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Wednesday, Jul 30, 2014

A Few Clouds, 54 °F

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Connie Lawson-Davis, Ohio University class of 1967.

Connie Lawson-Davis, Ohio University class of 1967.

Photographer: Dustin Franz

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Heart & Soul: Across generations, black alumni create community, celebrate ties to Ohio University


The Black Alumni Reunion is the largest formal alumni reunion at Ohio University, and for good reason: African-American students and faculty have forged strong bonds unique to their experiences, said Francine Childs, professor emerita of African American studies. “When I came here, there weren’t that many African-American faculty and staff and no administrators,” said Childs, who was a popular professor and student ally in the 1970s and ’80s.

Her home, known to students as the House of Refuge, was open to those students who ran out of financial aid and other means of staying in school. “In the African American studies department there was some kind of real bond that existed between the students and the faculty,” she said, “so we had potluck dinners, we had readings, we had all kinds of things that bridge and bring together.”

Students who were African, African American and biracial formed lifelong bonds, she recalls. The reunion — held every three years — is one way they stay close. “Everybody knew everybody. It was like one big family.”

When John Newton Templeton graduated from the university in 1828, he was only the fourth African American to graduate from a U.S. college. (The first three attended New England schools.) The generations of African Americans who followed have, like Templeton, navigated a largely white campus. But they also have found a place like home among other students and faculty of color. That’s what the reunion celebrates. “It’s the friendships that you make. It’s having that common experience,” said Connie Lawson-Davis, a 1967 graduate. “And now that I’m older, it’s an experience that just transcends age, race and areas of interest because all of us just have that love for Athens and for OU.”

When Lawson-Davis set foot on campus in 1963, she was armed with a scholarship and a burden of responsibility. “I never wanted to disappoint my parents. When I got a poor grade, I felt I was letting them down,” she recalled.

Her family had a comfortable life in Cleveland, and expectations were high that she would do well in college. Lawson-Davis’ brother, J. Ranaldo Lawson, two years her senior, had attended Ohio University and graduated in 1965.

She threw herself into her studies, adding activities such as the drilling unit auxiliary of the ROTC after her freshman year. Like other African-American graduates of Ohio University, Lawson-Davis says the black community was like a family. She guesses that there were fewer than 200 black students in a student body of 15,000.

“The African-American students were very close when I was on campus. Most of us knew each other personally, and even if there was somebody you didn’t know [...] you always spoke,” she said. “It was just a natural camaraderie.”

While Lawson-Davis’ time at Ohio University predates the civil unrest that marked the decade’s later years, in the black community she found a safe harbor in a sea that sometimes seemed uncertain.

“I can’t really recall overt acts of hostility, but it was more of being an invisible person,” she said. “It was a very uneven experience in terms of interactions with majority students. Some of them were very warm and very welcoming in the dorm, but when we got outside of the door the people you ate and slept with didn’t recognize you outside of that setting.”

Lawson-Davis also remembers feeling different from the other students during class.

“The biggest issue for me sometimes was feeling isolated in classes because it was not unusual to be the only black person in class,” she recalled. “I can’t remember a class where there were more than three black students.”

Greek organizations gave African-American students a sense of joint purpose; Lawson-Davis joined Delta Sigma Theta and remains an active member. She also has been involved in the Ohio University Women’s Club since 2001, working on a committee that brings prospective students to campus from Cleveland.

She is vice president of the Ebony Bobcat Network, a society of the Alumni Association that honors the contributions of African-American students and helps ease the financial burdens of promising students. Lawson-Davis was elected to the university’s Alumni Association Board of Directors and will begin her term during Homecoming.

“There is something about Athens. I have dubbed it the Athens mystique,” Lawson-Davis said. “Once you go to OU, and you’ve been on that campus, and you’ve seen it through the seasons, there’s just something about it that becomes a part of who you are. It keeps drawing you back.”

To read the rest of the article, which includes the stories of Robert Morris University Assistant Dean Rex Crawley, a three-time alumnus who was at the epicenter of African-American social life at Ohio University in the 1980s, and graduating senior Courtney Fort, one of the University’s first nursing graduates, turn to your copy of the Spring 2013 issue of Ohio Today magazine. You can access the article “Heart and Soul” online as well by visiting http://issuu.com/ohiotoday/docs/spring13issuu/17.