Eastern Mennonite University

Spring 2007

Checkered Past, Colorful Present

EMU Leads Way to Diversity

Roberta Webb and daughters
Roberta Webb, one of Harrisonburg's first African-American Mennonites, surrounded by her daughters, Nancy, Peggy and Ada in the mid-1940s.
EMU set a new record with its percentage of non-white students in 2006-07, making it one of the few historically white institutions in Virginia whose enrollment approximates the percentage of non-white students in higher education across the nation.

“EMU has made its own ‘long walk’ over the last half-century,” says Melody M. Pannell, director of multicultural services at EMU.

The enrollment of non-white or ethnic students at EMU this year stands at 22% – almost one in four students on campus – which is 6% more than our large state-supported neighbor, James Madison University.

In the 2006 edition of the Ultimate College Guide by U.S. News and World Report, church-affiliated colleges in Virginia averaged 16% minority enrollment. Independent colleges, such as the University of Richmond and Roanoke, averaged 12% in minority enrollment.The state-supported institutions ranged widely, with universities in urban locations having the largest percentage of non-white students.

EMU’s unprecedented non-white or ethnic enrollment may reflect changes in the Mennonite church as a whole, where 25% of the new members come from non-traditional Mennonite backgrounds compared with 6% just five years ago.

For the nation as a whole, 22% of students graduating with bachelors degrees are non-white, according to a 2006 report by the American Council on Education.

“We’re pleased we’ve come as far as we have,” says President Loren Swarzendruber. “But we will continue to make diversity a high priority. We need to continue fundraising for improved financial aid, so that money is not an issue for students coming from disadvantaged circumstances. We also need to have more diversity among our staff and faculty.” Just 6% of EMU’s employees are non-white.

Numbers are Rising

Pannell recalls being one of 70 U.S. students of color when she graduated from EMU in 1997. Had she graduated nine years later – in 2006 – she would have been one of 148. In less than 10 years EMU doubled its graduating class of U.S. non-whites, while the number of international students stayed steady, hovering at around 8%.


Melody Pannell, director of multicultural services at EMU, listens intently to one of her student assistants.

“We need a critical mass for support, to feel good about being here,” said Pannell, who was raised as a non-traditional Mennonite in the Harlem district of New York City.

Her father is African American, who in his teens converted to a Mennonite church in Coatsville, Pa. Her mother is white from Elizabethtown, Pa., with Swiss-German Mennonite familial roots.

Her parents met at 7th Avenue Mennonite Church in New York City, where her father, Richard W. Pannell, was a pastor doing service as a conscientious objector and her mother, Ethel Zeager, was doing voluntary service.

Pannell points to two ways that EMU has grown more accessible in recent years:

(1) by offering grants to AHANA (African, Hispanic, Asian, and Native American) students and

(2) by embracing cultural expressions of worship, socializing and celebrating that feel good and familiar to people who weren’t raised in the Swiss-German culture of traditional Mennonites.

Nobody wants to come to a university where they feel they must lose their culture and assimilate in order to be accepted and successful, Pannell explains.

First Admission of Blacks

Eastern Mennonite – known as “EMC” from 1948 to mid-1994 – was one of the first two white institutions of higher education in the former Confederate states to admit an African American in the late 1940s, as far as Crossroads can determine. The other was the University of Arkansas, which admitted a black male to its law school in January, 1948, followed by a black female to its medical school in the fall of 1948. (This data is from the 1952 Negro Year Book by scholars at the Tuskegee Institute.)

Prior to the “Jim Crow” segregation years from the late 1800s to 1950, just one southern institution educated blacks alongside whites: Berea College in Kentucky. It was founded in the 1850s by a white Christian abolitionist named John G. Fee, who led his college to enrolling an equal number of black and white students by 1892.

Yet by the early 1900s John Fee’s egalitarian vision for Berea had disappeared. Berea became all-white and remained so for 50 years. The disappearance stemmed from an 1896 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that blacks could receive an “equal” education in institutions separate from whites (the Plessy v. Ferguson case). Southern states and racist white citizens seized on this ruling to eliminate any possibility of a black receiving an education in a school where whites were present.

Vigilantes attacked anyone who advocated integration, including Berea. Fee’s successor at Berea did not stand up to the attacks. In 1904, Kentucky passed a law aimed directly at Berea in which black and white students were forbidden to be educated in the same school. The law was finally repealed in 1950. After this, Berea again admitted African American students, followed by many other southern white universities in the 1950s.

