In light of Black History Month, it is important to remember the progressive history of Washburn University. Women and minorities were welcome to the institution since its founding in 1865. Students have addressed the issue head on both in student government and in the student newspaper. Alumni have taken the issue above and beyond the halls of Washburn.
In 1866, a short year after the end of the Civil War and the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, there is record of an African American man attending Lincoln College. While the language is antiquated and not politically correct by modern standards, the short paragraph in The Congregational Record of March 1866 indicates the presence of an African American boy, and the text seemingly offers little judgment about the idea.
In the early 1900s, the presence of Walter Caldwell, a star player and African American, caused a Missouri team to refuse to play. The Washburn Review in 1903 wrote, “Although the financial consideration was fair, and although if played the game would draw an excellent crowd, Manager Leach flatly refused to play unless this restriction was withdrawn. The manager’s policy is to be heartily commended by students and faculty.”
In 1903, the Washburn team were champions of the Missouri Valley, which included beating the University of Kansas. Caldwell graduated from medical school in 1906. In 1918, he completed extra course work and specialized in pediatrics in Kansas City, Mo.
A Washburn alumni who moved to California, Loren Miller, a law school graduate of 1928, worked for the civil rights movement. Miller, a lawyer and a journalist both wrote about and argued for discrimination cases. In 1948, Miller and Thurgood Marshall argued a case before the United States Supreme Court and the Court ruled that lower courts could not bar persons from owning real property on the grounds of race. In 1954, Miller wrote two appellate briefs for the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court Case.
Before the Brown case reached the United States Supreme Court, three African American lawyers and Washburn law graduates filed the Brown v. Topeka Board of Education case in the U.S. District Court of Kansas in February of 1951. According to the Spring/Summer issue of The Washburn Lawyer in 2004, Charles Scott, John Scott and Charles Bledsoe worked to recruit psychologists and social scientists to testify as to the psychological harm of segregation on children in school. The Lawyer wrote, “This testimony would play an important role in the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision because the Kansas case was the only case to focus on the psychological harm on segregation to school children.” On May 17, 1954, after several appeals, the Supreme Court unanimously declared that state-sanctioned school segregation was unconstitutional.
History repeated itself and the student body of Washburn again stood against racial discrimination. On Friday, Oct. 21, 1949, the Washburn Review mentioned the integration of a formerly segregated dance. The paper reported, “When Lincoln College, which is now Washburn, was founded, one of the principles set forth was that there would be education without discrimination. But it wasn’t until much later, a little more than three years ago, that most rankling barrier, the segregated dance, was broken through by a public demonstration on the part of the white students.”
The article goes on to rail against the segregated representation of the homecoming queen. This was during the tenure of Arthur Fletcher, a successful Ichabod football player and African American. Fletcher graduated in 1950 with a degree in sociology. Fletcher would go on to serve extensively in politics. According to the New York Times on Feb. 4, 1990, President George H.W. Bush appointed Fletcher as chairman of the Civil Rights Commission. Prior to this appointment, Fletcher served as the Assistant Secretary of Labor under Nixon, as the deputy Presidential assistant for urban affairs for Gerald R. Ford and as a consultant for Ronald Reagan. In 1995, Fletcher was among the early candidates for the Republican nomination for president in the 1996 election. Washburn Law alumnus Robert Dole was also in the running. In 1995, the Topeka Capital-Journal quoted Fletcher as saying, “I can hold my own with graduates from Harvard, Yale and those places. At Washburn, a B grade is about as good as an A at those damn high-priced schools.”
Washburn alum Dole ended up getting the nomination, but Fletcher’s legacy was tied into his role in the development of Affirmative Action.
In a 2005 article in the Topeka Capital-Journal, it wrote Fletcher called himself the father of Affirmative Action and that Fletcher had made a career out of raising awareness to race issues.
Fletcher is quoted in the same article as saying that Washburn was “an island of democracy in a sea of racism” during the 1940s.
Washburn alumni have distinguished themselves in diverse ways. However, Washburn also distinguished itself as being a progressive, diverse university.