It was 50 years ago in the fall of 1968 that the University of Richmond opened its doors to African American students for the first time. Barry Greene, ’72, Isabelle (Thomas) LeSane, ’72, and Madieth Malone, ’72, were among the few black students who enrolled that fall.
At an event on Friday, Nov. 2, titled “A Story Unfolding: Commemorating 50 Years of African American Student Experiences,” Greene, LeSane and Malone were honored for being pioneers. Professors, students and alumni filled seats in the Queally Center’s Breed Pavilion, where the event took place.
After some welcoming remarks by President Ronald Crutcher, Leland Melvin, ’86, gave a reflection about his time at UR. A former NFL wide receiver and NASA astronaut, Melvin now serves as a university trustee.
He thanked Greene, LeSane and Malone for helping to advance future generations of students. There were 52 black students when he attended the university, and now there are 206, he said. He also described the importance of those in his life who believed in him and helped him on his "path to excellence."
LeSane and Malone were honored by Dean of Westhampton College Mia Reinoso Genoni.
As the pamphlet given out at the event stated, LeSane studied Russian at UR and went on to teach Russian, German and English as a Second Language in Richmond Public Schools. Malone studied speech and dramatic arts during her time at UR, and has since undertaken a career in education with Richmond Public Schools.
In an interview with Malone, she noted that being a part of the theatre program was one of her favorite things about UR.
“In the arts and music, they look at your talent and what you are bringing to the overall production,” Malone said. “There is a lot of teamwork and no one has time to worry about superficial things like what you look like.”
Malone said she felt humbled to be honored at the event on Friday.
“Coming to the University of Richmond was not something I planned to do for the sake of making a statement or going down in history,” she said. “It was just a logical choice I made to get a good education. It shows how ordinary decisions that people make can become historical events down the road.”
Dean of Richmond College Joe Boehman honored Greene. Greene -- who as a student during an interview with Crutcher in September -- was the first African American residential student at UR. He studied biology and now is a vice president for Bank of America in the Richmond area.
Much like Malone, Greene said he had never viewed himself as a pioneer of sorts.
“My whole purpose for attending the university was to get an education,” he said. “I didn’t even realize I was the first black student to live on campus until it was brought to my attention.”
He noted how happy he was that UR was doing something to recognize African-American students. For future black students, he said he hoped this would inspire them to come to the university. For those already here, he said he hoped it would inspire them to overcome any obstacles they may face.
Sophomore Mysia Perry, who conducted an oral history interview this summer with Greene as part of an initiative to hear the stories of UR's black alumni, helped present the gifts to Malone and LeSane.
“It was a really amazing experience seeing this all the way through,” Perry said after the event, "and it’s important to make the community here more aware of their stories.”
Another member of the community who was recognized during the event was Tinina Cade. As the current associate vice president of student development, Cade was recognized for her decades of distinguished work and service to the University of Richmond Black Alumni Network (URBAN).
Senior Alicia Jiggetts also gave a reflection at the event. She thanked Malone, LeSane and Greene for being what she deemed “trailblazers” and for “taking the opportunity to claim their educations.”
Just as Melvin noted the importance of mentors in his life, Jiggetts -- a criminal justice and political science double major, vice president of the WILL* program and a Bonner Scholar -- thanked the people who had helped her throughout her time at UR.
During her reflection, Jiggetts commented that the university still has a ways to go when it comes to diversity and inclusivity. There are spaces on campus where she doesn’t feel comfortable because of her race and gender, she said. And there have been classes in which she has been the only black student and heard “problematic comments” from her peers and professors, she added.
Noting that honest dialogue was one way to keep the university moving forward, Jiggetts said part of the reason that her experience at UR had been valuable was that both she and the institution were growing.
“I am not perfect, and neither is the university,” she said.
Jiggetts added that although she and the university were not yet their best versions, they were better versions than before.
In the spirit of continuous progress toward further diversity and inclusion, Crutcher announced the creation of the Presidential Commission on University History and Identity in his closing remarks.
“The goal of the commission is to help identify major moments that will help bring the university closer to understanding its past and present,” Lauranett Lee said after the event. Lee is co-chair of the commission and a visiting lecturer at the Jepson School of Leadership Studies.
Nicole Maurantonio, chair of the department of rhetoric and communication studies, is also on the committee. Maurantonio said she was excited for the collaboration between them and those involved in the university’s Race & Racism Project.
“This is picking up on the momentum that the Race & Racism Project has built,” Maurantonio said.
In Crutcher’s closing comments, he thanked all those involved in putting the event together, including the 50th Commemoration Event Committee.
Contact contributor Alice Millerchip at firstname.lastname@example.org.