixed classroom. Ms. Blackwell became a first grade teacher and the first black faculty member at the school.
When she arrived there to set up her room for the coming school year, fellow teachers came to her room to introduce themselves, and although some of their eyes widened when they saw the color on her skin, Ms. Blackwell held that they were all very kind people who treated her fairly.
Later, Ms. Blackwell went on to teach second and third grade. In total, she taught for 16 years and was in administration for 25 years, becoming the first black principal in the city.
While Ms. Blackwell was teaching, she decided she wanted to further her education. She attended night classes at Indiana University Northwest during the academic year, and in the summer, she attended classes at IUB. After six or seven years of courses, in 1960, Ms. Blackwell graduated with her master’s in education.
Even though Ms. Blackwell experienced racial discrimination and face many unfair obstacles while earning her degrees, she holds no contempt towards Indiana University. Ms. Blackwell is thankful for her education and the opportunities that followed her graduation. In fact, she even revisited IUB’s campus to celebrate homecoming years later. “I had a good education,” said Ms. Blackwell.
Click below to hear what Indiana University Bloomington meant to her.
“Pioneering is rewarding, but it is also very difficult,” said Ms. Blackwell. Even now in her nineties, Ms. Blackwell is able to recall many fond memories of her time at IUB and is happy for all it provided to her. She is even planning on attending the opening and dedication of Indiana University Northwest’s new Arts & Sciences building in August 2017.
I am very thankful I had the opportunity to meet such a courageous woman and share her story of determination, passion, and heart.