A questionable Legacy: Reconciling Hope’s history with race

Of all people, librarian and director of the Joint Archives, Geoffrey Reynolds, is the person to ask about Hope College’s capacity for change over the years. Reynolds is responsible for the preservation and organization of sometimes centuries-old documents. Some of these include Hope College yearbooks, newspaper articles from The Anchor and the city of Holland and even diaries from 19th century Dutch missionaries who dropped their documents off at the archives before going to live in Freedom Village. Reynolds’ archives have been utilized in research around the world, including that of a Polish scholar studying the status of the environment in the Middle East through Dutch missionary diaries, a Georgetown professor in Qatar researching the industry of enslaved individuals on Africa’s East coast, and a project by college faculty in Russia regarding historically illegal TV sermons and Christian missions in 19th century Russia.  

Geoffrey Reynolds

Hope students have also had the opportunity to work for the Archives, publishing articles in the Joint Archives Quarterly newsletter about how the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 affected Asian Americans in the Holland community, and another about how Dr. Dimnent’s Dimnent Cup, meant to reduce inter-class hazing violence may have resulted in what students now know as Nykerk and The Pull. The following is an excerpt from an interview with Reynolds about reconciling Hope and Holland’s complex history with the community that exists today. 

Hope has obviously not had a clean slate in regards to racial and social inequalities. How do you reconcile these findings with what Hope is as an institution today?

Two years ago we did [a presentation] about the history of blackface at Hope and how it was prominent not only at local theater, but at Hope as well. Anya O’Connor just published a History of the Knickerbocker Theater, and there’s an image of blackface. We weren’t able to figure out if it was a Hope produced or Holland produced play, but we did a project where a grad went through every yearbook, and as best you can do with photo identification found all of the instances of blackface that she could. And we didn’t even go into the fraternity collections, which are rich with blackface. She just did the milestones because at a college out East, a gentleman who was a political appointee for the Trump administration was identified in blackface as a fraternity member in his yearbook. All small colleges in America immediately said ‘ugh…’ not knowing for sure [about the presence of blackface in their archives], but almost sure there was. So we jumped on it. We did that project and then the Dean of Libraries hosted an event over in Maas. It was a little over two years now, where we had the director of the Jim Crow Museum at Ferris State come over, and then we had Dr. Johnson from the History department, and then maybe Dr. Petit to talk about it openly. Yes, Hope College had blackface. Lots and lots of photographs were shared. I wasn’t there, but they publicly showed that our yearbook was full of it. We didn’t get into the fraternity as much, because those collections are physically in our custody but they’re private. We keep them safe, but we don’t share them unless the fraternity or sorority tells us it’s okay, which sometimes they do. So we didn’t get into that as much. 

That is one of those ‘oh gosh, the Archives is in the middle of this preservation of blackface,’ but it really wasn’t preserving it as much as it’s in all the publications. Again, go to the yearbook… How are we going to get rid of a yearbook? So we took the good road and just said, ‘yeah, we did this.’ 

One of the things that was most surprising was one of our prominent black alum appeared in one of the yearbooks along with a caucasian student in blackface. Unfortunately, he has passed, but what a question I would have asked. This gentleman was the one who students followed into the park the day that Martin Luther King was assassinated. He was the one who held the memorial. He led it. How do you figure that one out? [The student in blackface] was in the Fraternal Society, believe it or not. There’s one of the Fraternals in blackface and there’s Brady… an African American student. I never could figure that out. 

I was in the Cosmo collection the other day, and there was a blackface photo. It’s usually some sort of event. They used to have what they called the “Fratter Frolicks” as an event to raise money. You’d see them in that annual play they did. I’m not sure why I saw it in the Cosmo fraternity, but it could’ve been a similar event. Up until a certain point, though, blackface at Hope College or even anywhere at the Knick when it was a public theater was very ordinary. And that, unfortunately, I think is U.S. wide.

What time period would that have been?

As soon as the minstrel show movement was popular… early 19th century in the 20s. And it went all the way through the 60s, which is amazing. Which is when our Black student presence became very large, you still saw it. And I just couldn’t make sense of it… why wasn’t the college being more proactive than that?

Is there anything you’ve seen in the archives of Hope trying to combat the presence of blackface on campus?