Moving Toward Openness

While the founder of Berea saw his expansive Christian ideals undergo contraction, the founders of Eastern Mennonite were moving in the other direction, toward more openness – at least in one sense. Eastern Mennonite School (EMS) opened in 1917 after a lengthy debate over whether Mennonites should be educated beyond grade 8 and receive theological instruction beyond the usual worship services. The founders of EMS argued that a Bible college would help anchor the Mennonite church for future generations.

If there was any discussion at all about casting a wider net, it was not over whether to include non-white students – there were virtually no non-white Mennonites from 1917 through the 1920s. It was over whether and how much Mennonite women should be educated.

Margaret Gehman and Gladys Baer
Margaret Gehman and Gladys Baer in 2004. (Gladys died Feb. 21, '07) Photo by Bonnie Price Lofton.

Reminiscing in 2004 with Margaret Martin Gehman ’42, the late Gladys Shank Baer ’45 recalled that she had never intended to get a college degree when she came to EMS for a high school Bible class.

“I think I just wanted to get away from home for a while and get some schooling. Maybe I would meet someone I’d like to marry,” she said with a laugh. “And that happened.”

Baer became the second female to earn a bachelor in theology degree from EMS. “Women couldn’t be ordained,” she said. “We used our education mainly to be mission workers or to help our husbands.”

Baer said her father would not have wanted her to go to a public high school – it was EMS or no further schooling – because he did not want her to be “too much in the world,” meaning the non-Mennonite world.

So Eastern Mennonite in its first 25 years was viewed as a quiet enclave by many – intentionally set apart from the rest of the world. But… not all saw the school this way.

Opening to the World

EMS’s Young People’s Christian Association initiated jail visitation in the 1920s and, in the 1930s, began to do occasional “cottage prayer meetings” in the homes of African Americans living in Harrisonburg.


A local mission in Harrisonburg. Among those pictured are Mildred Pellman '37, in white at extreme left, and Ernest Swartzendruber, at extreme right, who headed the missions from 1938-45. (Photo courtesy of Virginia Mennonite Conference Archives at EMU.)

This led to opening a mission that served both blacks and whites in a downtown neighborhood. Both racial groups briefly attended the same meetings and worship services before community pressure caused the mission board to ask for services in sequence, with morning services for whites and afternoon services for blacks.

The superintendent of this mission, Ernest Swartzentruber, who finished two years at Eastern Mennonite in 1934 and then completed his BS in 1963, disagreed with holding separate services and, worse, with not admitting blacks to full membership in the church, including shared communion.

He said the congregation should treat all the same or “close the mission and quit playing church.”

Local African Americans nurtured in that congregation naturally sought to pursue God’s word through higher education. In 1940, a local black man applied for admission to EMS, but the faculty told him he would need to take Bible courses by correspondence. They said that “opposition (was) likely to arise between the attitudes of northern and southern students” and that “the State of Virginia (had) ruled against the attendance of whites and blacks at the same public school.”

In 1945 the board of EMS took this action on the question of integration:

“…the matter of opening the EMS to colored students was considered at length and decided that whereas there are implications in the race question that have been long in forming and deeply set in the values of the inhabitants of this state and community of which we are a small minority and therefore unable to change at once, we feel that at this time it would be unwise to admit such students into the co-educational institution. However we express our heartfelt sympathy for our colored brethren and sisters with their education problems and are ready to open up such measures of opportunity for them as such opportunities are expedient and possible.”

In 1946 and 1947, a Russian man living in Belgium and a Chinese brother and sister became the first international students admitted to the college.

Black Pioneers Struggled

In the fall of 1948 came Willis Johnson, a local African American, followed in the spring of 1949 by Ada Louise Webb, an African American woman who attended the Mennonite mission church in downtown Harrisonburg. In the spring of 1950, Marjorie Thompson of Christiana, Pa., became the first African American to live in the EMC dormitory. She left after the semester.

Behind the names and dates one senses pain. Under enormous social pressure and with inadequate earlier schooling, Johnson flunked his Bible course. He moved to New York City, where he attended the 7 th Avenue Mennonite Church in Harlem dressed in traditional plain Mennonite clothing. Johnson died in a city hospital after he was found severely injured – apparently the victim of a mugging – on a NYC street in the early 1960s.

Ada Webb at Eastern Mennonite
Ada Webb, front left, at Eastern Mennonite in 1949. (Photo courtesy of Virginia Mennonite Conference Archives at EMU.)

