Sam Oni: The African Who Desegregated a University in the Southern United States

Sam Oni: The African Who Desegregated a University in the Southern United States
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By Arnelle Konde


Mercer University was founded on January 14, 1833 as Mercer Institute with 39 students.  The new institution was named in honor of Jesse Mercer, a prominent Baptist leader who provided the school’s founding endowment and served as the first Chairman of its Board of Trustees.  Five years later in 1837, Mercer was granted a university charter by the Georgia General Assembly.  Thus began Mercer’s mission as an American institution of higher learning.

Mercer, like most American universities of the early nineteenth century, kept its doors closed to non-white students because of the prevailing social norms of that time. Negroes, as African Americans were called in that era, were still languishing under slavery in a society in which racial segregation and discrimination were accepted as normal. Given this arrangement of social relationships, the denial of admission to blacks by Mercer University was in keeping with the times.          

The history of racial segregation at Mercer reveals that in the first 130 years (1833-1963) of the institution’s existence, black students were barred from attending the university.  This paper proposes to examine and analyze the circumstances that eventually led Mercer to open the doors of educational opportunity to non-white students.  The point of entry into this brief history of desegregation at Mercer University is the person of Sam Jerry Oni, a foreign student from the West African nation of Ghana. This essay discusses how Oni gained admission into Mercer, the reactions of some members of the campus and surrounding communities, the changing times and how they re-shaped racial attitudes, and how the forces of modernity combined  to influence the attitudes of both modernists and traditionalists involved in advancing and opposing the desegregation of Mercer University.

To start with, a brief definition of some key words used in this paper—desegregation, modernists, and traditionalists—will help to place the discussion that follows in proper context.  Desegregation is commonly understood as bringing to an end the practice or policy of racial segregation.  The end result of desegregation is integration. Modernists is used in this paper to denote the actions of advocates of change and desegregation—the forward looking, while traditionalists refers to those who opposed change and supported the status quo—the backward looking.  None of these words are meant to be derogatory.

Mercer was a traditionalist institution, exclusively white, until 1963 when Ghanaian student Sam Jerry Oni was admitted into the university. Once admission was granted Oni, Mercer University President Rufus Harris made public his opinion favoring the admission of qualified applicants regardless of their race.  On April 18, 1963, the Board of Trustees declared an unofficial policy supporting the admission of students into Mercer regardless of “race, color of skin, creed, or origin” (Maioriello 24). The admission of Oni led to the eventual desegregation and integration of non-white students at Mercer University.

The significance of Oni’s admission was not limited to the issue of racial desegregation at Mercer.  More important was the fact that Sam Oni’s experience helped Mercer University to confront the challenge of its longstanding racial tradition, its lackluster support for integration, and the opposition against desegregation from the community as well as its own students.

In the February 22, 1963 issue of the Mercer Cluster, an article entitled “Ghana Negro Seeking Admission: Trustee Board to Set Policy,” Bob Hurt wrote about the role played by Harris Mobley in Oni’s application for admission to Mercer.  Oni’s interest in Mercer began when 1955 Mercer graduate Mobley went to Ghana for Southern Baptist missionary work.  Oni believed that Mercer University could give him the kind of education he needed. Mobley agreed with him.

Sam Oni had earlier been converted to Christianity by another Southern Baptist missionary before he met Mobley. Hence, Oni’s appears to have established a good relationship with some Southern Baptist missionaries who went to evangelize in Ghana.  It is therefore not surprising that in the same 1963 issue of the Cluster, Mobley described Oni as “outgoing” and “an exceptional African student” (Hurt 4).  Although Oni was later admitted to Mercer University in the fall semester of 1963, his admission was not an easy process at all.  Itprovoked a lot of controversy, pro and con.