Not really, but I haven’t dug deep enough. And that would’ve started with student development. That would’ve been the Dean of Men and the Dean of Women — the Dean Frost that we know today. Probably within the 60s I think it was talked about. Dr. VanderWerf was very pro-civil rights, coming from Kansas. If you’re outside of Lawrence, Kansas, the rest of that state is very racist, historically because of the Civil War. Lawrence, where the University of Kansas is, is like Austin in Texas. It’s just this little liberal piece of Kansas, and that’s where Dr. VanderWerf had gone to school. 

When he came to Holland, his nanny, who was African American, came with him to take care of the kids. And she arrived with the family, that day when they moved into the president’s house, and they decided to have her live down the street in one of the cottages. She lived there because they were worried about having her in the home, even though the VanderWerfs were very liberal. I think it was to give her more presence in the community as this African American woman who helped take care of the VanderWerf kids. But soon after that we had anti-people-of-color signage on the restaurants. We’re talking about one of the only African Americans in the community, she works for the president of the college, and the signs are going up that ‘you’re not welcome here to eat.’ I mean I can’t imagine that poor woman. In a very racist state, Lawrence was a really welcoming community. She comes to Holland thinking ‘oh, it can’t be any worse,’ but it was. So… Holland discriminates in its own way. You won’t see Klan, but you’ll see a different ostracization going on. 

How do you describe that different ostracization, and what is its source?

You’re in a very friendly community, but you’re not friends. You’re not part of the community. So I don’t think it’s as largely based on race as it is based on family. Maybe you’re not Dutch, maybe you don’t go to the same church, maybe you’re not European American… There are a lot of different blocks put up that have nothing to do with race as much as it has to do with religion and family. It isn’t just people of color that feel uncomfortable in Holland in different ways. I think they face a very uncomfortable feeling of ‘I’m the only African American on this whole street walking with my family,’ and you stand out. I think it’s a very hard thing to do.

I’ve talked to a lot of Latino immigrants in Holland who feel the same way when they walk downtown. 8th Street is a very white, European place. I’ve heard the story of store owners reacting differently to people of color once they’re in the store. There’s this feeling on the sidewalk even… they feel it, and we maybe don’t even understand what we’re doing. 

Have you noticed a shift in the culture and/or values of Hope College over the decades? If so, how would you classify that shift?

Mayor Bocks being elected was a big shift for Holland — to vote for an openly liberal mayor. We’re talking about basically the ban to limit the ability to discriminate against people based on sex or otherwise when it came to housing or jobs. I mean… that was a big deal to get that passed. I don’t know the title of it or the language specifically, but I remember that was something that Nathan really campaigned on. I think everyone felt a sense of relief when he was elected because it was almost like we finally made the step in the right direction. It was one of those steps forward that I thought ‘wow, that was refreshing.’ I think that’s huge. 

Dr. VanderWerf in the 60s, when he came to Hope, really opened up the college’s thinking that this is an international rather than just this Dutch, Christian and liberal arts school in Holland, Michigan that all the Dutch families send all their Dutch kids to. That’s when we saw a large influx of African American students from all over. We had a feeder school in Alabama which was a Reformed high school. So we had this little Reformed Church of America high school in Brewton, Alabama, and our first African American alum is from there. And he went back and taught, and he became the principal, too, along with his wife, who was our first African American female graduate. He said, ‘this is a cool school, you should think about going there,’ and you can only imagine these kids in the 50s and 60s going to Holland Michigan… ‘well our teacher said this was a really great place…’ thankfully having Dr. VanderWerf and his wife there to receive them.

We had a very active Black Coalition, black student groups were formed, and they were really large and active at that time. Unfortunately, it has shrunk. That was the 50s and 60s, and in the 70s it started to peder out. Other universities in the U.S. became open, if you want to say, to those freshmen. They wanted black students as well. We had been isolated, people saying ‘let’s go to this small liberal arts school in Holland, Michigan because they will take us,’ and then the rest of them caught up. University of Alabama is a terrible example of how hard it was to go to a college, but when the colleges started to loosen up on admission of black students I think we lost our pool and they started to go to universities that they really wanted to go to, like Michigan State or University of Michigan. 

You’re saying Hope college used to be fairly cutting edge in its acceptance and percentage of students of color?