Ada Webb succeeded in becoming a nurse, but not at Eastern Mennonite. She had to go away to a Mennonite nursing program in Colorado.

Webb’s older sister, Peggy, applied before Ada to Eastern Mennonite, was denied admission, and ended up at Hesston, a two-year Mennonite college in Kansas.

Peggy later returned to Eastern Mennonite and earned a degree in education, becoming the first official African-American graduate of EMC in 1954. (Read more on Peggy Webb in the Jay B. Landis article.)

Marjorie Thompson’s grades were poor. Again, it takes little imagination to see her as the only black student at EMC – a first-year student with poor foundational schooling, far from her home in Pennsylvania, without a support network in a city where the water fountains were labeled “colored” and “white.”

Acquiescing to State Laws

Harrisonburg’s Mennonites – though opposed to slavery in the 1800s and cognizant that the Scriptures taught Jesus’ equal love for all – were ambivalent about going against the prevailing mores of Harrisonburg concerning integration.

“The typically nonpolitical Mennonite church especially refrained from taking racial action, even when many members believed change should take place,” wrote Paul J. Yoder in “Virginia Mennonites and the Question of Race: A History of Trial and Progress” (10-15-2003 paper filed in EMU historical library).

In October 1924, when two mixed-race girls asked to be baptized at a Virginia Mennonite Conference church, the conference waffled, wondering how to “adjust ourselves to present state laws with applicants for membership who are of …color.” (After a year of postponing a decision, hoping the girls would change their minds, the two were baptized.)

Dr. Paul T. Yoder, a current EMU staffer who studied at EMC from 1943 to 1951, said he was not aware of the debates surrounding the admission of blacks, but it is now obvious to him that “we gave into our fears at the time.”

John R. Mumaw, acting president of EMC from 1948 to 1950 (and then president until 1965), caused rumblings in the Virginia Mennonite Conference when he decided to admit Willis Johnson and Ada Webb.
Mumaw was born and raised in Holmes County, Ohio, and married a Lancaster County girl. Like other northerners at EMC, Mumaw did not like the foot-dragging he saw in regard to treating blacks equally.

In 1952 Mumaw visited Mennonite missions in Africa, where he was humbled by the hospitality that Africans showed to their white visitors, recalls daughter Grace. Later, when an African from one of those missions visited here, Mumaw was embarrassed and appalled when a local restaurant refused to serve Mumaw and his African guest in the main dining room. When Mumaw articulated his feelings, the restaurant manager placed the two in a private dining area.

The younger generation proved to be more open to change. As a high school sophomore at Eastern Mennonite in 1945, Grace tells of going to hear a black gospel chorus from Washington D.C. sing at a nearby school for African American children, the Lucy Simms School. “About half the audience was white, and almost all of us were Mennonites,” she says.

EMC’s role in being one of the first white colleges in the south to admit black students should not be underestimated. Once a few institutions such as EMC opened their doors and proved that whites’ fears were unfounded, a floodgate opened. By the end of 1952-53, more than 2,000 African American students were studying at 45 to 50 majority-white institutions in the south, according to a 1954 issue of The Journal of Negro Education.

Yet Virginia’s public schools lagged behind – they remained segregated for 10 years after EMC enrolled its first black student.

Making a Difference

You need EMU but EMU needs you, too

Listening to the stories of EMC’s first African Americans in the late 1940s, Melody Pannell says she wishes Willis Johnson could attend EMU now. “I would be able to say to him, ‘You can make a difference here. You can use your gifts and talents here. You need EMU but EMU needs you, too.’”

Today, Mennonites from non-white, non-European cultures “bring their culture into their worship,” says Pannell. “I think Willis Johnson would be excited being here – you can’t walk on campus and not see all kinds of diversity.”

In 2005, Pannell organized the first reunion of EMU’s Black Student Union, welcoming 25 alumni back to campus. Evangelical events run by multicultural services – staffed this year by eight work-study students (five of international origin and three African American, including Joe Macon, pictured on page 6) – have attracted as many as 300 participants.

“Now if we can just get to the point,” says Pannell, “that you sit in your class and look at an African-American professor, attend a Gospel chapel every week, or take your concerns to a Hispanic administrator.”

Pannell is hoping that some of the students of color now at EMU will go on to get graduate degrees and then feel feel called to return to join the EMU faculty.


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