5/10/2017 Peter Durantine

Celebrating 70 years of the African-American Experience at F&M

The freshman class entering Franklin & Marshall College in September 1946 was, at that time, the largest in the then male-only College’s history, and most of them were veterans of World War II.

“We were a remarkable group,” class senior David Luxne wrote in the 1950 yearbook, the Oriflame. “[O]ur ages ranged from sixteen to twenty-four, but our presence was felt from the very first in all sports and extracurricular activities.”

What made the class of ’50 even more remarkable was that the first African-American to attend F&M was about to graduate. Sumner Bohee of Lancaster distinguished himself academically and athletically, as a biology major, basketball player and track sprinter. 

  • Sumner Bohee takes the 220 low hurdles against John Hopkins circa 1948. Sumner Bohee takes the 220 low hurdles against John Hopkins circa 1948. Image Credit: Franklin & Marshall Archives

In 1948, following in Bohee’s footsteps, the first African student began his studies at F&M, Fanasi Mgbako of Nigeria. He graduated in 1951with Sydney Bridgett, who became a Lancaster public school teacher and made significant contributions to the College before his death in 2016.

With the College’s doors open to them, African-Americans helped provide a path for students of all racial and ethnic backgrounds, said Donnell Butler ’95, the College’s senior associate dean for planning and analysis of student outcomes.

“The big thing that came out of the African-American experience at F&M is how much it has opened up for everybody else,” Butler said. “If the experience wasn’t good for the campus, we would be like a lot of other liberal arts colleges where there is no diversity.”

Butler cited statistics that portray F&M’s diverse student body: “More than 15 percent of our students are international and more than 20 percent of our students are domestic students of color. That’s kind of a big deal – one third of your class is not American white.”

Diversity on campus goes deeper than race, Butler said. African-American, Latino and Asian students come from different socioeconomic, cultural and geographic backgrounds.

“We began to see that these groups are not monolithic,” he said. “We developed as an institution.”

  • F&M students enjoying a spring day on Hartman Green. F&M students enjoying a spring day on Hartman Green. Image Credit: Deb Grove

On race, the College moved forward. Eighteen years after the first African-American enrolled at F&M, the College hired the first African-American faculty member, Professor of Russian History Samuel Allen; in 1971, the first African-American female graduated, Beverly Nelson Muldrow.

Throughout the 1970s, African-America firsts were made, many by Dr. Henry Wiggins Jr. ’55, P’91, who was to become president of the Alumni Association, an Alumni Medal winner and a College trustee.

The Black Student Union formed in 1975, and in 1989, Art Taylor ’80, a scholar-athlete who played baseball and basketball, helped organize with Sydney Bridgett the founding of the African-American Alumni Council, one of the first such affinity groups in the country.

“I benefited greatly from my education,” Taylor said. “My degree continues to pay dividends today.”

While at F&M, Taylor, who arrived from a south Philadelphia high school, said he worked harder than most for his academic accomplishments, but he knew “not every student would understand my background and not every faculty member would understand my needs.”

Nearly a decade after graduating, Taylor decided he wanted to do something that would make it easier for African-American students adjusting to campus life. He decided to start the African-American Alumni Council.

“A lot of people I talked to felt alumni connections were an important element to offset unsavory experiences during their years at F&M,” Taylor said. “Over the years, this group has been enormously impactful.”

Today, Tony Ross ’91, chair of the AAAC, is an example of how African-Americans are as much a part of Franklin & Marshall as any other group. Like other African-American students before and after him, Ross made a place for himself on campus.

“Black students are enjoying an environment that welcomes them and all of their talents,” Ross said. “It is important to know this history because African-Americans have made a significant impact in the classroom, the athletic field and the arts at F&M.” 

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