50 Years Since Integration
Second-generation students in a Mennonite Institution: Joe Macon and Basil Marin. Both take speech with Jay B. Landis.
Asked to recall the early days of racial integration at EMU, Jay B. Landis points through an east-facing window of his home on the hill above the university toward a blue water tower in the distance.
“There used to be a poultry plant there,” he says. And near that plant lived Leroy Buck, who took Spanish with Jay when they were both undergraduates in 1950-51. “Leroy was the first black student in one of my classes.”
Leroy was also baptized into the Mennonite church that year, despite the opposition of his family and friends.
Another black student, Peggy Webb, had returned to Harrisonburg from Hesston (Kan.) College and joined Jay’s class that year; she would become the first official African-American graduate of EMC in 1954. Peggy’s mother, Roberta, was one of the first from Harrisonburg’s black community to become Mennonite – she did so in early 1943.
Today, Jay teaches speech to Joseph “Joe” Macon, the grandson of one of the pioneering black students at a Mennonite college. Joe’s grandmother, Florence Baynard of Philadelphia, attended Goshen (Ind.) College in the late 1940s.
Jay B. Landis came to Harrisonburg from a Lancaster (Pa.) County family that worked at planting churches in southern Lancaster County neighborhoods heavily populated by African Americans. Jay not only knew Baynard, he knew Marjorie Thompson, the first African American boarder to come to EMC. She came from a Philadelphia church planted by his parents.
Jay waves his hand toward low buildings to the northeast where the mission that became Broad Street Mennonite Church debated whether blacks and whites should share a communion cup in the 1940s.
'The Test of Being White'
In 1953, Jay won an oratorical contest with a speech entitled “The Test of Being White” in which he pleaded for racial equality. The speech was printed on the front page of the denominational periodical, Gospel Herald, sparking letters to the editor, many in disagreement. “The feeling was, ‘They are equal, but they should stay on their side of the tracks,’” says Jay.
A few miles to the south, Rockingham Memorial Hospital had a separate ward for black patients. Jay recalls being part of a quartet in the 1950s that sang for patients in that ward.
In the same period, Jay’s future wife Peggy Heatwole studied music under Peggy Webb when Webb was student-teaching as a music education major. “You see the Lucy Simms School?” Jay asks a visitor, as they peer together out his eastern window at the panoramic scene below. “Beside it is Immanuel Mennonite Church. I went to its dedication, where Peggy Webb led the music.”
Immanuel is the most racially mixed Mennonite church in Harrisonburg. It is pastored by 46-year-old Basil Marin, MDiv ‘05, a former accountant and an African American from Los Angeles. Marin responded to God’s call to enter the ministry in 1980.
In 1995, with the support of wife Diane, Basil moved to Harrisonburg to lead Immanuel and to enroll in Eastern Mennonite Seminary. He earned his degree taking one or two classes at a time for 10 years. This semester, Basil’s son, also called Basil, is a freshman taking speech with Jay.
“My current students think the integration of EMU was ancient history,” Jay says. “They have no idea how recent it was. For me, it was only yesterday.”