UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Late on a Monday afternoon in May 1968, half of Penn State University’s black student population marched from College Avenue and up the campus mall to Old Main. Numbering about 100, most were members of an activist group called the Frederick E. Douglass Association. They planned to present 12 demands to Charles Lewis, Penn State’s vice president for student affairs.
The previous month, a sniper had shot and killed Martin Luther King Jr. on a Tennessee hotel balcony. Protests were erupting on campuses throughout the country.
“That was a time for expressing pain and just a time to express your deepest feelings and general vulnerability about the whole country and state and city,” says Frederick Phillips, a 1968 graduate who founded the Douglass Association.
The students were dissatisfied with the treatment of the black community at Penn State. They wanted course offerings with black literature and an African culture study program. They wanted more black students, more black athletes and more black professors, and they wanted black coaches.
Less than 1 percent of the student body was black, and the school had a handful of black faculty. As for black coaches, Penn State didn’t have any.
Today, James Franklin, hired in January, is Penn State’s first black head football coach. Mr. Franklin isn’t necessarily more than a football coach, but this story is about more than football.
Penn State today is trying to be a diverse university — and is as diverse as it has ever been concerning race, ethnicity and religion — in an area defined by homogeneity (a 90 percent white population in Centre County). Though its black student population, 4.1 percent at University Park, is lower than the University of Pittsburgh (5.3 percent) and Temple (14.7 percent), the graduation rate for black students has improved from around 40 percent 30 years ago to 67 percent now. Its percentage of minority and black faculty is in the middle of the pack nationally for a state university.
Into these contradictions, the hiring of Mr. Franklin is another benchmark of progress. Penn State is the flagship institution for the commonwealth, and the football coach is the school’s most visible leader.
Football here has the power to unite. It has the power to make people riot. It has the power to make people donate, cry and rejoice. As Penn State’s vice provost for educational equity Terrell Jones says, Penn State football games are “church.”
Mr. Jones says the highest-growing number of minority students he sees at Penn State are those of mixed race. Mr. Franklin’s late mother was white, from Britain, and his late father was black. He was a first-generation college student and he needed financial aid from football and a Pell Grant to attend East Stroudsburg University.
“I always felt like I’ve been a person who can interact and appreciate people from all different backgrounds,” Mr. Franklin says.
Mr. Phillips, now a psychologist with the Progressive Life Center human services firm, says the activists demanded black coaches in 1968 because several black athletes had complained of discrimination and they knew athletics were becoming a focal point for the university. Though more black athletes were playing for college teams, rare was the sight of a black coach anywhere, particularly at Penn State.
“It was disgraceful but reflective of the times,” says Roderic Woodson, a 1969 graduate who is now partner at the law firm Holland & Knight in Washington, D.C. “It’s hard to look at the 1960s through the lens of 2014.”
But even in 2014, Mr. Woodson understands the significance of Mr. Franklin for Penn State.
“His joining Penn State’s football program is another step,” he says. “It is not a culmination of anything. … It is a step that has occurred after a series of previous steps.”
Life in Lincoln Hall
The story behind Penn State’s “We Are” chant is legendary. When the University of Miami wouldn’t allow black players Wally Triplett and Denny Hoggard to play at their home stadium in 1946, the team voted to skip the game, lineman Steve Suhey explaining the decision by saying “We are Penn State,” and if one or two teammates couldn’t play, none would.
An important detail goes absent in the retellings. Mr. Triplett had spent his first couple of years at Penn State representing an institution that wouldn’t let him reside on its grounds. Black male students were prohibited from living on campus until after World War II. He had to live in Lincoln Hall.
When coach Bob Higgins told him he would be living there, Mr. Triplett imagined a stately dormitory. Instead it was a three-story house on Barnard Street, near West College Avenue, owned by two cooks who rented the home to students. Half of Penn State’s black population of about 16 students lived in Lincoln Hall.
The separation didn’t preclude success. Mr. Triplett’s roommate Barney Ewell would later win an Olympic gold medal, and another student, Roger Williams, became vice president of academic affairs at Morgan State University in Maryland. The forced closeness fostered a community.
