First MU African-American graduate student speaks to inspired audience

Friday, August 31, 2012 | 4:53 p.m. CDT; updated 5:13 p.m. CDT, Friday, August 31, 2012
Gus T. Ridgel, MU's first African-American graduate student, delivers a speech Friday at the Gaines/Oldham Black Culture Center. Ridgel speaks about his experiences and the racial climate at MU when he was student.

COLUMBIA — Gus T. Ridgel carries history with him, and not just because he is 86 years old. Ridgel was the first African-American to graduate from MU with a master’s degree. 

"This is entirely a new university than the one that I knew and I am pleased with the progress it has made," Ridgel said.

About 20 people, including students and others traveled through the rain Friday morning to hear him speak at the Gaines/Oldham Black Culture Center. It is part of two days of events at MU honoring Ridgel, including recognition at Saturday's Tiger football game.

Amina Simmons, a first-year graduate student studying counseling psychology, was brought to tears when speaking on the significance of Ridgel’s appearance.

"I think as a black student, as a first-generation college student, and now that I’m in graduate school, it is always encouraging to continue to see black academics," Simmons said.

"Especially when I think about people who are the first. It’s just" — she paused to regain her composure — "it’s just one of those things that not only gives me hope, but it also gives me that extra push to keep going."

After he filed a lawsuit in 1950, MU was forced to admit Ridgel as its first African-American graduate student. He said the NAACP contributed to his education because money from his GI Bill had run out. 

Ridgel, who completed his undergraduate degree magna cum laude at Lincoln University, said he never experienced overt racism in the classroom, but he dealt with it elsewhere in Columbia. He recalled being denied service at local restaurants and coffee shops.

"There was segregation off-campus," Ridgel said. "There was no place I could eat."

Ridgel lived alone in a two-person dorm room because no one was willing to live with him. The university originally tried to make him pay the full price but eventually only charged him the price of a single.

According to Ridgel, the president of the student government association offered to live with him but retracted his offer after students threatened to run his father out of business if he did.

Ridgel didn’t have much time to enjoy a social life, although he did view a couple of football and basketball games. He managed to complete the coursework of a two-year master’s program within one academic school year, in part because of finances.

Ridgel graduated in June of 1951 with a master's degree in economics.

Andrew Grabau, the development director for graduate education at MU, is responsible for having Ridgel spend the weekend at MU.

"I think it’s important to honor his accomplishments," Grabau said. "He faced a lot in his hard times, and I also think a lot of our students can be inspired."

Ridgel is scheduled to have lunch Friday with about 40 graduate students who have received the Gus T. Ridgel Fellowship. The fellowship, established in 1987, supports education for underrepresented minority graduate students. 

"I think the university, in setting fellowships up, is one of the greatest things the University of Missouri has ever done," Ridgel said.

On Saturday, Ridgel will be the honorary coach of Missouri's opening football game against Southeastern Louisiana. He joked that as long as he won’t have to call any plays, he has no problem being the coach.

When it comes to African-American students today, Ridgel said he thinks they have opportunities far beyond what he had. But the main advice he can provide is that it is their responsibility to be prepared.

After graduating from MU, he went on to the job market and to pursue more education. He studied at the University of Wisconsin and studied for a year in India.

He later returned to work in higher education administration at Kentucky State University, from which he retired. 

"I promise you that I will be back again, before I decide to depart this earth," Ridgel said.

Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.

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