Founding members of Black Alumni Organization reflect on time at MU

Thursday, September 19, 2013 | 9:18 p.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — Mable Jones Grimes was one of about 100 freshman African-American students at the university in 1961.

"They claimed that our class was one of the largest," Grimes said. "Of the 5,000 students, there may have been 100 or so blacks."

Grimes is one of several African-American alumni, including Gus T. Ridgel and Barbra A.B. Horrell, attending the Black Alumni Celebration at Reynolds Alumni Center this weekend. The event will celebrate firsts at MU. For Grimes, this meant being on the first executive board of the Black Alumni Organization.

"This was during Dr. Barbara Uehling's time as chancellor," Grimes said of the organization. "She was into recruitment and wanted to get a larger representation of African-Americans on campus and increase alumni participation."

Established in 1979, the organization hosted engagement opportunities for African-American alumni. For Grimes, homecoming events stand out among the rest.

"There was always something that evening like a dance or a reception," Grimes said. "We did that for several years."

During the day, the Black Alumni Organization welcomed alumni back to campus and hosted several speakers in the old and new black culture center on campus, now known as the Gaines/Oldham Black Culture Center.

Now it is Grimes' turn to be welcomed back onto campus and reflect on her time as a student.

Grimes lived in Johnston Hall and shared a room with two others during her freshman year, Sandra Whayne Gautt and Brenetta Perry.

"At first I wouldn't talk to them — mainly because I was checking them out," Grimes recalled. "Then one night we were gathered on the patio and I started talking, and they couldn't get me to shut up."

Life in the residence halls left Grimes with stories to share.

"I was selected to represent Johnston Hall in the 'best dressed' contest," Grimes said. "My mother made all of my clothes."

She was one of 10 female students on campus to be recognized in the contest.

"I learned that I wasn't made for pageants because all of the standing and smiling got on my nerves," Grimes said. She had a girl in her dorm, who was known for having taken 10 years of ballet, teach her how to walk and to pose.

'No, this is Dr. Grimes'

At MU, Grimes earned a 1965 bachelor's degree, a 1968 master's degree and a 1976 doctorate, all in child and family development. Before coming to Columbia, Grimes attended Malden High School in Malden and was one of two African-Americans in her graduating class.

"It was me and my cousin," Grimes said. "I wasn't new to that type of experience when I came to MU."

It wasn't until Grimes became a university employee that she began having a hard time.

"I'm not going to tell negative stories — I try to forget those," Grimes said. "I enjoyed my stint here, whether it be as a student or as an employee."

Grimes worked as a 4-H Youth Development Specialist with University of Missouri Extension for 25 years. Her primary assignment was working with low-income youths and adults.

"There were seven or eight people on the 4-H staff at that time," Grimes said. "We would go out to offices across the state and work."

Grimes recalled that during the 1970s and 1980s, there were not many African-Americans in certain areas of the state, such as the southwest region.

"When we would go into the offices, they always wanted to know if I was somebody's secretary," Grimes said. "The person I was with would say, 'No, this is Dr. Grimes,' and tell them what program I was with."

Everybody has to have a box where they can put you, Grimes said.

"I'm one of those people who didn't want a box, and that was part of the problem," Grimes said. "I didn't want to be boxed in."

Grimes still works for MU, as the coordinator of the parent resource center ParentLink in the College of Education.

'Strong-minded to stay'

Barbra A.B. Horrell, who attended MU from 1959 to 1963 and served as the Black Alumni Organization's first chairwoman, also dealt with others' attempts to dictate her boundaries.

After graduating from the then-all-black Douglass High School in Columbia, Horrell entered MU as one of a handful of black freshmen.

"We were a small group that stayed together," she said. "We couldn’t hang out in most of the places on campus. We weren’t welcome (in some campus hangouts), so we found our own places to be within Columbia’s black community."

Horrell, who earned a bachelor's degree in education, recalled instances of discrimination that she and her classmates faced, including widespread use of racial slurs and a hopeful tennis player being unable to find a partner who would play alongside a black student.

"You had to be very strong-minded to stay," Horrell said. "You knew that you would either conquer or you would leave, so you had to have a mission. Ours was to get an education."

Becoming involved in the Black Alumni Organization provided a chance to connect current and former black students, extend networking opportunities and build a sense of community, she said. 

"I think that in general, the Black Alumni Organization was a necessary component to get us recognized on campus. It got people talking and working with others," Horrell said. "It made folks take a different look at MU, think differently about sending their kids there, because they could see some progress in our integration."

Since graduation, Horrell has worked steadily in a variety of positions on campus. Beginning in secretarial work, she eventually spent 30 years as the head of recruitment and retention for the MU School of Medicine. Later, she split her time between veterinary and agriculture programs before retirement.

Horrell said that, although there is always more to be done, she has noticed many positive changes at MU since her graduation, both large — such as the existence of black fraternities and sororities — and small.

"I was on campus a few years ago, before I retired, and I noticed that for the first time the bookstore was carrying black hair care products," she said. "That was something we never had. We had to drive all the way across town to find a barber who knew what to do with black hair."

Ultimately, Horrell believes that increased diversity at MU will benefit all students as they enter the adult world.

"You can’t stay in Columbia your whole life, and when you hit the real world, it’s not going to be just one color or one culture anymore," she said. "It’s in the benefit of all students to have as many races and cultures welcomed on campus as possible."

'Honoring their service'  

Both Horrell and Grimes will be honored this weekend.

"On Saturday, we're looking forward to the opportunity to celebrate our black alumni," said Robert Ross, coordinator of affinity relations for Mizzou Alumni Association.

The association partnered with Greek Life and the National Pan-Hellenic Council to host the alumni celebration. Weekend highlights include a step show, campus tours and the reception celebrating MU's firsts.

"I'm personally looking forward to visiting those alumni, honoring their service and celebrating their contributions," Ross said.

Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.

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