Mary Sue Coleman
President of the
University of Michigan, professor of biological chemistry, professor
|President Mary Sue Coleman
In 1954, eight-year-old Mary Sue Coleman was living in a large
old country house near Statesboro, Georgia, about 60 miles from
Savannah. Her father taught at Georgia State Teachers College in
Statesboro, now called Georgia Southern University. Her mother
taught high school in a nearby rural school.
"I wouldn't be surprised if our area was 50-50, Black and white,"
recalls Coleman, who became president of the University of Michigan
in August 2002. [According to recent census figures, Statesboro
is 55 percent white and 40 percent Black.] "We had Black neighbors
because we lived in the country. We would play together sometimes,
but the schools were totally segregated. I'm not even sure I ever
knew where the Black children's school was.
"It was highly segregated, like all of the Deep South," Coleman
says. "What really distresses me most about that period is that I
didn't think it [segregation] was odd. That just goes to show how
culture and belief systems get enforced. It was just the way things
were. But how could I not have questioned that and asked why?"
Talk that public schools might
When the Brown decision was
announced, "Our parents didn't want to alarm us, but there was this
notion that all the schools were going to close. I'm sure that was
just the fringe talking, but it was serious enough. I was aware of
the talk going on.
"I have two sisters. Our parents had
great aspirations for us to do something important with our lives.
They told us you can do whatever you want to do with your life and
you should never limit what you do. They taught us that it was
important to have a good education or, without one, it would limit
what you could do."
The dream of crossing boundaries to
fulfill her destiny captured Coleman's heart even back then. "I
vividly remember hearing an announcer on the radio one day, talking
about why there were no women radio announcers. He said it was
because women's voices are not pleasant to the ear. I thought,
'That's so unfair!'"
Coleman's parents sensed that their daughters' dreams might be
limited by the Brown backlash in the South. Rather than
integrate, several Southern states did ultimately withdraw support
from their public schools, leading to the shut down of entire school
systems in states like Virginia, and a network of all-white private
academies in several others. The family made plans to leave. "My
parents were alarmed. They felt that Georgia wasn't a place they
could stay and raise children the way they wanted to."
"My dad had served in the Pacific in World War II, in the Navy,
and got his PhD with the help of the GI Bill," Coleman continues.
"He had grown up in Kentucky and my mother in Georgia, but they had
lived in Boston and Chicago while he was training for the war."
After the Brown decision, Coleman's parents "worked hard
to juggle all they had learned in their lives, traveling around the
country and the world. They considered many options; they even
thought about going to California. They didn't have many resources
then, and it was a very big deal putting all that together to move
us across the country."
Iowa prized democratic
Her father got an offer to join the
faculty of Iowa State Teachers' College [now the University of
Northern Iowa] in Cedar Falls. "At the time, Iowa's public education
system was considered one of the best in the country," Coleman says.
"Iowa never had segregated schools or a tradition of elite private
schools. And there was a conversation at the time in Iowa about
trying to make sure students had opportunities to interact [across
racial and ethnic lines]. It wasn't perfect. No, it certainly wasn't
perfect. But the attempt was made, and they were sincere.
"My school was like an old 'lab school,'
on Northern Iowa's campus," she recalls. School officials made
various attempts to enrich and broaden their students' experiences,
including inviting university students from other cultures to visit.
Coleman remembers that a graduate student from Ethiopia visited her
school to discuss what life in his homeland was like and why he had
come to Iowa to study. Her school's leaders seemed to sense that "as
a society we were changing, and we have to do something to get ahead
of the change."
After high school, Coleman entered Grinnell College, a private
Iowa liberal arts institution. "Grinnell was founded in 1846 by the
Congregational Church," Coleman says, " but it's not a church
school. It's an activist campus with an ethic of social
responsibility. They tried recruiting a diverse student body, and
they had an exchange program that increased the critical mass."
The exchange program was with the traditionally Black school,
LeMoyne College, now known as LeMoyne-Owens College, established in
1862 in Memphis. "That was a very eye-opening experience for me,"
Coleman says. "I got to know some young women with very different
life experiences from my own. We had long talks about their
experiences in the transition time around 1954. It really opened my
eyes to learn what it was like. For instance, to go to a movie
theater and not know if you could sit where you wanted. It really
struck me that the simple act of going to a movie could be affected
by segregation. I remember wondering why anyone would care enough to
discriminate against people about something so trivial.
"I went back to the South for graduate school," said Coleman, who
earned her PhD in biochemistry at the University of North Carolina
at Chapel Hill, where she served 25 years later as chancellor for
graduate studies and research and as associate provost and dean of
research. "The difference between 1965 and 1990 was astonishing. It
struck me when I returned to Chapel Hill that we're not aware of
what we're not aware of, until we see the difference. The quality of
academic discourse was vastly improved with the growth of racial
diversity among the students and faculty. I am glad I had the
opportunity to see the change."
Tillinghast | Adye
Bel Evans |