A version of this essay originally ran in Paul Stevens’ newsletter “Connecting” and in the Columbia Missourian. It is being republished with the permission. Kia Breaux, the author, is director of regional media for The Associated Press in Missouri, Kansas and Iowa. Breaux also serves on the Missourian Publishing Association’s advisory board.
The events that unfolded last week at Mizzou brought back many painful memories. They also were an indication that the work I’ve done to improve things for the next generation of students at my alma mater has fallen short.
As a student pursuing a journalism degree at Mizzou in the 1990s, my intelligence was questioned. I was called a nigger and I was subjected to offensive racial stereotypes. I also was respected, educated and nurtured by faculty and staff of all races.
My first recollection of being treated differently as a black student came within a year of my enrollment. My 3.8 grade point average enabled me to take honors courses.
I walked into an English class on the first day and took a seat. The professor came over to me and said, “This is HONORS English.”
I told her that I was aware of that. She requested to see my schedule and I gave it to her. She shoved it back in my hand and walked away.
Several white students entered the class after me. None was asked to turn over a schedule for verification of enrollment. I was the only black student in the class all semester.
After I was accepted into the journalism school I worked at the university’s daily newspaper – the Columbia Missourian – as required for all journalism majors in the news-editorial sequence.
One day the police scanner in the newsroom indicted there was a disturbance at an intersection in a predominantly black neighborhood in Columbia. A faculty editor ordered a student reporter to get to the scene. The editor admonished the reporter for not moving fast enough and said, “They aren’t going to be out there all day eating their chicken and watermelon.” She was unaware that I was sitting a few feet away.
The editor had a look of shock and embarrassment on her face when I stood up and glared at her.
A year later while working as a residence hall assistant, I found the word “nigger” written on the bulletin board outside my room a day after I reported a group of underage white students for having alcohol in the dorm.
But the incident that nearly led me to give up and leave came when I was covering a rural Missouri county as a reporter for the Missourian. I was assigned to interview the neighbors of a murder suspect. A woman refused to talk to me when I knocked on her door and suggested I go talk to the people who lived on the “colored” side of town.
I was in tears when I called my father that night and told him I wanted to withdraw from the university. He told me I’d be doing what the racists wanted me to do if I left. He encouraged me to stay and prove that I was as deserving as anyone else to be there. My father also told me racism would likely exist at whatever college in which I decided to enroll next, so I might as well stay and make the most of the situation.
I also had black professors at the university who could relate to the unique challenges I faced as a black reporter covering a rural, predominantly white area. They shared similar experiences as young journalists working in the South. Family support and diverse faculty members who could identify with my struggles helped me stay the course.
I established a support system on campus and became involved in the student chapter of the National Association of Black Journalists. I also joined a historically black sorority.
I harbored some bitterness and resentment in the years after I graduated, but I returned to campus to mentor young journalists and support sorority activities.
I eventually purchased a lifetime membership in the Mizzou Alumni Association and began making donations to the university. I’ve also volunteered on various committees and advisory boards.
My goal has been to bring a diverse viewpoint to conversations about making the university a better place for all students. I’ve worked alongside some caring individuals of all races and from all walks of life who have been committed to diversity and inclusion. I’ve been able to look past my hurtful experiences at Mizzou and focus on the positive things my college education has meant for my life.
My sister graduated from Mizzou six years before I did and she suffered racial harassment. She hasn’t returned to campus since she graduated. Her memories are too painful. Nonetheless I purchased a brick bearing both of our names on the Mizzou Legacy Walk outside the alumni center.
I took my oldest son, who is 10, to a Mizzou homecoming for the first time this year. I wanted him to see where I went to college and expose him to all of the traditions that make Mizzou such a great university.
I’ve done a lot of reflecting about what the atmosphere at the university will be when my son could enroll less than a decade from now. He’s already determined to be a Tiger.
My hope is that students, faculty, administrators and alumni take advantage of this opportunity to bring about meaningful change.
All students should have the right to pursue higher education in an environment that is welcoming and free of racial harassment and intimidation.
They should also have an opportunity to be taught by faculty reflective of the changing demographics of our country. The fact that I did played a major role in the university retaining me as a student.
Reaching those goals is going to take some time, and it’s going to require open, honest communication on all sides.
If I had to do things over again, I would still enroll at Mizzou because I learned from some of the best journalism educators in the world. I still keep in touch with many of them today. I’ve also made lifelong friends.
My prayer is that my sons don’t have to endure some of the things that my sister and I did in order for me to add their names to our family’s brick on the Mizzou Legacy Walk. I have and will continue to work to make sure every student accepted into the university is made to feel they belong.