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February 26, 2014

MARK BENNETT: Writer documents stories behind African-Americans at ISU

TERRE HAUTE — Crystal Reynolds’ passion for history has its own history. It dates back to her childhood.

“I was this little black girl, living in the inner city in New Orleans, who loved history,” she said Tuesday morning. “I’ve always loved history — the storytelling of it. I loved the stories.”

Evidence of her keen interest rested on the table next to her cup of tea, in the form of two books.

Reynolds wrote “Leadership Response to the Black Student Protest Movement at Indiana State University” in 1998. Her research into that movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s — which included a takeover of the ISU administration building, a sit-in, a riot, student demands for greater African-American academic and cultural awareness on campus and the administration’s responses — further sparked Reynolds’ historical curiosity. “Why did they get to that point? There had to be something,” she recalled wondering. “So I kept tracing it back.”

That resulted in Reynolds’ book “A History of the African American Student Experience at Indiana State University, 1870-1972,” published in 2012. That fall, ISU celebrated the 40th anniversary of its African American Studies Program and African American Cultural Center — the fulfillment of two demands by the protesting students all those years ago. Reynolds’ findings, as she tracked African-Americans’ experiences on campus as far back as the college’s origins, surprised many folks involved in that anniversary observance.

“This was a progressive university in a town that wasn’t, in a state that wasn’t, in a country that wasn’t,” Reynolds said.

To be sure, African-Americans at ISU encountered injustices prevalent in the decades from the late 19th century to the mid-20th century. Reynolds’ book details those discriminatory practices, such as segregated housing and dining. “I don’t pull any punches,” she said. Reynolds also found, though, that the college — from its beginnings — maintained an ahead-of-its-time commitment to educating African-Americans.

“That was the story that people didn’t know, and don’t know,” she said, “and I wanted to tell the story.”

The first black student at the college arrived in 1870 at what was then known as Indiana State Normal School. That student, apparently Zachariah M. Anderson of Lost Creek in Vigo County, enrolled that summer at Indiana State, 14 years before Indiana University admitted its first African-American, Reynolds’ book explains. Some universities in the South didn’t integrate for another century. Indiana State’s mission fostered its relative pioneerism.

In 1869, the Indiana General Assembly mandated the state’s school system, largely segregated then, to provide separate schools for black children. As Reynolds writes in the book, “It was appropriate, therefore, for Indiana State Normal School to prepare African Americans to teach in the classrooms of African American schools.” Thus, future teachers — both black and white — studied together in the classrooms at Indiana State. While racial injustice and inequality did not disappear at Indiana State, Reynolds found that African-Americans generally received fair treatment academically and experienced an inclusiveness not common on American campuses.

The school’s 1915 yearbook included a feature on Casey Blake, a standout on its track team and one of Indiana State’s first African-American athletes. That same year, as Reynolds’ book points out, a notorious silent movie, “Birth of a Nation,” dehumanized African-American men and celebrated a racist organization, the Ku Klux Klan. “Blake, therefore, must have been a tremendous athlete,” Reynolds wrote. “Track and Field appeared to be a sport opened to all, regardless of race. It would seem the school took pride in achievements of its athletes, regardless of race.”

Among other breakthroughs through the years, a group of male students formed a multi-race fraternity chapter in 1957, “a rarity on American college campuses in those days,” according to Reynolds’ book. A decade earlier, the young coach of the Indiana State basketball team, future legend John Wooden, pulled his team from a national small-college tournament because of the organizers’ refusal to include Sycamore reserve Clarence Walker, an African-American. That stance prompted the National Association of Intercollegiate Basketball Tournament to change its all-white status, and Walker played in that event the following year under Wooden. The higher-profile NCAA and NIT tournaments broke their color barriers two years later.

“I think John Wooden was the right person at the right time, but was also in the right place,” Reynolds said.

Reynolds interviewed nearly 200 people, from successful alums to professors and Terre Haute community members, black and white, since her research on the books began in 1995. “I never stopped researching,” she said. That work has expanded to the experiences of Asian and Latino students at ISU. Almost daily, she carries a tape recorder, just in case she crosses paths with a potential source of information. Though Reynolds combed through written archives, she prefers tape-recorded personal interviews. “I like the spoken word,” Reynolds said. “When I listen to it later, I hear more.”

She earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in history at ISU, as well as a doctorate in education. Now 50 and the mother of a high school-age daughter and a son studying law at Boston College, Reynolds teaches basic studies courses at Ivy Tech Community College. She continues to research the history of students at her alma mater, where she came to study after moving from New Orleans. She’s anxious to share the story. The introductory paragraph of a summary of her book describes it clearly.

“The story of African American students at Indiana State University throughout the decades to acquire an education is one of perseverance,” Reynolds wrote. “It is a story of the black students’ tenacity and faith in themselves, each other, and the university. Indiana State University should share in this remarkable story for its courage and dedication in ensuring that all students received an education, regardless of race.”

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or

Finding the book

Copies of Crystal Reynolds’ book, “A History of the African American Student Experience at Indiana State University, 1870-1972,” can be requested via email to the author’s address: Cost is $25 per copy, and the proceeds go toward the Incorporated Gathering organization’s ISU student scholarships program.

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