“Shortly after that the black population started to grow,” says Darryl Daisey, a 1983 graduate who has researched black history at Penn State. “Lincoln Hall was the incubator.”
The black experience isn’t monolithic. To describe the lives of black students and faculty at Penn State as a whole is impossible. Julian Cook, a 1952 graduate, remembers the environment as acceptable but isolated, nothing like he dreamed after visiting during his senior year of high school. Having graduated just a few years later, Judith and Ron Davenport of Pittsburgh recall the Penn State community as honest and open and having “probably more integration than there is today,” said Ms. Davenport.
Mr. Woodson says he experienced direct racism at Penn State for the first time in his life in the mid-1960s. His first roommate, who was white, wouldn’t speak to him. Don Ferrell, Penn State’s first black head coach of any sport — bowling — was told by his family and friends to stay away from Penn State and what they considered in the early 1970s to be a racist climate.
“The one place that an African-American did not want to go to was Penn State University,” he says. “But I came up here, and I liked it, and I’ve been up here since.”
Seth Williams, now Philadelphia’s district attorney, says he liked Penn State, too, but he fought many of its policies as a student. He led a takeover of the telecommunications building as a protest of the university’s indifference to minority concerns in 1988. University President Bryce Jordan chose to send in state troopers to arrest the students rather than speak to them.
Heather James, a 1992 graduate, came to the school the fall after that protest. She thought of Penn State as reflective of what was happening in the real world.
“My version of activism was being fully immersed in the Penn State community and just knowing things would continue to get better,” Ms. James says.
The black population at Penn State has consistently grown, particularly after the 1968 protests, but proportionally it has never matched Pennsylvania’s black population. And every 10 to 15 years, a major event or protest by the black community regarding racial issues has taken place. Many of the proposed reforms have been the same, the problems never completely solved.
“Was I naive to the fact that I was a black male at a white institution? No,” says Christian Ragland, a 2011 graduate who served as student body president. “But I never let that kind of faze me. I was myself and did what I wanted in college.”
Mr. Jones, the Penn State vice provost for educational equity, says acts of racism on campus have risen in recent years. They are subtle, perpetrated by people who never thought they’d be doing something racist and who don’t necessarily understand the gravity of their actions. Think of last fall, when two students spray painted a swastika near a Jewish fraternity house, or when a white student published a racist tweet aimed at black students at the student union.
Large-scale racial incidents aren’t just relegated to Penn State’s distant past. In fall 2000, death threats were emailed to a black football player and black student leaders. Many students accused the administration of inaction. They chose to publicly display their grievances where people would be forced to notice: home football games.
At the homecoming game in 2000, hundreds of black, white and other minority students marched to Beaver Stadium. At the Blue-White game six months later, 26 black students rushed the field and were arrested.
Summers in the Hill District
Mr. Franklin’s father drifted in and out of his life, so his mother, Jocelyn, raised him and his sister, Debbie, in the Bucks County town of Langhorne. Summers and holidays, Mr. Franklin spent time with his father’s side of the family, in the Hill District of Pittsburgh.
Though Mr. Franklin’s father was absent, his mother stayed close with aunts and cousins and Mr. Franklin’s grandmother, Leoda Franklin. Leoda had a house on Bedford Avenue. One of his grandfather’s jobs was cleaning the original Crawford Grill.
Mr. Franklin met his mother’s side of the family just a handful of times on trips to England. The relatives who nurtured him came from his father’s side. The Franklins were descendants of slaves from North Carolina.
“That was the only family I knew,” Mr. Franklin says. “My whole family growing up was African-American.”
The Hill was and is predominantly black, some of it impoverished. Vacant buildings dominate much of the neighborhood’s landscape, their windows boarded up unless they have been shattered. Langhorne is affluent and predominantly white.
Mr. Franklin was part of two different communities, part of two races. He says the dynamic could be complicated but declined to discuss specifics.
“There were issues but for me to sit there and talk about the issues that I had growing up seems silly compared to what people had to deal with in the 1960s,” Mr. Franklin says.