In the April 18, 1963 issue of the Cluster, entitled “Desegregation Issue Has a Long History at Mercer,” editor Larry Maioriello asserted that the topic of integration was present long before Oni.  Maioriello noted that Sam Oni was just a fragment in the conflicted puzzle of Mercer’s struggle for integration. Meanwhile, in late 1962 the Board of Trustees of Mercer received a counter-proposal to their policy of admitting students regardless of race. The  proposal opposed integration at not only Mercer, but also at all the other Baptist institutions in the state of Georgia (McAuley 2).                                                                                                               Readers of the Mercer Cluster did not hesitate to share their opinions on desegregating Mercer  University. Some of these opinions favored desegregation, while others were opposed to it. For example, in November 1962, student Ellen Dillard wrote a letter to the editor of the Cluster titled “Assent to Desegregation” in which she supported President Harris’ position on desegregation. Dillard believed that Mercer should grant admission to any qualified applicant, and that there were “no valid reasons” why qualified applicants should be rejected on the basis of the color of their skin (Dillard 3). Her perspective on desegregation, like that of President Harris, represented the modernists faction of white students that would speak up in support of integration in schools, especially at private institutions like Mercer.                                                                      On the other hand, there were traditionalists who strongly opposed desegregation. These were students who wanted to keep things the way they were. Accordingly, in the same November issue of the Cluster that Dillard’s letter was published, an anonymous student wrote a letter to the editor in support of the counter proposal that was submitted to the Board of Trustees.  In that letter, the writer observed that the counter proposal came from men with “common sense” and expressed gladness that Mercer still had “individuals in the position of influence and administration that still hold to their sense of dignity”.  The writer did not see the need for integrating Mercer.                                                                                                                                 Nevertheless, there were other students who expressed anger against not only the thought of integrating, but hatred towards the “negro”. A response to Ellen Dillard’s “Assent to Desegregation” letter in the Cluster came from fellow student Charles M. Grant. The first sentence of Grant’s letter (written as shown) read: “I HAVE NOTHING WHATSOEVER AGAINST THE NEGRO”.  The letter was basically a rant against black people and the white people who like to “mix with the negroes”.  But the contents of Grant’s letter were contradictory, which suggests that Grant, like many other students who opposed desegregation, were probably attempting to deal with conflicting emotions.  On the one hand Grant affirmed that God created everyone equally, but goes on to distinguish his own “white blood” from that of the negroes as “people with black blood,” on the other hand.  This distinction was coming from a person who opened his letter with a bold declaration that he had nothing against Negroes yet aspired to dislike his own “white blooded” people who supported desegregation.  Grant’s response to Dillard exemplified the harsh racial tensions that existed between blacks and whites in the early1960s.                                                                                                                               It appears that Grant thought of whites as superior and blacks as inferior.  Thus, any white person who associated with the inferior people of color Grant saw fit to cast them as haters of their own race, and called them “negro lovers.”  He also expressed his disgust for the Board of Trustees policy of integration when he wrote that putting “negro lovers” in office will result in our society being ruled by “darkies”.  Coming from someone who did not have anything against Negroes, his use of the word “darkies” sounds like derogation whose source could well have been hatred. Grant concluded his letter by comparing himself to King Charles, happily bathing in his “white blood,” and closed not only with the salutation “segregationally yours”, but his postscript message clearly summed up his sentiments:

“Let those who love the negro and want to live with him so much, go to one of the nice Negro colleges that we support. THAT IS WHERE PEOPLE WITH BLACK BLOOD BELONG ANYWAY!”        – Charles M. Grant

The three letters discussed in this essay offer the different perspectives that students at Mercer used to approach the controversial issue of desegregation during a very difficult period of change in American society.  For old habits die hard.  They are easier formed than eradicated just the same as change is difficult to accept by those accustomed to certain ways of living.  Whereas Ellen Dillard was for integration like President Harris, believing that every qualified student should be granted admission into Mercer regardless of their race, the anonymous writer and Grant represented the faction of students who were opposed to integration whose position affirmed the principle: “that’s just how it is”. The anonymous writer believed that Mercer should remain the way it was in keeping with long held traditions, and that integrating the institution would be against the school’s original Southern Baptist’s policy. Charles M. Grant likewise represented the white extremists who adamantly opposed integration and any type of coexistence with Negroes.                                                                                                                                                             In analyzing the articles and letters to the editor in the Mercer Cluster, it is important to remember that the period in which they were written: the early 1960s. This was a time of tension when the Civil Rights Movement was challenging the long-held tradition of racial segregation. During this time period some public schools were being closed down rather than submit to desegregation.  Affected students were apprehensive and angry because they could not attend school. Mercer students probably feared that they might end up in the same situation. Some Mercer students even participated in a poll which revealed that the majority would rather have an integrated institution than not attend school at all. The result of the poll, however, did not mean the students were pro-integration. It was more likely that they were protecting their own “self-interest” to obtain an education. This was perhaps what prompted them to choose integration rather than not receive an education at all.                                                                                                     Looking back objectively to the events of some 53 years or so ago, I can understand the positions of both camps in the Mercer University desegregation story.  Change is a constant in life, but not easy to accept by all.  The early-1960s was a very trying period for all and the Mercer Cluster provided a forum for the free expression of varying opinions on desegregation. Some of us are the beneficiaries of the work of both the modernists and traditionalists in the debates that are still influencing and shaping social change in our country. Sam Oni was a catalyst ushered into the history of Mercer University with the support of Mobley, President Harris, the Board of Trustees, and the foresight of students like Dillard.  It now falls on us, the Class of 2020, to tread the path trodden by those who came before us, and to leave our footprints in the archives at Mercer for future generations to study and write about.


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Arnelle Konde is a freshman at Mercer University, Georgia, USA


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