Even though I had a high profile in college, I’ve never had much interest in keeping up with my college “friends.” But for some reason, I recently decided to Google my college roommate during my freshman and sophomore years.
I entered his name and the name of our college, clicked the “search” button and… there he was. I knew it was him because both his name and our college’s name showed up. Alvin is now an Asst. Professor of English at a large Ohio community college. After his BA, he received an M.A. and then an M.Ed. at Cleveland State.
Alvin and I became roommates both by accident and by choice. By accident because neither of our assigned roommates showed up on that first day of college (or ever). We were told to hook up with another student needing a roommate within a few weeks or one would be assigned to us.
I walked over to the Student Union and sat down to wait for a pool table to open up. Alvin was playing by himself, noticed me and asked if I wanted to join him. I learned that he was from Sanford, a small town in rural central Florida. (At least it was small in 1970.)
I thought to myself how lucky I was not to grow up black in the rural South. I doubted that his parents belonged to a private club or had servants, as I had enjoyed. I noticed that he did not have a Southern accent. He was intrigued that I was raised in the Philippines and had traveled thousands of miles to come to this small college in St. Petersburg.
I don’t remember much else about the conversation that day but at some point after we had talked a bit he asked me about my roommate. I told him that my roommate hadn’t shown up and I needed to find one. His eyes widened and he said he needed a roommate too. We came to the same conclusion about the same time: we would be roommates!
We decided to stay in my dorm, rather than his, for a number of reasons. First, it’s location right across from the “woods” which was a popular gathering place. Our room faced the woods and we could look out the window and see who was there.
The dorm was also an “experiment”… A 100% “freshman” dorm with only the Resident Advisor (RA) and two lower level advisors being upperclassmen. The dorm was connected to a 100% freshman female dorm. With almost no upperclassmen, we freshmen would rule the dorm rather than be cowed by the upperclassmen.
As it turned out, the dorm’s RA and one of the other student advisors were black and of course they took Alvin under their wing. And since I was his roommate…
It was those three and me who were involved in the “driving while black” incident a few days later and which I’ve previously blogged about. It was my first “up close and personal” experience with overt racism.
Alvin and I had our own social circles. But late at night, when it was just the two of us in the room, we had some…interesting…discussions.
Alvin (and just about everyone else in the college) was much, much smarter than me. I’m convinced that the main reason I was even accepted to what then was one of the most selective colleges in Florida was because I was from outside the country, didn’t need financial aid, and my SAT scores suggested that I had potential but needed motivation since my GPA was only 2.5.
Alvin always impressed me with his detached, scholarly demeanor. I don’t recall what his major was but for some reason I believe that he at least started out in Sociology. I started out in Philosophy, specifically Political Philosophy, since there was no major in… Revolution. <g> But given the choice between reading political philosophy and practicing political agitation, the latter won out every time. Consequently, I almost failed my first semester.
At the end of our freshman year, Alvin and I agreed to remain roommates and stay in the same room in the same dorm. It was a fateful decision. Because we would soon become involved in a “revolution.” And the Student Union, where we had met, would once again play a big role in both our lives.
During the last month of our freshman year, the college announced a name change to Eckerd College. To honor a living conservative drugstore magnate (Jack Eckerd) who was donating millions to the college when it was in deep financial trouble. The students went ballistic since probably 90% were at least ultra liberal.
The college President, who was well loved, held a meeting in each dorm to explain the reasoning for the name change. I showed up at every meeting and reiterated all the opposing views. Obviously, the freshmen were most affected by the name change. And we were the largest class. But money talked…
At the start of my sophomore year, my name was well known to students and the administration. Besides my visibility in opposing the name change, I had spent a lot of time involved in anti-Viet Nam war demonstrations and anything else that appealed to my anti-establishment zeal. I joined the student newspaper and began propagandizing with a column I named “Gadfly.”
Alvin did not seem interested in this sort of “activism”. He seemed to me to take college very seriously. I figured it was because he had a unique opportunity and wanted to make the most of it.
