After George Floyd’s death, petition to rename Harding auditorium gains support
After the videoed killing of George Floyd, Jackson House couldn’t…
SEARCY, Ark. — Elijah Anthony and Howard Wright gathered with family and friends on Harding University’s front lawn, facing the iconic Administration Building central to the Christian campus. Many had traveled from out of state to witness this moment.
Harding President David Burks stepped to the podium as sunlight glinted off the metal lettering for the newly named “Anthony & Wright Building.”
“Today we are recognizing seven individuals and their families whose groundbreaking efforts began the process of ending racial segregation at Harding,” Burks said.
It was a recognition that came in many forms.
In front of the building were three newly constructed monuments, each dedicated to former students who contributed to the African American history of the university, which is associated with Churches of Christ.
The three-dimensional plaques tell the stories of Thelma Fae Smith and Curtis Sykes, Harding’s first two African American students awarded graduate degrees in 1965; Anthony and Wright, the first African American undergraduate students to earn bachelor’s degrees in 1968; and J.C. Lewis Brown, Walter Cunningham and David Johnson, the first three African American students who enrolled as undergraduates but never graduated.
Burks and Harding’s board of trustees awarded Brown, Cunningham and Johnson honorary degrees. Johnson and Cunningham received posthumous degrees.
A half-century after Smith earned her master’s degree in education, the Cannon-Clary College of Education honored her by renaming the Diversity in Education Scholarship after her.
However, the dedication of the Administration Building represented the greatest form of recognition.
It was in this building where Anthony and Wright attended daily chapel 53 years ago. Now, a new exhibit in the lobby marks many African American firsts in Harding history — from the first staff member to the first homecoming queen — spanning the 58 years since the school’s integration. The outside boasts the names of Anthony and Wright.
“During a time when both the nation and the church wrestled with a history of slavery, segregation and existing racism, walking into this building required courage.”
“During a time when both the nation and the church wrestled with a history of slavery, segregation and existing racism, walking into this building required courage,” Burks said. “They demonstrated that courage for all of us.”
Anthony and Wright’s presence on campus in the 1960s represented the culmination of years of debate among Harding students, faculty and administration.
In 1957 Central High School in Little Rock, about 50 miles southwest of Searcy, integrated with the aid of the National Guard. The same year, Harding students drafted the “Statement of Attitude,” a document that stated the signatories’ acceptance of integration and desire to end racial discrimination at Harding.
The document gained 946 signatures from 854 students and 92 faculty and staff members, representing 62 percent of the Harding community at the time. Despite this statement, the Harding administration waited six more years to integrate — a decision that many alumni scrutinized during the summer of 2020 when a petition to rename the George S. Benson Auditorium gathered over 18,000 signatures. It characterized the namesake former Harding president as “a vocal racist and supporter of segregation.”
Bruce McLarty, then president of Harding University, declined to rename the auditorium, indicating that a review of Benson’s writings revealed “the complex life and thoughts of a man who had human flaws, but who kept growing and changing his entire life.”
However, McLarty’s statement “recognized a major oversight” on the campus: a lack of landmarks acknowledging the history and contributions of African American alumni.
“That must change,” McLarty said, announcing the creation of a task force in 2020 to identify “the most meaningful and appropriate things that Harding can do to memorialize and celebrate the history and the presence of African Americans at Harding.”
A year later, the Harding administration honored this statement by monumentally acknowledging the history of African American students on campus — specifically, by naming the 1953 building after Anthony and Wright.
Wright said it was one of the most awesome days in his life.
As students, the two men never anticipated that the university would later rename a building in honor of their integration, graduation and subsequent contributions to the Harding community.
“The fact that my time spent at Harding gave no indication that I would ever be honored in this way is a testimony to the growth and progress of Harding University,” said Anthony, full-time minister for the Roosevelt City Church of Christ in Birmingham, Ala., since 2000. “For that, I applaud the university’s administration, faculty, staff and students for continuing the conversation toward racial equality and unity.”
Wright — who spent 50 years of his life ministering to congregations in Arkansas, New York, Pennsylvania and Georgia — cited Psalm 37:23-25.
“I have been young, and now am old; yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken or his children begging for bread.”
In the 21st century, Harding has been good to Wright, minister emeritus for the Camp Creek Church of Christ in Atlanta.
He was the 2007 graduate speaker and recipient of an honorary doctorate at commencement. He was a distinguished alumnus recipient in 2011. He was a chapel speaker and panelist on several occasions. Then came the building dedication.
“All I can do is thank almighty God for his grace and for his mercy,” Wright said. “During this huge chunk of time, actually during the entire existence of my life, as my ancestors have often said, ‘God has brought me from a mighty long way.’”
At the end of his first semester, he dropped out of Harding, he said.
“Dropped out, pushed out, kicked out, down and out,” Wright said in front of the building named in his honor. But he soon returned to Harding.
At the ceremony, Burks acknowledged the racism and prejudice Black students experienced.
“When those who are being recognized today first walked on this campus, they did so at a time that was very different from today,” Burks said. “Racism and prejudice existed within the Harding community, and we acknowledge the pain that you felt. For this, we are truly and deeply sorry.”
In the audience, Phallen Reed listened to Anthony and Wright speak. Reed is a senior African American theater major serving as Harding’s Black Student Association president. She said she was grateful for those who came before her so that she faced less racial discrimination.
“I have it better,” said Reed, whose home congregation is the Dallas West Church of Christ. “I recognize that I have had some amazing people around me — Black, White, other — and gratefully, thankfully, I haven’t had any major issues on campus. There is a degree to which I do believe that Harding is doing a sufficient enough job in creating a sense of security for non-White students.”
However, there are still moments that challenge that sense of security.
“There still is that reminder of where you stand,” Reed said, “when you get that email from Public Safety that some students were called racial slurs or some students were targeted.”
To Anthony, the acknowledgment and building dedication brought reality to a dream he had. He recited the last stanza of the anthem by James Weldon Johnson, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” adding the first three words.
“I thank the God of our weary years, God of our silent tears, Thou who has brought us thus far on the way; Thou who has by Thy might led us into the light, keep us forever in the path, we pray. Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met Thee, lest, our hearts drunk with the wine of the world, we forget Thee; shadowed beneath Thy hand, may we forever stand. True to our God, true to our native land.”
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