How Clarence Thomas, Eddie Jenkins Jr., and Edward P. Jones Integrated Holy Cross College in 1968

April 19, 2012, 5:50 AM


‘Fraternity’ at Holy Cross Runs Deeper Than Greek Life

The Reverend John Brooks and a young Clarence Thomas.
Courtesy of the College of the Holy Cross ArchivesThe Rev. John Brooks and a young Clarence Thomas.

The College of the Holy Cross’s graduating class of 1972 included a number of particularly distinctive alumni: a National Football League running back who won a Super Bowl with the Miami Dolphins in 1973, then established a successful legal career; a writer who received the Pulitzer Prize; even a justice of the Supreme Court.

None of them would have attended Holy Cross without the efforts of the Rev. John Brooks, a theology professor. The men — Eddie Jenkins Jr., Edward P. Jones and Clarence Thomas, respectively — are all African-American. Father Brooks, who is white, recruited them in 1968, when Holy Cross was a predominately white campus (nowadays, roughly a quarter of the student body is made up of racial minorities). He served as a confidant and guide, a sympathetic ear and a liaison to the school’s management during their time at Holy Cross. The Businessweek editor Diane Brady chronicles the story of Father Brooks and these students in her book “Fraternity.” Ms. Brady describes Father Brooks’s sense of responsibility to his recruits:

It wasn’t a responsibility for their success; the choice to study and do the work was theirs alone, as it was for every student. It was a responsibility to acknowledge that the college experience might not be as comfortable for the black students, that they didn’t have the role models in the classroom or the easy comfort of being in the majority.

We at The Choice thought that the story of Father Brooks, the alumni and their thoughts on the experience would be helpful for prospective students.

Father Brooks said he thought that the economic demands of a college education outweighed racial concerns, even more now than in the 1960s. Though “there may be a bias,” he said, “if I identify a bright high school student, African-American, the biggest challenge is gathering the scholarships and the assistance to enable them to attend.”

Mr. Jenkins and Stanley Grayson, an alumnus who is now the chief operating officer of M.R. Beal & Company, an investment bank, agreed that economic concerns were crucial, and that Holy Cross’s intense academic program was a major challenge. But the two men thought social pressures were a problem: even students who did not face overt acts of racism “were under extra scrutiny, as if people were waiting to see them fail,” Ms. Brady writes.

Eddie Jenkins Jr. and Stanley Grayson
Courtesy of the College of the Holy Cross ArchivesEddie Jenkins Jr. and Stanley Grayson.

“It was a culture shock at first,” Mr. Jenkins said of going to Worcester, Mass., which had a negligible black population, from Queens, N.Y.

“The hardest part probably was the isolation,” he continued. ”You had to create a home in a foreign land.”

“One of the hard parts was the music,” joked Mr. Grayson.  “I think for a lot of people, when I got there in ’68, I and my colleagues represented the first real contact they had with people of color.”  The two men spoke of tension underlying everyday interactions.

The black students formed their own ties on campus. They created a Black Student Union, which staged a successful walkout in 1969 when its members were disproportionately disciplined following a protest against General Electric recruiters. Later, they successfully lobbied for a “black corridor,” a residence area dedicated to black students (students of other racial backgrounds were allowed to live there, and some did).

Mr. Grayson called the corridor “one of the things that allowed me to survive at Holy Cross back in 1969 and ’70.”

The corridor drew accusations of hypocrisy from students who felt their black classmates were avoiding integration.

Mr. Jenkins defended the hall. “We wanted the refreshing feeling of coming home and sharing stories,” he said.

Mr. Grayson said a black corridor would probably be less important on a campus now, even though many schools offer lodgings for students with shared backgrounds.

The two men thought that engaging with the environment and classmates was crucial in making the most of college.

“Get involved and get engaged with the college,” Mr. Grayson said. ”I think when you’ve done that the adjustment becomes easier.”

Mr. Jenkins thought current students might lack a common cause, like the civil rights struggle, to draw them together.

“Students today say what is our purpose, and you have to find that purpose,” he said. “Today, you have to identify what is the major obstacle you have to overcome, and I think it’s economics.”

Both were thankful for the friends they made at Holy Cross, black and white, and for Father Brooks, who stayed close even after graduation. But perhaps another alumnus, quoted by Ms. Brady, said it best.

“I wasn’t part of some program to Father Brooks,” Justice Clarence Thomas said. “I was a kid.”

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