WHEN I’M dead, I hope people talk of me the way Erik Brooks writes about Savannah State University. The best writers and historians are even-handed.
We all have origin stories, tales of struggle and accomplishment. And yes, we all also have chapters that some might consider negative. I consider them human.
As SSU celebrates its 125th anniversary, Brooks, historian and chair of African-American Studies at Western Illinois University, takes a broad look at its history.
“It was just a telling of the story,” he says of episodes I’m sure the PR folks might have excised. “I try to be fair. I don’t know that anything that I’ve written is controversial.”
Mercer University Press published Brooks’ history, “Tigers in the Tempest” as part of a series of books about historically black colleges and universities (HBCU’s).
The SSU story has struggle from start to finish. “Tigers” refers to the school’s mascot. “Tempest” refers to the continuing black movement toward equality and dignity.
I expected some of it. Like when, in the school’s early years, white benefactors preferred vocational training like farming and machinery over more classical education.
But a lot was new to me. Like when, in 1963, college president Howard Jordan expelled students for participating in civil rights activities. He urged students to focus on classes.
“Most presidents at HBCU’s at that time found themselves caught in the middle of the civil rights movements and pressures from their boards,” he says. “He was no different.”
I like the stories about SSU’s first president, Richard Wright. A lot of people know his famous quote, “Tell them we are rising.” Brooks explains the background. But he also writes about the possible cause of Wright’s resignation. A white Savannah bank teller slapped his daughter. Indignant, Wright sued the teller and left the South.
“I think this was such a bold and audacious move for a black man in those times,” Brooks says. “He said he’d go to the North and start his own bank. That’s exactly what he did.”
Brooks mercifully doesn’t just write about college presidents. Indeed, SSU’s student newspaper figures prominently.
“The Tiger’s Roar was a treasure trove,” he says. “A lot of the editors and writers were women. And they were able to give a different perspective than that of the mainstream.”
And students, as we know, often have issues with their schools, to put it nicely. Women especially bristled under patronizing rules that cut across racial lines in the 20th century.
“Women in residence halls had to sign out,” he says. “Female students couldn’t go out alone. They had to have escorts. They weren’t allowed to ride in cars.”
Students complained in the 1970’s when the state university system moved programs to Armstrong, the crosstown perennial subject of possible mergers with SSU.
And in the 1980’s, students took their complaints to the ballot box. Al Williams and Jesse Blackshear made history by running for office while in school.
So this isn’t just campus history. It’s Savannah history. “I really came to appreciate all that the university has done and its influence on Savannah,” he says.
I agree. It’s fascinating. I just think there’s a special pair of scissors somewhere on campus for officials to send the name “Robby Wells” down the memory hole.
Wells is the white football coach who settled a claim with SSU after he alleged racial discrimination in 2010. It’s only a small episode, a few paragraphs.
But that’s why they call it an unauthorized history. Exactly the kind I want!