Q&A: Charles Terrell '70

 

Trustee Charles Terrell '70 on culture shock, Pepper Hall, and an act of defiance that presaged a career devoted to changing the face of higher education

By Gerry Boyle '78
 

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Charles Terrell '70, center, is shown with a group of student protesters on the steps of Lorimer Chapel in March 1970. The group occupied the chapel for a week to draw attention to College policies that were unfair to minority and underprivileged students.
It was 1966 when Charles Terrell '70, the adopted son of a Washington, D.C., dishwasher, arrived on Mayflower Hill. Terrell majored in history, was active in student government, and went on to a distinguished career in higher education. Now vice president of the American Association of Medical Colleges, Division of Diversity Policy and Programs, Terrell still is remembered at Colby for the week in March 1970 when he and 17 classmates occupied Lorimer Chapel for a week to protest College policies relating to minority and scholarship students. In an interview with Colby magazine Managing Editor Gerry Boyle '78 at Terrell's home in the Brookline section of Boston, Terrell spoke about his experiences before, during, and after Colby. The following is an excerpt.


It was massive culture shock when I arrived at Colby. [Growing up in Washington, D.C.] I only saw white people on television or once in a blue moon when we went downtown to go shopping. Otherwise everything was black. Black undertakers, black lawyers, black doctors. Everybody black. So when I got to Colby, of course the landscape was completely foreign.

It would be politically incorrect to do this now, but Colby put all of the black men" ... there were twenty of us, only two of us graduated"but all of the black guys started out in Pepper Hall. And they tended to stay in Pepper Hall. I'm pretty sure that was a conscious decision to put us all together. ... It was easier, though some of the conversations you would have, when you're in the bathroom and you're trying to comb your hair and they're looking at you ... and I'd do the same thing. ...

So I say this because it was a difficult cultural transition, but there was just enough of a critical mass of black kids that I didn't feel completely alienated. And the guys in Pepper Hall were incredible.

We had a fraternity there. We had a wonderful time. It was very easy to find a niche. ...

But you are most known for leading the chapel takeover, which I understand has bothered you at times.

Yes. Because, interestingly, I was vice president of the freshman class. I was president of the sophomore class. I was president of the junior class. People tend to forget that I was a citizen of the institution. And I ran for president of student government. [I] lost but I was always actively involved. I was always interested in issues. I wasn't focused on the issues we raised with the [Lorimer] Chapel [takeover] until senior year.

Quite frankly, what happened was Alpha Delta Phi, that group of guys in Pepper, we had to disband the fraternity in 1969. My roommate and I"we were going to have this wonderful suite in Pepper Hall"both of us got apartments downtown. I lived on Front Street. I lived above Senator Mitchell's parents. They were so wonderful to me. Very sweet. All I did was go up to campus to class, study, work. I still had two jobs.

Sebsibe Mamo ['70] and I were good friends. He said, "There are a lot of things happening. We have quite a cohort of black and Latin students." He said, "They've started quite an organization." I said, "I've made my contribution." He said, "Come to one meeting for me."

The meeting that we went to was the meeting they were holding for elections for SOBU (Student Organization for Black Unity). We were just talking about things as a group and I was nominated and Terry"I forget Terry's last name"was nominated. I said, "If elected I will not serve. I have other things to do." We had about three or four ballots and Terry and I tied. The next ballot I won by one. For some reason I couldn't keep my promise. That's when, as a group, we started coming together [about] what we thought we needed. Now there was a critical mass of us.

Our primary issue"and this tends to get forgotten"we felt there was disparate treatment of students on scholarship and those who were not. If you were on scholarship, you had to maintain an increasingly high GPA to keep your scholarship. I saw a number of black students leave. If they needed a 2.4, they got a 2.3. I always made it but just. It was a very stressful thing we lived with. Every semester I wondered if I was going to be allowed to stay, just because I might fall below.

That central demand for us was why not treat us all the same? If we're here on a scholarship, if we're negotiating an environment that may be more challenging for us than for others, if we're required to work ten hours a week and some of us have other jobs and our friends don't have to work at all"we're not saying we should not have to maintain satisfactory academic progress, but why should we have to maintain a higher level than these other kids who have no responsibilities? That was key for us. We saw many of us who didn't make it.

In Earl Smith's book [Mayflower Hill] he writes that the trustees took up the issue and didn't want to water down standards for the minority students. How can that be? We weren't wanting to water down standards. We just didn't want to have to pack our bags if we fell below a certain standard, and other students could stay with a 2.0 or 2.1. It was a challenge to the College and a challenge to [President] Strider. That's what happened. I got involved in it unexpectedly with a critical mass of black and Latin students who wanted to make changes.

We picked the chapel because we felt if we tried to do Eustis we'd really be disrupting the central functioning of the College. We said, "Let's pick the chapel. It symbolizes the College. It will upset them but it won't stop anything."

So I have some great memories of blasting the Temptations and Motown across the College, of students trying to help us. We had meeting after meeting. We were very disciplined. We had newspapers and radio and television people calling. No matter where I was, no one spoke until they found me.

We were struggling. There were campus meetings and a support group outside. We were always thinking, what are we going to do? We knew we could only be in there for so long. When we were served with the injunction to vacate, we were told if we left voluntarily we could go back to class and finish out the semester without repercussion. But if they had to force us out, that would not be the case. We were really torn. I would say about half the people felt that we would fail if we left on our own accord.

It may have been self-serving, in retrospect, but they did tend to listen to me and I just suggested that"many of them were freshmen"I just said to them, "What are we gonna do if they evict us?" I said, "I don't have anywhere to go. Do you guys have anywhere to go? We made our point. If they evict us, we're not going to get any more than we're going to get if we leave on our own. Let's just go. We can keep our careers. We've done something courageous." We had a quite a battle but finally they agreed to do that. After all these years, I'm glad it happened that way instead of the other.

So I'm pleased with the points that we tried to make. That [requirement for financial-aid students] was changed. I view that as our legacy and our gift to students. The focus of my career in higher education is to provide access for the under-served, low-income, and underrepresented students. I think that's what we were trying to do and I think we did that.

My whole life has been in higher education, though now in a strange branch of it, in medical education, which wasn't my plan. But again, my job is to change the face of medicine and make it like the face of America. [These are] the same issues that we're dealing with on undergraduate campuses like Colby and other places.

I think we go through cycles. For underrepresented minority students, I think we've suffered through maybe two or three generations of children raising children, and I think the great similarity between underrepresented students and low- income and poor students is that poverty may be much more of the issue than race or ethnicity.

When you look at what needs to be done, it's extraordinary. It's incredible being back in Washington, D.C. I have my Colby and my master's and my doctoral degrees in my den, framed here [at his Brookline home]. In my office in Washington, D.C., I have my junior high school diploma and my high school diploma because all kinds of people come into my office. I don't give a damn about what they think about where I went to college but I want them to know I'm a product of the Washington, D.C., school system. Quite often they will look and they'll say, "You went to McKinley?" That's important to me because now people don't typically say that with any kind of pride at all.
 
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