Being and Belonging at State: Investigating Our History of Diversity and Inclusion

Being and Belonging at State: Investigating Our History of Diversity and Inclusion

In the wake of Black Lives Matter movement, started by Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi in 2013 (Herstory 2020) and the mounting calls to reform and rethink institutions of all kinds, colleges and universities throughout the United States have responded by calling attention to their diverse pasts. Around 2015, Michigan State University published a webpage titled “Our Inclusive Heritage Timeline” that makes the claim that the school was established “on the ideals of the democratization of education and knowledge—of making a quality education accessible to all” (Link).

MSU’s “Inclusion” timeline seeks to demonstrate the diverse makeup of the school and its community from its founding in 1855 into the present, beginning with the promise to educate the male children of low income, European American farming families in Michigan. The document then goes on to list when first year female students were allowed to enroll (1870), the enrollment of first international students (1873), the year Eva Diann Coryell became the first woman to graduate from the college (1879), and the dates of many other “firsts”.

This timeline includes William O. Thompson (1904) and Myrtle Craig (Mowbray) (1907), the first African American graduates of M.A.C. Although their attendance and graduation certainly mark the racial integration of the college, we must question if these were acts of inclusion. Was the previously all-white college changing in meaningful ways to ensure these students were fully incorporated and were made to feel they belonged and had an equal voice in the community? While I am still researching the lived experiences of William O. Thompson at M.A.C., what we know of Myrtle Craig’s story suggests not.

Research conducted by former CAP fellows Amy Michael and Blair Zaid on Myrtle Craig’s life was presented as a two-part blog series in 2016. The series drew attention to the prejudice and segregation that Craig and many other African American students faced attending predominantly white institutions (PWIs) across the U.S. in the early 20th century and noted how “race and gender shapes experiences and outcomes of higher education” (Zaid 2016).

Craig is listed on MSU’s “Our Inclusive Heritage Timeline” despite the fact that at the time she and three other African American students were barred from rooming in the Women’s Building. In contrast to MSU’s claim to an inclusive past, for Craig, M.A.C.’s campus was just “one more place of segregation and discrimination” (Michael 2016). The discrepancy between MSU’s presentation of its history and Myrtle Craig’s lived experience prompted this study.

The graduating women of the class of 1907 sit for a senior portrait. Myrtle Craig sits in the far left of the second row. Image shows twelve female students and two female administrators.
The graduating women of the class of 1907 sit for a senior portrait. Myrtle Craig sits in the far left of the second row. Myrtle Craig was the first African American women to graduate from MSU. Image courtesy of MSU Archives and Collections.

Introducing a Blog Series

This series will compare MSU’s claims of historical integration and diversity with what CAP learns of the lived experiences of students of color, particularly African American students, in the first half of the 20th century. While we should celebrate MSU’s movement towards a more diverse community, it must be done with a critical lens. This blog post serves as an introduction to the topic. Concrete findings will be presented in later posts as I, and other CAP fellows continue to research this topic.

The series will explore the history of M.A.C. and M.S.C. from 1899 until 1955 through the lens of belonging, measured by diversity and inclusion, with a focus on the experiences of African American students. This blog makes a distinction between diversity and inclusion.

Diversity is similar to integration and involves increasing the number of social identities and/or categorizations within an organization, group, or institution. These can include race, ethnicity, gender / gender identity, socioeconomic status, language, religion, age, (dis)ability status, and sexual orientation.

Inclusion is a deliberate effort on behalf of an organization to ensure it welcomes diversity and where every individual feels a sense of belonging. Inclusion means all people feel respected, that they are empowered to fully participate in and effect change in the intuition (Global Diversity Practice 2020).

Race here is defined as a socially constructed and socially reproduced means of arbitrarily classifying and grouping people based on physical characteristics viewed as both innate an unalterable. While in no way biological, race does have real effects on an individual’s life and health (Smedley and Smedley 2012:25-35)1.

In 2018 MSU welcomed and celebrated its largest and most diverse freshman class (MSU Today 2018), but questions arise about the lived experience and college graduation rates of non-white students attending PWIs, particularly if institutions do not include and support them during their time in college and after graduation (Bridges 2020; Locks et al. 2008). By critically exploring our past we are able to better understand how processes of integration, and inclusion impact the present.

Assessing “Our Inclusive Heritage”  

This research asks if M.A.C. was an inclusive, welcoming space for students of color, particularly African American students, in the early 20th century. We focus on housing and social activities and spaces, which make up a large portion of college life and may be most essential the criterial for creating feelings of belonging.

