The world is still shaking from the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, as well as countless others who have lost their lives as victims of racial injustice. Over the last year, we’ve witnessed uprisings, marches and riots sweep across the country. Case Western Reserve University has responded by adopting new initiatives to try to address the current climate of intolerance. In this struggle for equality, the CWRU administration and students alike would do well to remember the history of our institution in the abolitionist movement and consider our current obligation to fight for Black lives and racial justice today.
CWRU has its roots in the early 1800s during the abolitionist movement. Charles B. Storrs—the first president of what then was Western Reserve University—while an ardent abolitionist, otherwise seemed to be an ordinary university president. That is, until you look at his last day in office.
On that ordinary winter day in 1833, President Storrs gave the speech of his life. What was supposed to be a typical lecture turned into a nearly three-hour sermon on abolition. Most of us find three-minute passion pitches difficult enough—an impromptu three-hour fiery sermon is beyond belief. This bout of eloquence and enthusiasm cost him his life. He consequently died of the prolonged exposure to the elements several months later.
Storrs’ sermon is demonstrative of the university’s seemingly progressive views at the time. WRU enrolled its first Black student, John S. Fayette, decades before most universities began accepting Black students. The courage of Fayette to pursue his education in an all-white institution and the acceptance of the university are both impressive in their time.
A few years later, Frederick Douglass, a well-known abolitionist and former slave, was invited to deliver the 1854 university commencement address. If Douglass were still alive today, he would likely repeat many of the same words for us. He’d likely start by congratulating us on our efforts. After all, we’ve evolved significantly since his own perilous journey to freedom. He would regale us with the pleasures of freedom—pleasures too many of us take for granted and too few of us are allowed to enjoy. He would remind us of our shared humanity: that element in each of us that surpasses color, religion, race and identity.
And finally, he would remind us of our duty to act with his battle cry of 1854. “This is the moral battlefield to which their country and their God now call them. In the eyes of both, the neutral scholar is an ignoble man.”
In these words, Douglass conveys that passivity is cowardice. There is no such thing as neutrality when it comes to inequality. As the old Hebrew adage, “Shtikah K’hodaah,” says, “silence is like consent.” If you are silent in the face of injustice, you are in reality agreeing with it. And this is the moral battlefield we are called on to act in.
Another great visionary to lead WRU was former President Charles F. Thwing. He continued on the path of Storrs, leading the institution in the direction of equality and tolerance. He was a founding member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). In his honor, the Thwing Hall and Thwing Student Center were named.
It’s important that we take time to reflect on our history as an institution. Moreover, it’s critical we consider Black history, not only during this month, but every month of the year. We should be commemorating the amazing Black people who have paved the way for our society and institution to exist today.
Let us celebrate the bravery of our predecessors here at CWRU: John Fayette, the first Black student to grace these walls, and President C. B. Storrs, who gave his life up to his passion for Black freedom. The force of their efforts should propel us forward in this age-old struggle for justice. And in doing so, it’s also important to take time to explore the Black history around us. Here in Cleveland, there are several culturally and historically-rich Black neighborhoods. This history, Black history, is necessary and important. We can’t move on if we don’t know where we’re coming from.