In Dr. VanderWerf’s era, yeah. That was when we had Jewish professors. We don’t have Jewish professors anymore, and we won’t because it’s not allowed. There’s a Chrstian Faith Statement that’s part of being a faculty member to teach at Hope. Even when Catholic professors were hired — that was not normal before Dr. VanderWerf. But then we had really great Catholic professors and a Jewish professor, Dr. Cohen. Now look at the population of Catholic students at Hope. I mean, it’s very close to 50%. You have to thank the Catholic professors who came to Hope knowing that a Reformed Church school for many years didn’t even look at Catholicism as Christian — it was another religion. Not as a denomination within Christianity but as another religion. 

Hope has come a long way, and I think that’s been very beneficial for our Catholic student population. Whoever thought that you would have a Catholic priest at Hope College holding mass? When I came here in 1997 that would’ve been impossible. Huge improvements that had to do with Dr. VanderWerf laying the groundwork and then taking a lot of heat for it, but it stuck.

You mentioned the presence of Jewish professors at Hope College. Was that before the Christian statement was established?

Well before that. Dr. Cohen was hired in the 60s as one of the few professors that Vanderwerf would’ve had some input on. But Dr. Cohen came to us with a huge legacy… I don’t know if his book had been written, but it was about African American struggles in the cities and during the Great Migration. He was a scholar that everyone wanted or should’ve had, and we got him. Coming from Jewish New York to Holland, Michigan as he did… I can only imagine. He had such great input. Most of the great historians that have come out of Hope have great memories of Dr. Cohen and Dr. Freid. Even though Dr. Freid was raised Jewish in Austria, I think he was an affirming Christian when he was here at Hope, largely because of the Holocaust. I’m still not sure. 

Dr. VanderWerf I think was still one of the most impactful presidents we’ve had. He allowed us to think a little bit more broadly about that stuff, and he was a great chemist, and brought a lot of great chemists here which turned Hope into a great science school. Think of that: you had a Christian school that’s really great in the sciences? A lot of people say ‘how does that work?’ But at Hope it does, we make it work. 

How do you think Hope’s culture of acceptance compares today to other colleges in our demographic?

I think there’s a lot of effort going into it, but I think there’s a lot of unknowns. There’s a lot of our faculty and staff that just don’t know what to do. I’m so thankful that we have brought staff members of color on board to maybe help us be better people in that way. We all have an element of racism in us, if you’re European Americans. It’s just there. You pick it up every day and you don’t even know it. We need to just face it, accept it, feel guilt like I do about it, and try to figure out how to move that forward. There’s a lot of training through GROW on the Go. We started that today in the library. It’s going to be hard. It’s 400 years of African American discrimination. You can only imagine how long it might take just for the people here to get that understood and get moving. 

What is GROW on the Go?

It’s a movement on campus to better understand people of color and minorities on campus and to be a little more proactive about it. Grow on the Go is a training that’s going on within the different departments that’s headed up by a few people. There’s a committee. You read a few articles, watch a TED talk and just try to get a conversation going. 

It’s mostly focused towards staff, but Grow is a college-wide thing. Grow is maybe a year old. It comes out of the office of Diversity and Inclusion. That is a part of hiring, it’s a part of retention, overall atmosphere, conversations… so it’s a pretty extensive project. 

What does this training have to do with staff and faculty retention?

We have a problem with [retention of] faculty and students of color because of a huge atmosphere problem. There’s just a comfort level that’s not being achieved rapidly enough or well enough. Look at the Catholic students and how they’ve grown. Now there’s a body of Catholic students, and they come together. You don’t have anything close to that for people of color. We don’t have enough students [of color]. You have to see the faces in class, the faces at the front of the class, faces like you in the staff, walking around… [Students and faculty of color] feel it everywhere. Holland is no exception. 

Image of former student assistant Mariana Buzo from 2014 working on the archives.

In your time as a member of the Hope community and as an explorer of its archives, what do you perceive to be Hope College’s capacity for change as an institution and a community?

I think it’s great. I see the college more open to change than I do the Holland community. I mean, this bubble protects us in many ways, and it’s a great place to work in many ways. I think there’s a lot of capacity there, and I think President Scogin has said as much — that this is what we’re going to do. We’re not going to ignore this anymore. His conversations in meetings, but also his letters to all of us. He will have something to say. He had something to say about George Floyd when he died, and he has not been shy about talking about the other incidents in the last year. That’s a good impression for all of us that he’s going to be pushing this, and we need to be either on board or get off. The college needs to progress in a direction different than where we are now to be successful. I think in his opinion, to be a good Christian school you need to do this well. This is not just about admission rates and money and graduates of color, this is about living into the mission of the college. We’ve got the right guy at the helm to lead us.

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