Historians Keith Widder (2005:343) and John M. Smith (2007:104) present the term “segregated integration” to refer to a phenomenon at M.A.C. and other PWIs where “integration was accepted into some spheres of both public and private life, but not in others” (Smith 2007:104). The dissidence between M.A.C. administrators’ support for a diverse student body and the establishment and enforcement of policies encouraging racial discrimination were crucial their plan for integration, not an unavoidable situation. Much can be learned about MSU’s history by exploring the social boundaries established in the past and how African American students like Craig and Thompson navigated their variable exclusion and inclusion at M.A.C., built social worlds for themselves beyond the college, and the degree to which M.A.C. supported these students before and after graduation.

Because of her identity as an African American person and as a woman, Craig experienced a particular racialized paternalism at M.A.C. in which administrators prevented her from living in the newly built Women’s Building (Morrill Hall), but also made sure she did not live off-campus for her first two years. Instead, they arranged for her to board with Secretary Addison M. Brown and later with Professor Chace Newman and his family. As part of this arrangement, Craig paid her tuition and board by working as a maid in the homes of these men and their families (Michael 2016). Craig lived on campus, but was excluded from the non-academic spaces of the Women’s Building, one of the only places at M.A.C. women were allowed to spend their free time.

Post card depicting a house of Faculty Row, dated 1908. During her first year at M.A.C. Myrtle Craig boarded with Mr. Addison M. Brown at House 10 on Faculty Row. Image courtesy of MSU Archives and Collections.
Post card depicting a house of Faculty Row, dated 1908. During her first year at M.A.C. Myrtle Craig boarded with Mr. Addison M. Brown at House 10 on Faculty Row. Image courtesy of MSU Archives and Collections.

Other African American students experienced and navigated segregated integration differently, as demonstrated the stories of Myrtle Craig, Gideon Edward Smith (1916), and Everett C. Yates (1916). Smith found success and recognition playing football for the Aggies and started and was active in a number of clubs, while Yates played in M.A.C.’s band and orchestra (Widder 2005:346-349).

Michigan State College Varsity Football Team 1913. Smith is the top row, second from the left. Tellingly, his name is excluded from the text caption on the photograph. Image courtesy of MSU Archives and Collections.
Michigan State College Varsity Football Team 1913. Gideon Edward Smith is in the top row, second from the left. Image courtesy of MSU Archives and Collections.
A group photograph of the members of the military band in 1915. Everett C. Yates (1916) is on the far left, second row from the bottom. Image courtesy of MSU Archives and Collections.

Exploring William O. Thompson’s experience through the lens of segregated inclusion, we can see how social segregation reinforced and reproduced anti-Black racism and systems of white supremacy. We notice that his picture is conspicuously missing from his graduation yearbook and that his name does not appear in the rolls of any student organizations. We can recognize that this social segregation was facilitated by policies that enforced racial segregation in social and academic life on campus. We recognize that if Thomas was barred from living in dormitories as African American women were, then he likely could not remain on campus after dark (New York Times 1957:7; Widder 2005:344-345).

While he would have attended lessons in integrated classrooms and would have sat with his classmates during graduation, continued segregation prevented his full inclusion in the social aspects of college life.

Integration without inclusion affected the lives of African American students at M.A.C. before and after graduation. The racial segregation of dorms and elite literary clubs reinforced existing racist attitudes and conditions of social and material inequality, as colleges were, and still are, where many forge their future social networks. It is not clear how this segregation was enforced, where lines were drawn, where they were broken, and we may never know exactly why individual students at M.A.C. seem to have had different experiences of segregation.

What is certain is that systems of race-based segregation and discrimination are about power that that the goal of segregated integration was to integrate some areas of social and private life while keeping others firmly closed. What the exact areas were likely shifted over time.

Barred from elite literary clubs, sororities, and fraternities until the 1948 establishment of Alpha Kappa Alpha, the first Black fraternity at MSU (Detroit News 1948:21; M.A.C. Record 1948:5), many African American students created off-campus social networks. So far, this research has identified the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church in Lansing and international student groups like the Cosmopolitan Club as prominent examples of these off-campus communities.

M.S.C. Cosmopolitan Club 1926. Image courtesy of MSU Archives and Collections.

Despite the presence of students of color at the turn of the 20th century and the school’s laudable history of diversity, M.A.C. remained an institution “populated primarily by European Americans and run by them” (Widder 2005:344). What did this mean for students of color on campus? What does it say about an academic institution that accepted the presence, and tuition, of non-white, non-American born students, but for many years refused to do the work necessary make the college an inclusive space for them.  

What’s Next? Where’s the Archaeology?

President Snyder’s reference letter for Myrtle Craig to Booker T. Washington. Courtesy of MSU Archives.

