By Spenser Hickey
Assistant Copy Editor
As the new film “42” – a biopic about the life of Jackie Robinson and his role in the integration of professional baseball – is released this weekend, the OWU community has been invited to take part in a celebration of the role played by Robinson and Branch Rickey, the Brooklyn Dodgers manager and member of the OWU class of 1904.
There will be a discussion from 4 to 5:30 p.m. featuring Rickey’s grandson, Branch B. Rickey, and Cleveland Indians Vice-President for Public Affairs Bob DiBiasio, and OWU alum. The Cleveland Indians were the second team to field a black man in modern baseball, shortly after the Dodgers.
There will be four baseball games played against Denison – two doubleheaders at noon Saturday and Sunday. Also on Sunday, the Strand will show “42” at 2 p.m.; there will also be an art exhibit at the City Art Center.
Yet as we honor these brave men and the role OWU played in influencing Rickey’s decision to break the baseball color barrier, there is another color barrier that deserves remembering – and OWU’s collective role in it is one we are far less likely to be fond of.
The page “The History of Ohio Wesleyan Athletics” on the university website says Rickey was inspired to hire Robinson in 1903 after seeing the OWU team’s catcher – a black man named Charles Thomas – be denied lodging at a South Bend hotel, and insisted that Thomas stay in his room.
An April 15, 2012, article in “The New York Times” backs up this claim, although the article acknowledges Rickey may have embellished the tale for dramatic effect.
What our website does not mention is that when Thomas returned to Ohio Wesleyan, he would be denied equal lodging there as well.
It was not until 1949 that Betty-Lou Dotson ‘50 took part in integrating the dorms at Ohio Wesleyan, becoming the first black woman to live in them.
Before that, black students, including the first black graduate, Olive Day ‘03, had to live in off-campus boarding houses or in Selby Stadium.
I imagine most students here are far less aware of this racial barrier and its connection to OWU – it’s certainly not one we would want to publicize, especially since it continued after Rickey, on the virtue of his time at Ohio Wesleyan, integrated baseball.
It is also of note that it was not until 1968 – perhaps the most turbulent year in the history of American race relations – that a student group was formed to represent the interests of the black community at OWU.
In 1968 there were only 40 black students at OWU; Pete Smith, class of ’71, one of the founders of the Student Union on Black Awareness (SUBA), said half of the black students left OWU his freshman year, leaving the others to decide whether to follow them or stay and commit to making positive changes.
The newly formed SUBA had to struggle for recognition and their own private meeting space, the Willa B. Player Center in Stuyvesant Hall.
Now, though, members of SUBA and its umbrella organizations question whether the Center receives the respect it deserves and can still be considered a safe space for their community.
I do not write this in an attempt to dissuade you from attending the celebratory events or viewing “42.” I imagine I’d be one of the last people on campus to discourage increasing awareness of racism and its effects.
But at the same time, remember that our collective past is not as noble as we would like it to be.
Yes, Rickey’s role in breaking down the MLB’s color barrier is something to be honored and remembered, but the existence of a color barrier in Ohio Wesleyan housing should also be remembered and acknowledged.
As you observe the events, keep in the back of your mind the knowledge that racism and discrimination, as well as sexism and homophobia, are still strongly persistent in our community.
We cannot properly honor the heroes of our shared legacy without also admitting our own failings, past and present – or resolving to correct them in the future.