On February 9, the Union College Board of Trustees voted to approve a letter nearly a year in the making—a letter of apology to alumni who suffered racial discrimination while attending Union College.
The idea started with the stories of Oscar Harriott, a man whose family experienced racism at Union College throughout the 1940s-60s. He spoke for a Martin Luther King Day event in the spring of 2014 and to the cast of Union’s “Fifty Years Later,” a dramatic production about the Civil Rights Movement.
“That night, when practice was over, Harriott’s stories lingered, leaving me unsettled to say the least. I wanted to do something, but I didn’t know what to do,” said Kyle Berg, a senior language arts education major in a piece he wrote for Clocktower, Union’s student newspaper.
Berg went on to research the topic for an Adventist history class.
The Conflict and Peacemaking Class—a class dedicated to studying ways to constructively deal with conflict—chose to draft a letter of apology to all Union alumni who have suffered racial discrimination. This is the letter ultimately approved by Union’s administration and Board of Trustees.
“Projects such as this enable students to appreciate the infinite complexity of ‘real life,’” said Chris Blake, professor of English and communication who teaches the class. “And also—surprise!—they can change that world for good.”
Blake understands that even though Harriott’s experiences happened more than 70 years ago, seeking reconciliation is still the first step towards righting a wrong. “In the eyes of many who experienced systemic discrimination on our campus, this apology matters greatly,” he said. “With this announcement, our community is making a further statement: we can do better, and we shall.”
Dear Union College Alumni:
We are honored to join with students in the Conflict and Peacemaking class who are leading a college initiative to apologize to alumni who suffered racial discrimination at Union College in the past. As our college reflects upon the apex of the U.S. civil rights movement on Martin Luther King, Jr. Days and other notable events, there have been times when disturbing stories have emerged. Union College acknowledges the harm that racial segregation practices and other exclusivist and demeaning behaviors inflicted on many of its students in the past. At these times, our school did not model Christianity and instead deeply wounded many of you. To those who suffered from all such unfair acts, the college offers its sincerest regrets and apologies.
At the entrance of the administration building hangs a model of Union’s clock tower with golden cords extending to places around the world. The golden cords stand for service, love, and unity. It is our deepest desire that the cords cut between us be reconnected. We ask humbly that you forgive the institution of Union College for the wrongs committed against you. Peacemaking is not only achieved individually but also by actively working together through dialogue, justice, forgiveness, and reconciliation.
Today, Union College is an institution of diversity and unity. Our students come from all over the world; they speak different languages and carry unique cultural backgrounds. Though we as a campus community are not perfect, each student is respected regardless of gender, race, or culture. We aspire to follow Romans 12:18: “If possible, so far as it depends upon you, live peaceably with all.”
While much has gone into making Union College a better place, it does not change what happened in the past. We ask for the opportunity to build a new relationship. History often repeats itself and the world tends to forget its past, but we will not allow these echoes of discrimination and humiliation to go unheard. Your pain was real; your voice is valued. May the golden cords of harmony and friendship connect us closer to one another. As Christians, we seek to share our love with you, bringing peace as one body of Christ.
Thank you for the time you spent at Union College, for blessing us with your presence, and for enriching us and helping us to change. Thank you for striving to make our school a place of freedom and unity.
Josh Ayala, Susy Gomez, Stefani Leeper and Sean Hendrix
Students who drafted the original letter in Conflict and Peacemaking Class.
Vinita Sauder, President, Union College
Tom Lemon, Chair, Union College Board of Trustees