This article was originally published by Mennonite World Review

Pain and gain as an African-American student at EMU

HARRISONBURG, Va. — One morning in late summer of 1962, a 17-year-old native of Washington, D.C., arrived at what was then Eastern Mennonite College not knowing a soul. Grandison Hills’ parents told him it was a clean school with no drinking, no smoking, no dancing and no TV but lots of fresh air and great food.
Grandison Hill walks through campus in 1963. — Photo by EMU
Grandison Hill walks through campus in 1963. — Photo by EMU

“I was already accepted to Howard University right here in D.C.,” Hill said. “But my father knew I was hanging with the party crowd, and I’d be doomed academically if I went with my friends across town to Howard.”

Hill’s parents learned about EMC from relatives living in Luray, “a hoot and a holler” from Harrisonburg. “My uncle was a master barber in Luray. He and my aunt knew black folks in Harrisonburg, who knew what kind of folks they [the Mennonites at EMC] were.”

The academic and socio-cultural scene Hill found was a jolt for an urban African-American teen. He had a girlfriend back home, a love of dance parties and a repertoire of easy-flowing cursing from the trash-talking on D.C. basketball courts.

In 1962 at EMC, the percentage of white Mennonite students easily ran into the 90s, most from rural backgrounds. Hill was one of four U.S.-born black students, based on photos in the Shenandoah yearbook. Faculty men were required to wear plain coats, faculty women the prayer covering and modest dresses. Males and females did not publicly hold hands. Daily chapel attendance was mandatory.

Now a successful trial lawyer in D.C., Hill stayed at EMC only one year.

“My pillow was wet many a night,” Hill recalled, loath to disappoint his parents who had made huge financial sacrifices to put him at EMC. “My mother’s theme song was, ‘We don’t quit.’ ”

Hill was the first-born of three sons, raised in a home headed by education-oriented parents with middle-class salaries. Howard University was six blocks from his home.

Campus life

Hill dormed in the Brunk House adjacent to campus with six Mennonite males. By mid-fall, he was on the varsity basketball team.

He recalls “many impressive speakers” at daily chapels, which were different in style from his family’s Methodist church.
Grandison Hill has been a trial lawyer in Washington, D.C., for more than half of his life. — Photo by Kara Lofton/EMU
Grandison Hill has been a trial lawyer in Washington, D.C., for more than half of his life. — Photo by Kara Lofton/EMU

“The first time I heard a cappella singing, tears literally rolled down my face,” he said. “I had to pinch my eyes to keep from making a scene. I was stunned how beautiful it was.”

After chapel came the highlight of Hill’s day: a cafeteria meal served family-style, with three women and three men to a table, assigned randomly by number.

“There was a rhythm and ritual to it, standing until all arrived, the saying of grace, the singing of a song, the passing of the bread to the right, the filling of water glasses,” Hill said. “And then the pleasant conversation, getting acquainted around the table, each day learning to know a new set of students. By the end of the year, everyone on campus knew each other. And the food, like my parents promised, was always excellent.”

Encountering racism

Dean of men Alphie Zook counseled Hill when he arrived on campus, “Not everyone here will welcome you. Unfortunately, you may encounter some racism.”

One racist encounter happened on a Saturday, when meals were not served family-style. He sat down with his tray where several other students had gathered. Conversation stopped when someone said, “You should be eating that meal on the back porch.”

Hill felt his anger rise to the verge of striking back.

“I thought how disappointed my parents would be if I was kicked out for fighting,” he said. “I calmly laid my fork on the tray. I locked gazes with the guy; neither of us said a word. Eventually he looked away. I picked up my fork and continued eating.”

Other painful memories: The time a student got up and left when Hill came to a non-assigned table. Overhearing someone say, “What the h–l is he doing here?” Being called a “n—r” by a child in the presence of his Mennonite parents, who said nothing. A female student who met his eyes as they passed but seemed fearful of saying “hi.”

Getting support too

Yet Hill also experienced inter-racial solidarity. He described a time when he and a few schoolmates went downtown to see a movie, an activity that was then against school rules for everyone.

“After we’d bought our tickets, the manager told the rest of the group, ‘You can sit in the regular seats, but he has to sit in the balcony.’ They all decided to join me in the balcony,” he said. “About 10 minutes later, the manager appeared upstairs, saying there’s an official from EMC downstairs looking for us. And he showed us a side door to exit. I knew he was lying, but we all left on the slim chance we’d be caught.”

The one place Hill could relax was playing sports, especially basketball on a team that traveled to play games at Goshen (Ind.) College and Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, Pa. He recalls two Yoder brothers, Paul R. Jr. and N. Wayne, as tough competitors with serious talent.

One time in chapel, Paul helped Hill navigate a cross-cultural snafu.

“I was sitting at the back, and someone up front said something that caused everyone to stand, look straight back at me, and kneel down with their elbows on their seats. This caught me totally by surprise. They’re all looking at me,” Hill said of a method of praying no longer typically practiced in mainstream Mennonite churches. “Paul locked his eyes with mine and let me know I needed to do what he was doing.”

EMC had a handful of students from Kenya and Tanganyika in 1963.

“The international students from Africa didn’t know what to think of me; I was so different from them,” he said. “And the average Mennonite kid had never been around a black guy on a daily basis. Should I act friendly or keep him at arm’s length? Or just treat him as a human being? For my part, I tried to never offend, to keep a smile on my face and be open to conversation.”

Meeting the Lord

Hill’s biggest take-away, however, wasn’t in the academic realm.

“It was here that I met the Lord. It was a combination of things that got me thinking,” he said. “Everywhere I turned I’d find more evidence of the resurrection. The guys had an early morning prayer group. It wasn’t a devotional thing as much as learning from Scripture, reading the stories in a deeper way. And coming to my own conclusion: He’s real!”

Before Christmas break in 1962, Grandison Hill returned from class to his room to discover a box on his desk. He opened it to find a King James Bible, and inside the simple inscription, “The Brunk House.”

Despite meeting “many genuinely good people who did a lot to make me feel comfortable,” Hill felt lonely away from “my own people.” Bringing along his new Bible in the fall of 1963, he transferred to Virginia Union University in Richmond. With a Baptist seminary at the heart of campus, Hill got much of what his family liked about EMC, without the racial and cultural issues.

He majored in biology and minored in chemistry, then taught middle school math for three years in his home city before going to law school at Howard on a full scholarship. For more than half of his life, Hill has practiced as a civil and criminal defense trial lawyer.

He has these lingering questions from his year at EMC: “Did anybody get anything from me? From their experience meeting me? Did it open anybody’s mind?”

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