Black History Month ended with a special recognition of Western College at Miami for its role in the civil rights movement. The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center (NURFC) designated the site as a Freedom Station on February 28.
The site is recognized as part of the Freedom Station program, “a legacy national outreach program linking historic Underground Railroad sites, research centers, university library collections, and museums engaged in Underground Railroad and slavery era research,” according to NURFC’s website.
Carl Westmoreland, senior historian at NURFC, bestowed the honor at a ceremony held at King Library and attended by students, faculty and members of the Western College Alumnae Association.
In the summer of 1964, over 800 people, including many students, gathered from June 14 through 27 to learn how to practice non-violent resistance and how to deal with adversity in the face of helping African-Americans register to vote. They then boarded buses bound for Mississippi to do just that.
Those months became known as “Freedom Summer,” a voter registration project focused on raising black votership in Mississippi. The effort involved about 1,000 out-of-state volunteers, including those from Western College. The project also included opening and teaching at “Freedom Schools”— temporary, free, alternative schools created to educate Mississippi African-American students for social change.
It was organized by the Council of Federated Organizations, a coalition of four major civil rights organizations including the NAACP and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).
“Initially when the request for the Freedom Summer came to Oxford, it came to Western. And Miami and the town of Oxford were livid because they thought it would become a Kent State riot,” Sharry Addison, President of the Western College Alumnae Association, said, referring to the student protest at Kent State University where the National Guard shot and killed four students.
However, the president and dean of Western College at the time decided to hold the event anyway.
“They went out on a limb and did this and it turned out to be very, very, very significant,” Addison said. “And there were no riots, there was no problem.”
The summer would not be without incident, however. On June 21, 1964, three participants in the training — Michael Schwerner, 24, James Chaney, 21, and Andrew Goodman, 20— disappeared in Mississippi the day after leaving Oxford. The burnt husk of their car was found a few days later, spurring a search by the FBI and garnering national attention. Six weeks later, their bodies were found in an earthen dam. Several members of the Ku Klux Klan were convicted in connection to their deaths.
“What they undertook was a serious commitment to life, even willing to die for it,” Phyllis Holt, dean of Western College at the time, said of the volunteers of the Freedom Summer shortly after its end.
Westmoreland paid special tribute to the three young men at the Freedom Station ceremony, presenting a plaque to Miami University with their faces on it.
“Every time an X is marked, with each pull of the lever at the ballot box by the black once-powerless in America, they are triumphant blows and drum-beats in honor of Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman’s journey from this Freedom Station,” Westmoreland said.
A second plaque will be made and presented specifically to Western College as well, Addison said, since, at the time of the Freedom Summer, Western had not yet merged with Miami University.
“But we don’t want anyone to forget that Western College…were the ones who stuck their necks out despite Miami and Oxford’s total refusal of the whole idea,” Addison said. “In the trail of history we don’t want it to be forgotten that we were the trailblazers who took this on, knowing it was the best thing to do.”
On March 19, President Crawford will travel to Washington D.C. to present a Freedom Summer ‘64 award to Congressman John Lewis, who was chairman of the SNCC and coordinated the organization’s efforts during the Freedom Summer.
The events of that summer are also commemorated by the Freedom Summer memorial located on the hill of Western Campus where much of the training took place.
The memorial includes three dogwood trees planted in honor of the men who were killed. Metal wind chimes hang from their branches, jangling gently with each passing breeze.