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African American Students at WCSA

In recognition of Black History Month, the Morris Human Rights Commission would like to republish the story of two early African-American residents of Morris. They were students in the 1920s at the West Central School of Agriculture. (More than 7,000 students attended the WCSA between 1910 and 1963. In 1960 the campus began the transition to become UMM.)

The following excerpt was written by James Horsman, a 2001 UMM graduate. THe article was first published in the Fall 2000 edition of "Profile," a UMM alumni publication. Horsman writes:

My first clue [about the diverse student body at WCSA] came while researching yearbooks -- marvelous archives of school life. The 1925 "Moccasin" [the WCSA yearbook] caught my attention. In this issue, African-American male students appear in four photos. As a social science student, I was intrigued. Inquiry revealed that a small community of African-American families lived near Fergus Falls during the 1920s. The easiest explanation was that the WCSA students came from that area. While this made sense, the photos were unidentified, and the Fergus Falls theory couldn't be proven. . . . I finally found a 1926 alumnus in Chokio who remembered the name Randle. I located the student's record at the West Central Research and Outreach Center. What I learned was remarkable.

Paul Randle was born August 8, 1905, in Piney, Mississippi. Randle had lifetime farm experience and two years of high school education at a predominantly African-American agricultural high school called Piney Woods, still in operation today, near Braxton, Miss. He entered the WCSA on October 14, 1924, and took courses in gas engines, woodwork, clarinet, violin and orchestra in addition to the typical course schedule.

After leaving the WCSA, Randle led a remarkable life. He made his home in Springfield, Ohio, worked as a materials handler at the Wright Patterson Air Force Base, was a member of the National Association of Retired Federal Employees and played in the Tiney Bradshaw Orchestra. Eric Jones, Randle's grandson, also of Springfield, remembers Randle as a gangly, athletic man who loved baseball, music, and performing on his trumpet. Kevin Jones, Randle's oldest grandson from Wilmington, N.C., a retired marine gunnery sergeant, said, "My grandfather was very modest." Though he spoke little of his accomplishments, Jones does recall his grandfather playing with big band conductor, Tommy Dorsey. Randle passed away on October 9, 1986.

Richard Williams was another African-American student who attended the WCSA during the 1924-1925 school year. According to WCSA records, he was born in January 1906 in Gulfport, Miss. Williams entered the WCSA on September 29, 1924, with six years of farm experience. He took courses like milk testing, electricity, and trombone besides the regular course schedule, and participated in the Vincent Literary Society and the Engineer's Club. Since William's birth date is not indicated on his records, matching his name with persons, either living or deceased, to find further information was difficult.

How did the two students from Mississippi learn of the WCSA? Bert Ahern, UMM professor of history, has researched minority experiences in history. He theorizes that Randle and Williams came to Morris through a faculty connection between the Piney Woods School and the WCSA. Ahern notes that African-American males in rural Mississippi during the 1920s faced intense racism and were often unable to escape their circumstance through a cruel system of sharecropping. "The Piney Woods Schools was an exception," Ahern says. It offered African-Americans an escape through education. In the case of Randle and Williams, escape may have come via admission to the WCSA.

Sketch of WCSA student Paul Randle, drawn about 1925 by another WCSA student.

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