Olivet College, founded as an abolitionist institution, was one of the first to face widespread campus hate — and to react.
When the 55 blacks attending Olivet College in Michigan got together one last time in early 1992, it wasn't for some pre-graduation celebration. Fifty-one of them decided to quit the school without diplomas after racial violence and harassment erupted on campus — with little administrative response.
Their departure shocked officials of the campus that was founded as an abolitionist school, the first U.S. college to admit both blacks and women. And it provoked a sea change in the attitudes of many.
"This was ground zero in terms of campus hate," says race relations expert Raymond Winbush.
The events of 1992 began with white male students voicing their anger at black men who were dating white women. The tension escalated sharply when a white female student reported being attacked by four black men and left in the woods — a tale that many campus officials today say was entirely fictitious.
After the woman's story spread, two garbage cans near the dorm rooms of several black Olivet students were set afire. The next night, 15 white Phi Alpha Pi fraternity members confronted two black students, setting off a racial brawl that eventually involved about 40 whites and 20 blacks — a battle that landed a student from each side in the hospital.
"The fraternity members," says current dean of students Don Toski, "had already been looking to beat up some black kids."
Klan fliers began to appear on campus. Residents of the poor, mostly white town of Olivet joined white students in a clamor of threats and taunts. "None of us feel we can trust white people any more," student Davonne Pierce said.
"[W]hen the fighting broke out I was every kind of nigger," Idris Fountain added.
That was then. Since 1992, things have changed.
After Don Morris, Olivet's president at the time, resigned under fire, administrators and students took up the challenge.
The school instituted a Diversity Committee, Office of Multicultural Education, Women's Center, Global Cultures Center and African-American Cultures Center. A two-course diversity requirement was added for all students. Today, the college's president and several other campus officials are black.
Black students, numbering in the single digits after the turmoil of 1992, now make up 26% of a student population of 1,000. And 30% of Olivet's faculty is either non-white or comes from a foreign country.
"We strayed from our history in the late '80s and early '90s," says Toski, who credits some of those who were victims in 1992 with helping to get the school back on track. "It was the persistence of a small group of black students — some who left and some who stayed — that helped transform Olivet College."