But early in our second semester of sophomore year, he would remark about how this “liberal” college still had racist overtones. There was not one black faculty member. No courses in black history. And, a Student Union employee had made racist remarks in hearing of black students and still had his job despite complaints to the administration. This was not right…
A few weeks after that conversation, I was walking back to my dorm from a class when someone ran up to me and asked if I’d heard: a group of black students had walked into the Student Union (SU), ordered everyone, including the racist employee, out and chained the doors shut.
WTF…!? A gen-you-wine building takeover! Just like Columbia, Berkeley, etc. Yee-ha!
I ran over to the SU, was recognized by someone standing “guard” and asked to speak to the leader. I asked if Alvin was in there and was told he was. I asked for him and asked what was going on. Alvin said they were demanding the hiring of at least three black faculty for the next year, courses in black history, more financial aid for black students, more black freshman admissions, and the firing of the racist Student Union employee.
I was ecstatic. Here was some real “action!” I had to get in on this….
Fortunately, the black students needed some help. The administration took a hard line: “we’ll talk but not as long as you’re occupying the SU.” The students said they were staying until their demands were met. They had been talking for weeks and nothing had happened. So they took action.
The administration escalated: the students were trespassing. If they did not leave by 10 AM the next day, the police would be called to evict them and they’d all be expelled.
When I heard about that, I was at first surprised. And then angry that this so-called “liberal” administration was behaving like any other “conservative” college administration. Then, I saw opportunity. The administration’s escalation was a bad tactic. Very bad.
I talked to the occupation leader and asked if he’d mind if I rounded up some white students to sit out in front of the SU in a show of support and threaten to fight it out with the police if they showed up. He said he’d welcome that.
I suggested he mention my name to the college President as the leader of the white student supporters. I knew the President would remember that during the name change… discussions… I had come across as being a “crazy”…someone who’d not back off from, and may even welcome, a fight. Did he really want to take on a kamikaze?
The college literally could not afford the bad PR if the newspapers splashed photos of a “ race riot” on campus. Donations to the college would disappear, parents wouldn’t want their kids to attend the college and the college would fold. I knew that; the President knew that; and he knew that I knew he knew.
The next morning came and went with no signs of the police. I knew we (I was now part of the “outside” occupation) had won. That afternoon, the black students walked out of the SU. I asked Alvin what was going on and he said to wait because it’d all come out soon enough.
About two weeks later (which I’m sure was the “agreement” between the black students and administration) the college announced: they would hire three new black faculty for next year, start an Afro-American Studies major, provide more financial aid for black students and increase the number of black student freshmen. Complete victory! (The racist SU employee was not fired; he was transferred to a job where he had little contact with students.)
About a month later, Student Government elections were held. Alvin and I both ran for Executive Officer positions. Alvin ran for Student Entertainment Director and I ran for Academic Affairs Director (liaison to the faculty and administration on academic issues). We both easily won. I don’t recall, but Alvin may have been the first black Executive Officer of Student Government.
During the rest of our two years, Alvin did not become involved in any more “political” actions. I don’t remember if we even lived in the same dorm after sophomore year. (We selected new roommates junior year.) Our main interaction junior year was at Student Government meetings. We had even less interaction during senior year. I can’t recall if he stayed in Student Government; I left it to be Editor of the student newspaper, which I felt provided more power.
Alvin and I never stayed in touch after graduation. I’m not sure why I even looked him up. Maybe I wanted to see what he did with his life. A professor seems perfectly appropriate. I’m not at all surprised by that.
I think Alvin would be surprised to learn that I spent my entire career in government. But maybe he wouldn’t be. He may have thought I’d run for elected office. He probably wouldn’t be surprised that I’m looking at retiring outside the U.S. He may be surprised that I’m pretty apathetic politically.
I’ve not contacted Alvin. Nor do I plan to. But of all the folks I knew in college, he’s one of the few I’ll always remember. And what I’ll remember most is that day we first met in the Student Union and that day in our sophomore year when the Student Union brought us together in a different way.