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Blacks reveal struggle to diversify UC Davis

By May 17, 2009

Before coming to UC Davis, Bobby Woods attended Oakland’s Merritt College, where Huey P. Newton co-founded the Black Panthers.

Woods wanted to join. Newton told him no.

“We will need you later,” Newton said.

Woods didn’t understand what that meant, not until a friend told him, “It’s a lot easier to open a door from the inside that it is to beat that door in from outside.”

Black students have been prying open that door for subsequent generations for most of UCD’s 100 years, said members of an alumni panel on Saturday.

They told stories of names almost lost to history, being on campus during the tumultuous 1960s, being met with racism off-campus and again and again pressing officials to increase the number of black students admitted.

They spoke as part of the 40th annual Black Family Day at UC Davis, which also included educational outreach, a children’s fair and health fair, arts and crafts, and entertainment.

Once a Black Panther, now a government professor at Sacramento State, Stan Oden said Black Family Day started in 1969 as a barbecue on the quad attended by 40 or 50 people. It began an alternative to Picnic Day , of which black students didn’t feel a part.

Some of the same students went on to bring a black consciousness class to campus. Later, others campaigned for the creation of the Program in African and African-American Studies.

A member of the UCD Medical School’s first graduating class, Ranya Alexander, said he came to UCD after graduating from Union College in his native New York. He was in the library when he learned the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., had been killed.

“It was very jarring, one part of you, the Harlem kid whose parents were politically active, wanted to get out in the streets and do something to somebody or something,” Alexander said. “The other part said, don’t forget you’re here for a reason. I thought the sky was falling when that happened.”

King’s death led to a memorial on the quad that attracted 3,000 people, Oden said, and to the forming of the Black Student Union.

Alexander said many black UCD students felt isolated from the Civil Rights and anti-war movements, though some undergraduates like Oden took it upon themselves to travel to Oakland and elsewhere regularly to get more involved.

Other good students dropped out altogether, Alexander said, because they felt they were needed in the streets.

“These people were soldiers who sacrificed themselves on the battlefield, as far as I’m concerned.”

Alexander said another student, Jim Chandler, questioned the dean of the law school about why there weren’t more black students. When he was told the school couldn’t find qualified students, Chandler offered to recruit them — and did so.

Likewise, Alexander visited black students around the region to recruit medical students.

“We decided it was time for us to step into the fabric of the university,” he said. “‘Affirmative action’ to me always meant that we affirm that we are going to act in getting these people here.

“We proved to the law school and the medical school that those students were there and that we just had to go and get them. And that’s what we did.”

Alexander took part in a task force chaired by the late medical school Prof. Lindy Kumagai that sought to create opportunities for disadvantaged students. A white student denied admission to the school, Allen Bakke, won a 1978 Supreme Court case that resulted in the elimination of the quota system the task force helped devise.

Alexander, who went on to a career of more than three decades in pediatric and emergency medicine, said that he felt the court’s ruling was still a victory, because it upheld the school’s plan to take into account ethnic background and the circumstances surrounding students in admissions decisions.

Robert “Bobby” Woods, who graduated in 1976, said that there were 180 black students out of 18,000 at UCD when he arrived.

At one time, the equal opportunity program had just 125 spots for disadvantaged students, 25 of them for black students.

Woods and others demanded more.

This year, he said, UCD admitted 550 black students with an average grade point average of 4.04 — “these students are not EOP students; they could go anywhere.”

Woods, a real estate consultant and executive vice president for Finance InnerCity Housing Corp., is now president of UCD’s African and African-American Alumni Association. He said that the group — more than 3,600 black men and women have graduated from UCD — hoped to establish an endowment to fund for a full-fledged African-American studies department at UCD, rather than a program.

Among other achievements, Nadine Bent-Montalbo, a 1988 graduate, took her place as the first black female president of the systemwide University of California Student Association.

She said she stood on the shoulders of those “both in my family and in my UC Davis family.”

And she leaned on them, too. She recalled unsuccessful whispering campaigns aimed at playing black students leaders against one another and times she felt she was discounted because of her skin color: after she spoke at UC Riverside, a professor there complimented her only as “articulate.”

More alarmingly, Bent-Montalbo received death threats for helping organize an event on the rights of Palestinian students.

Still, she said, her experience at UCD was overwhelmingly positive because of that close-knit black community, which among other things stood together in the anti-apartheid movement.

“You never know the reach of the actions you take,” Bent-Montalbo, now a small business owner, told students in the audience, “so make sure every single action you take is excellent — not because someone is looking, but because you have to look at yourself afterwards.”

Diania Garris, now a coordinator with academic preparation programs at UCD, graduated in 1992. She said she felt comfortable on a “very supportive” campus — but encountered bigotry and hatred off of it.

“When I walked off campus, all people could see was an African-America,” she said. “And I’m a dark-skinned African-American, so I couldn’t hide it. I was still being called a n—–. And I’m not a n—–. I’m an intelligent black woman. I’m the wrong person to call that name, because I’m going to challenge you if you call me that.”

One night, a Davis police officer stopped her when she was out biking.

“They assumed I had stolen my bike. I said, ‘Why would you assume I stole my bike?’ It took 15 minutes before the officer arrested me.”

Said Garris, “Every time that I fought, it was worth it, whether I accomplished what I set out to accomplish or not.”

Clarence Caesar, a 1976 graduate who works as a project officer for the California Department of Parks and Recreation, outlined the early history of black UCD students.

Raymond Maddock of Pasadena may have been the first. He graduated from what was then the University of California School of Agriculture in 1919.

But few made the impression that Horace Hampton did when he arrived on campus in 1947 as a 40-year-old ex-Marine on the G.I. Bill.

He became the first black editor of The California Aggie student newspaper in 1948. Then he won a runoff election to become the first black student body president anywhere in the UC system.

Before dying in 1991, Hampton farmed and worked as a labor contractor. He headed a community organization, the Fresno West Development Corp., that worked to strengthen the economic base of the black community.

Cory Golden

Cory Golden

The Enterprise's higher-education and congressional reporter. http://about.me/cory_golden
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