In January 2014, Dr. Mark Robison, professor of English at Union College in Lincoln, Nebraska, was making preparations for an original Union College drama “Fifty Years Later,” commemorating the fifty years since Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Robison had invited Oscar Harriott, his friend and deputy ombudsman at the Nebraska State Capitol, to tell stories about “the bad old days.” Harriott, a Lincoln resident, told the actors and writers stories about his time at Union College–both shocking and inspiring.
One week after sharing his accounts with the “Fifty Years Later” crew, Harriott told his story to an audience of about 200 listeners at the 2014 MLK weekend event at Union College, produced jointly by the “Fifty Years Later” crew and the UC Conflict and Peacemaking class taught by Union College Associate Professor of English and Communication Chris Blake. After Harriott’s on-campus address in which he described the racist attitudes and actions that he and his family endured at Union College from the 1940’s to the 1960s, Blake’s peacemaking class decided to create an official apology from Union College.
Josh Ayala, Susy Gomez, Sean Hendrix, and Stefani Leeper, all students in the peacemaking class, wrote the initial draft of the apology letter. Blake says that after many revisions with input from class members and a circulated petition of support, the letter of apology was sent in April to Union College President’s Council with the ultimate goal of approval by the college’s Board of Trustees.
John Wagner, the Union College president at the time the letter was first drafted and circulated, supported the initiative, but was hesitant to add his presidential weight to the initiative because he planned to retire in June. In May, Union College named Southern Adventist University vice president for strategic initiatives Dr. Vinita Sauder the successor to Wagner. Sauder gave the initiative her full support.
In response to a request for comment, Sauder wrote,
The letter of apology for racial discrimination was written by students in our Conflict and Peacemaking class and was working its way through our administrative approval process when I arrived on campus last summer. While I was not a part of the writing process, I support the goals of this letter and recommended that both the President’s Council and the Board of Trustees endorse its message.
On February 9 of this year, after Dr. Sauder and Mid-America Union President Tom Lemon added their support, Oscar Harriott, Josh Ayala, Kyle Berg, and Chris Blake present the proposal to the Union College Board of Trustees. The board overwhelmingly approved the document, Blake said.
Sauder noted that Union College today is a “vibrant, diverse community of students and faculty from all over the United States and nearly 30 countries.” But like many institutions, she pointed out, the Union College of fifty years ago and more “felt the cold shadow of racial discrimination,” and some alumni still hold memories of those injustices. The letter, for Sauder, is the beginning of healing.
This letter is a step closer to closing old wounds and a reminder that we serve a God who does not see color or nationality, but the equal and precious value of every one of His children. And what a great way for our students to learn to be effective Christian citizens—through studying our past and seeking ways to build a better future.
The text of Union College’s formal letter of apology, first posted on the Union College website, appears below in its entirety.
Dear Union College Alumni:
We are honored to join with students in the Conflict and Peacemaking class who are leading a college initiative to apologize to alumni who suffered racial discrimination at Union College in the past. As our college reflects upon the apex of the U.S. civil rights movement on Martin Luther King, Jr. Days and other notable events, there have been times when disturbing stories have emerged. Union College acknowledges the harm that racial segregation practices and other exclusivist and demeaning behaviors inflicted on many of its students in the past. At these times, our school did not model Christianity and instead deeply wounded many of you. To those who suffered from all such unfair acts, the college offers its sincerest regrets and apologies.
At the entrance of the administration building hangs a model of Union’s clock tower with golden cords extending to places around the world. The golden cords stand for service, love, and unity. It is our deepest desire that the cords cut between us be reconnected. We ask humbly that you forgive the institution of Union College for the wrongs committed against you. Peacemaking is not only achieved individually but also by actively working together through dialogue, justice, forgiveness, and reconciliation.
Today, Union College is an institution of diversity and unity. Our students come from all over the world; they speak different languages and carry unique cultural backgrounds. Though we as a campus community are not perfect, each student is respected regardless of gender, race, or culture. We aspire to follow Romans 12:18: “If possible, so far as it depends upon you, live peaceably with all.”
While much has gone into making Union College a better place, it does not change what happened in the past. We ask for the opportunity to build a new relationship. History often repeats itself and the world tends to forget its past, but we will not allow these echoes of discrimination and humiliation to go unheard. Your pain was real; your voice is valued. May the golden cords of harmony and friendship connect us closer to one another. As Christians, we seek to share our love with you, bringing peace as one body of Christ.
Thank you for the time you spent at Union College, for blessing us with your presence, and for enriching us and helping us to change. Thank you for striving to make our school a place of freedom and unity.
Josh Ayala, Susy Gomez, Stefani Leeper and Sean Hendrix
Students who drafted the original letter in Conflict and Peacemaking Class.
Vinita Sauder, President, Union College
Tom Lemon, Chair, Union College Board of Trustees