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Professor cites racism in University's history

Published: Friday, March 4, 2005

Updated: Wednesday, July 25, 2012 22:07

Texas A&M's history, characterized by anger, arrogance and silence, tells us a great deal about American history, said Finnie Coleman, assistant English professor and associate director of the honors program.

Coleman gave a presentation Thursday afternoon titled "Matthew Gaines, Uncle Dan and the Ku Klux Klan: Early Efforts at Negotiating Race and Racism at Texas A&M University" to more than 100 people in Evans Library.

The basis of the presentation was research Coleman conducted into A&M's history from old documents, such as a 1906 yearbook in Cushing Library, and work he did for his book "Strategies of a Black Intellectual." Coleman said historical documents speak more truthfully from unguarded spots in history than other sources.

"I've been crafting a narrative," he said. "It's not flattering, but it has to be constructed and shared in order for old wounds to heal."

Coleman's presentation traced the history of secret societies at A&M, including the Ku Klux Klan. Coleman said the romanticism associated with redeeming the South allowed secret societies to thrive.

The KKK existed at a time when A&M was a military school, Coleman said, and there is no way of knowing how many secret societies there were or how long they existed. The only documented evidence is a picture of students, dressed in KKK robes and masks, from the 1906 yearbook.

Coleman said members of the KKK at A&M held leadership positions in the Ross Volunteers, The Gazoot (an A&M student publication), Literary Societies and The Longhorn (A&M's then-yearbook).

"What we see from the Cadets was not uncommon to schools around the South," Coleman said. "The people who could have made things better in America opted to remain silent; those with malicious intents were often bolstered by their own arrogance and we, for the most part, have often been a very angry, violent society."

Coleman said there are still two secret societies: the True Texans and the Stikas, which are active at A&M.

"I have (this information) on good authority, but there's nothing in writing," he said. "The question is not whether or not they exist, but what they are doing."

Ronethea Williams, Student Government Association's advocate for diversity, said she thought the most interesting part of the presentation was how the KKK was tied to the faculty, showing that the society was not a select group of students but indicative of the Southern climate.

"It's important to study all history and not just what we want to know," Williams said. "The only way to progress is to know where we came from, because then we're better able to understand each other and better equipped to solve problems."

Coleman said there are many undeserving individuals enshrined on campus, such as former Texas Gov. Richard Coke.

"Coke heralded the onset of Southern redemption of reconstruction efforts, and he publicly advocated lynching of blacks," Coleman said. "Don't rename the Coke building, but remember what he stood for. I'm not trying to revise history - just help people understand it."

Coleman also spoke about Matt Gaines, a former slave who became a Republican state senator, and said that Gaines has no statue or memorial on campus. Gaines served in the 12th legislature, which established free public education in Texas and enabled the establishment of A&M.

Another figure in A&M's history was a man known as Uncle Dan, Coleman said. Uncle Dan was a black laborer at A&M who worked on the campus for 50 years after A&M was opened. The treatment of Uncle Dan, as exemplified by a poem in an A&M yearbook, showed the expectation of black inferiority, something not specific to A&M.

Professor of 20th Century Contemporary African American Literature and Culture Kimberly Brown said the most important thing students can do is know their history.

"When people don't know history, they have a tendency to unconsciously do things that make others uncomfortable," Brown said. "We've got to reevaluate the traditions that we follow here to make A&M more inclusive."

Coleman said conversation is necessary to ensure that people see how A&M's long and deep history is relevant in today's world.

"We have to be honest about what our traditions mean and what they stand for," he said. "One person's tradition may be another person's nightmare."

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