In whatever community he lived, with whatever race he was surrounded by, much of his personality has been influenced by his mother. Jocelyn supported her kids by working as a custodian. A longtime friend from the Hill, Keith Gardner, says Mr. Franklin’s work ethic always defined him.
“He’s had to work and scratch for everything that he’s ever had,” Mr. Gardner says.
For Mr. Franklin, the Pell Grant and the scholarship didn’t cover all of his expenses at East Stroudsburg. During the summer, he worked several jobs. He worked for the local water and sewer authority, filed papers for a mortgage company and delivered pizzas.
One summer a full-time job opened at the authority. Mr. Franklin thought about applying and dropping out. He wanted to help his family.
“I always had regrets, leaving and going back to college,” he says.
Healing the divided
Mr. Franklin’s promises are many, and they are specific and wide-ranging: Attendance will be 107,000 for every home game. Pennsylvania’s recruits will belong to Penn State. He’ll be at every public engagement and he’ll even blow up balloons at birthday parties.
“If you’re someone who’s African-American like Franklin and you work here,” Mr. Jones says, “you have to have a lot more gears in your car engine to be successful.”
One of Mr. Franklin’s many stops of his two months in Happy Valley was a sociology class. While there, he talked about his heritage. He talked about his race. The times he brings it up will certainly be rare, but his race represents a change here.
Mr. Woodson is an active member of the Penn State alumni council and has served on its executive board. Most of the black friends who graduated with him, he says, don’t have fond feelings toward their alma mater. Even among recent black graduates, he says, participation with and contribution to Penn State is low.
As much as he credits Penn State for progressing, the disaffecting feeling Penn State and State College have given minorities hasn’t completely dissipated. Mr. Woodson is hopeful a successful coach can soothe that division and invite more diverse students and alumni to take part in the university community.
“The passing of the Paterno era has brought Penn State a new challenge,” Mr. Woodson says. “How does the school hold onto its identity both at the student level and the alumni level? Right now that answer has yet to be found or identified, in my humble opinion. But that said, the emergence of this African-American coach at Penn State and his expectation that he will turn the football program around will bring the African-American population in Pennsylvania and the others who are interested in it, it will bring them into the university in a big way. In a very big way.”
The extent of Mr. Franklin’s significance, whether it’s rallying Penn State or enticing contributions from alums or getting invited to those birthday parties, depends on winning. Nobody will support a loser. Worse, they might turn on one.
Mr. Jones, who has studied and worked at Penn State since the 1970s, has found that racial tension rises when the football team struggles. Those death threats to a football player and black students in 2000? They were sent in the middle of a 5-7 season that had come after years and years of winning.
“If he gives us two or three years of bad seasons, it won’t be really good,” he said. “The yelling coming out of the stands won’t be something you want to hear. Remember, it’s church.”
Mr. Jones says he’s already heard a faculty member discuss the need for Franklin to change his manner of speaking, and wonders if that criticism would be said of anyone but a coach of color. If the circumstances get difficult, he’ll have to find the bright spot and continue.
Many members of Penn State’s black community have always been able to find the good, even when the university didn’t make their lives easy. Like Mr. Triplett.
That same day he moved to Penn State and experienced its segregation, he walked out the back door of Lincoln Hall to meet with coach Higgins. He passed the bus stop on his way. A “help wanted” sign was posted for a dishwasher. Mr. Triplett ended up getting the job, and it helped support him for two years. The luck of life, he says.
Mr. Triplett, 87, visited Penn State when it commemorated Lincoln Hall two years ago. He has nothing but positive thoughts about the school that wouldn’t let him stay on its property because he was black.
“It’s changed,” he says of Penn State. “The last time I was up there, it’s a heck of a place.”
That school has also hired James Franklin.
“I thought it was time,” Mr. Triplett says, “and I hope and pray that he can do the job.”
Mark Dent: email@example.com, 412-439-3791 and Twitter @mdent05.
Mark Dent: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-439-3791 and Twitter @mdent05.