EPA biologist saw changes for black students in ’40s, ’50s
By JOHN VEAUTHIER
Ernest L. Robinson experienced Youngstown College in two eras: pre- 1950 and post-1950.
In pre-1950, he wasn’t allowed to eat in the cafeteria. By post-1950, the dining policy and many other restrictions had been eliminated as the college moved toward integration.
“I had a good experience at Youngstown College and talk about it all the time, and I am glad to see that it has grown to be what it is,” said Robinson, an 87-year-old retired biologist with the Environmental Protection Agency and former trustee of Cincinnati State University.
He first enrolled at Youngstown College in 1944. He attended intermittingly between stints in the U.S. Army. He finally returned to the school in 1952 and graduated in 1954, with a degree in biology.
“My parents died when I was very young, and I was reared by my uncle (James W. Spencer), my mother’s brother,” Robinson said. “(He) didn’t have the chance to go to school as he wanted to, but he was very intelligent. He was an engineer, and he was self-taught, really. He wanted my siblings and I to get the education that he didn’t get.”
When Robinson first attended, he was one of a very few African American students.
“In 1944, I don’t believe there were more than maybe 15 African American students in day school. I don’t know about night school, but they did have night school at that time,” he said.
Robinson said life on campus before 1950 was more segregated and he had to be careful to know his place. This didn’t bother him because it was just part of life as an African American during that era.
“I just didn’t really have a hard time, I didn’t find a lot of racial disorder at the college,” he said.
While there had been a practice of issuing different activity cards according to race in the late ’30s and ’early 40s, Robinson said it wasn’t a problem for him when he attended.
“I knew nothing about a card and I don’t think any of us did. The only thing about segregation that I witnessed was when I first went there in 1944, I couldn’t eat in the cafeteria. So, I used to eat in the restaurants around the college,” he said.
There was also segregation when it came to physical education classes.
“We had to go to phys ed at the YMCA. The (white) students had to go to the YMCA in downtown Youngstown. I was scheduled to take phys ed at the West Federal Street YMCA, because the Y’s were segregated. The West Federal Street Y was too far and I just didn’t go,” said Robinson.
Another area of segregation was in housing.
“Well no blacks stayed there on campus, you know,” said Robinson. “They had to find housing in the city.”
Robinson said Youngstown College in his day was different than the one experienced by Simeon Booker Jr. in his one year at the college.
“I knew his father (the Rev. Simeon Booker Sr.) better than I knew him. Simeon (Jr.) was older than me and of course when I was there at Youngstown, Simeon had left. He went to Washington to become the first black journalist (at The Washington Post). I would read his articles when they were published locally in Youngstown and since I have been in Cincinnati.”
Besides attending Youngstown College, Robinson and Booker Jr. did share another experience. Both were members of Alpha Phi Alpha, a black fraternity in the community.
“Some of the local men who were graduates from other colleges wanted to start a fraternity at Youngstown. They approached me when I was there in ’44 to see if I could find enough young men to join. I couldn’t because there weren’t enough on campus. (Fraternities) had to have seven or a certain odd number of students and we didn’t have enough,” Robinson said.
“When I got back from the Army, the first black fraternity on Youngstown’s campus was Kappa Alpha Psi. There were a lot of black men coming to college, many of (them) had gotten out of the Army. That was the first black fraternity, fraternal organization.”
Robinson was invited to join, not because he was black, but because he could sing.
“I was a biology major, but I took singing lessons the whole time I was there. They would ask me (to sing at) the inner-fraternal council (ice- breaker) dances. ‘We’ll let you be a member of our fraternity, if you sing our sweetheart’s song at the dance.’ So that’s how I got invited.”
Although Robinson said he was not affected by segregation on campus, he does recall a moving speech in the late 1940s by the former dean of the History Department of Howard University. The dean had come to Youngstown College to speak about race relations.
Robinson still remembers that he wrote down some of what the dean was saying inside of a trigonometry book. He doesn’t remember the man’s name or where the math book is, but he can remember the gist of the speech and especially the words he was moved to jot down inside of the book.
“‘Oh how my red heart would beat under my brown belly as I read about history in this country. There are some things that I never heard about until I went to Washington, D.C., to work and would visit the Library of Congress. The white man’s history book is a propaganda unit, and blessed is he that writes it.’”
“That was significant to me in that time, but I don’t think that represents any problems I might have been having,” said Robinson. “That was simply him addressing the race situation at that time.”