While early African American students broke many barriers of racial segregation through their presence at M.A.C., they also ran into others they variably challenged, subverted, ignored, or accepted though their daily actions. These students built their own social lives on and off campus, achieved academic success, and established careers for themselves after college. Yet, while M.A.C. administrators and faculty supported individual students after they graduated (Widder 2005:351; Zaid 2016) and challenged race-based segregation on campus in the 1940s and 1950s (Chandler 1952:1; New York Times 1957:7), college administrators did not make an effort to reconstruct the institution to fully include and support African American students and other students of color as they did for white European American students.

This form of segregation not only impacted the lives of students as they attended the college, but also impacts if and how those students are memorialized in the stories the school tells about itself and its history. In fact, until Widder’s research in the early 2000s, the legacies of Thompson and Yates were invisible and Smith alone was recognized as the first African American man to graduate from M.A.C. (Widder 2005:349).

This historical study of M.A.C.’s policy of segregated inclusion indicates that it may be difficult to identify the archaeological presence of the early African American students outside of academic. However, this ongoing research seeks to illuminate the racialized landscape of M.A.C, East Lansing, and Lansing during the first decades of the 20th century, similar to the ways CAP has previously illuminated the gendered landscape of the school. We ask three main research questions about life at M.A.C. that will help us to better understand the archaeology of MSU:

  • How did students of color and white students experience and navigate the racialized, white European American-dominated campus? What policies established, created, and enforced “racial” boundaries on campus, including policies to restrict, surveil, and constrain students? How could CAP identify the material signature of these policies?
  • Where did African American students live, if not on campus, and when were dorms desegregated? While we know that President John Hanna, hired in 1941, ordered the desegregation of living spaces at some point before the mid-1950s, it would be helpful to narrow this date if possible.
  • What are some of the spaces and organizations where African American students would have spent their social time and how this impacted their sense of belonging at M.A.C.?

To explore these questions, we will search census records, visit the MSU archives, seek to understand MSU’s housing policies, identify and map the social spaces African American students may have spent their time, and analyze speeches, lectures, and editorials recorded in the college newspaper. This research will expand the understanding of diversity and inclusion in MSU’s past by showing some of the ways African American students may have experienced and navigated the college’s policy of segregated integration.

For those interested in learning more about diversity and inclusion, Brown University Professor Dr. Tricia Rose has a number of resources to explore.


  1. This definition of race was crafted jointly with my collogues in Dr. Nedra Lee’s Anthropology 660, Critical Race Theory at the University of Massachusetts Boston, using Smedley and Smedley (2012).


  • Black Lives Matter (2020) ‘Herstory”. Black Lives Matter, Link
  • Bridges, Brian (2020) “African Americans and College Education by the Numbers” United Negro College Fund Link
  • Chandler, Paul (1952) “Why State Cancelled” Detroit News, January 11, 1952.
  • Detroit News (1948) “Negro Fraternity”. Detroit News, April 30, 1948.
  • Global Diversity Practice (2020) “What is Diversity and Inclusion?” Global Diversity Practice Ltd, Link
  • Locks, Angela M., Sylvia Hurtado, Nicholas A. Bowman, and Leticia Oseguera. “Extending Notions of Campus Climate and Diversity to Students’ Transition to College.” Review of Higher Education 31, no. 3.
  • M.A.C. Record (1948) “MSC Negro Fraternity” The M.A.C. Record, June 1948, vol.53, no.04. Link
  • Michael Amy (2016) ‘Myrtle Craig: Artifacts, Race, and Gender at Michigan Agricultural College”. MSU Campus Archaeology Program, February 19, 2016. Link
  • MSU Today (2018) “MSU to Welcome Largest, Most Diverse Freshman Class”. MSU Today, May 9, 2018. Link
  • New York Times (1957) No Time for Bias: John Alfred Hannah”. New York Times, December 24, 1957. Vol. 107, No. 36,494.
  • Smedley, Audrey, and Brian D. Smedley. 2012. Race in North America: origin and evolution of a worldview. Boulder, Colo: Westview Press.
  • Smith, John M. (2007) “Breaking the Plane: Integration and Black Protest in Michigan State University Football during the 1960s”. Michigan Historical Review, Vol. 33, No. 2, pp. 101-129.
  • Widder, Keith. R. (2005). Michigan Agricultural College: The evolution of a land-grant philosophy; 1855-1925. East Lansing, Mich: Michigan State Univ. Press.
  • Zaid, Blair (2016) “Myrtle Craig: Race, Gender, and A Changing Nation”. MSU Campus Archaeology Program, February 23, 2016. Link

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