From the Arkansas Delta to Indiana University Administration: The Charlie Nelms Papers, 1967-2016

Charlie Nelms is an unparalleled force in higher education. From his early days as a graduate student at Indiana University to his executive leadership roles at IU and beyond, Nelms has deeply affected the landscape of higher education in the United States. I had the absolute pleasure of processing the Charlie Nelms papers, 1967-2016 (Collection C701) at the University Archives. This collection of writings, correspondence, reports, publications, audiovisual recordings, and ephemera documents Nelms’ life as a great leader, activist, orator, and educator. The potential uses of this collection are expansive. Anyone interested in diversity and race in higher education, university administration, philanthropy, public speaking, community outreach, mentorship, or memoir writing should definitely make use of this collection.

Charlie Nelms is shown sitting and reading a document.
Charlie Nelms, 1988. IU Archives Photograph Collection, P0028387

Charlie Nelms was born in Crawfordsville, Arkansas (in the Arkansas Delta) in 1946. Nelms was one of eleven children born to subsistence farmers and community organizers. Throughout his career and in his publications today, Nelms has reflected on growing up in the Arkansas Delta during the Jim Crow era. Many of these reflections appear in the Charlie Nelms papers, especially in the “Speeches” series (my favorite part of the collection). These anecdotes provide a powerful context to understand just how important his leadership at IU has been. Nelms shared a couple such anecdotes at the Black History Month Closing Reception at IU in 2005:

“Growing up in the Delta Region of Arkansas at a time when African Americans weren’t as fully integrated into society as they are today, Negro History Week took on special significance for my rural classmates and me. Back then you seldom saw a black face on television. In fact, very few black people even owned a television set. Popular programs included Amos and Andy, the Friday night boxing match, church sponsored box suppers and Sunday worship. And yes, there was the mourner’s bench, getting religion and being baptized in the local creek. As for me, I got religion and was baptized in a local lake known as Buck Lake. As painful as our history is, including everything from the middle passage to slavery, emancipation, segregation, desegregation, and integration, it is a history that we dare not forget lest we repeat it.”

In a 2004 speech for the Black Alumni Weekend at University of Kansas, Nelms detailed:

“School was some place you went after the cotton crop was harvested;

Decided I wanted to make the world a better place rather than wasting my energy on being angry;

Although my parents were barely literate, they had an abiding faith in education; Mama and Papa told us to get a good education because no one could take it away from you;

I know from experience that education is the engine of opportunity. The research is clear, unless you are born rich, education is the best vehicle for improving the quality of life for individuals, communities, and nations.”

These are important points to understand Nelms’ narrative: he has long understood education as the core of a just, democratic society. The biographical note on his personal website, www.charlienelms.com, states it succinctly:

“While poverty and discrimination shaped Charlie as he sought to escape their grip, he has never felt the need to escape his responsibility for eradicating their pernicious effects. Charlie deeply believes that equity and excellence are core principles of democracy, and both are achievable.”

For his undergraduate degree, Nelms stayed close to home and attended University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff. After he received his B.S. in chemistry and agronomy there in 1968, he came to IU for his graduate work. He received an M.S. in higher education and student affairs in 1971 and an Ed.D. in higher education administration in 1977. The “Personal” series of the collection contains some materials from his graduate school days, such as newspapers and articles he used for research.

Like so many in academia, Charlie Nelms worked for many different universities throughout his career. After graduate school, Nelms worked at IU Northwest as a Professor of Education and Associate Dean for Academic Affairs from 1978-1984. The “Other Institutions” series of the collection includes teaching files, reports, and tenure dossier materials from his time at IU Northwest. The series also documents his next job as Vice President for Student Services at Sinclair Community College in Dayton, Ohio. In 1987, Nelms was hired as Chancellor and Professor of Education at IU East (in Richmond, Indiana). The Indiana University East series documents his time there from 1987-1994. The series provides a window into IU East at the time, including a campus dialogue on race in America, efforts to increase black student enrollment, and general strategic planning efforts. The series also contains materials (including a lovely photo album) from Nelms’ cultural ambassador trip to a Japanese primary school in 1991.

Charlie Nelms sits at a desk. Two women and two men stand nearby. On the desk are pieces of paper with Japanese character calligraphy.
Charlie Nelms tries his hand at calligraphy while on a cultural ambassador trip to Japan, 1991.

In 1994 Nelms left Indiana entirely to become Chancellor and Professor of Education at University of Michigan-Flint, a position he served in until 1998. His time in Flint is documented in the “Speeches” series through transcripts and notes from speeches he gave at area community organizations—including the Urban League of Flint, the Flint Neighborhood Coalition, the Flint Public Library, Flint Community Schools, and Mott Community College.

In 1998, Nelms became a Hoosier again and began serving as Vice President for Institutional Development and Student Affairs at IU Bloomington (he served in this role until 2007). During his service here, Nelms led a team of university administrators from across the country to design and implement 20/20: A Vision for Achieving Equity and Excellence at IU-Bloomington. 20/20 implemented a host of recommendations made by Nelms’ team on how IU could ensure the campus actively promoted a racially and ethnically diverse student, faculty, and administrative body. Nelms embodied the goals of this plan throughout his leadership on Bloomington’s campus, particularly through collaborative efforts to fund diversity initiatives. He worked with Purdue University to secure a $3 million National Science Foundation grant to increase minority enrollment in STEM fields; helped secure $26 million in funding to construct and dedicate the Neal-Marshall Black Culture Center; and launched the $5 million Jimmy Ross Endowment Fund for Diversity Initiatives. Materials across the Nelms papers document these efforts and more.

Charlie Nelms stands with his wife and young son outside.
Charlie Nelms with his wife, Jenetta, and his son, Rashad, 1988. IU Archives Photograph Collection P0028383.

Nelms left Bloomington in 2007 to become Chancellor at North Carolina Central University (NCCU), a public, historically black university (or HBCU). The “Other Institutions” series contains notes, reports, and publications from his tenure at NCCU. Although he officially retired from NCCU in 2012, Nelms has remained an active author, public speaker, and consultant. His books include Lessons Taught, Lessons Learned (Bookmasters, 2004) and From Cotton Fields to University Leadership: All Eyes on Charlie (Indiana University Press, 2019). A portion of the proceeds from From Cotton Fields to University Leadership are donated to HBCU scholarships.  In 2019, Nelms was awarded an honorary doctorate from IU for his exemplary leadership.

As I mentioned, my favorite part of the Charlie Nelms papers remains the “Speeches” series. Not only does it reveal the depth and breadth of his community engagement, it shows how Nelms has woven his commitment to justice and education throughout his career. Even beyond this series, however, the Charlie Nelms papers documents a life and career we should all aspire to. As our late winter doldrums trudge on, it’s easy to become stressed and disheartened with our workloads as university students and employees. I urge you to check out this collection when you need a reminder of why your education and work (here at IU, at another university, or anywhere, really) matters for the betterment of our democracy. If you are interested in viewing this collection, please feel free to contact us and set up an appointment!

Eddie Whitehead: Breaking I.U.’s Color Barrier in Baseball

Eddie Whitehead, IU Archives, Image no. P0052290

Throughout 2019, Major League Baseball will honor the centennial of Jackie Robinson’s birth. Robinson made history in 1947 when he broke professional baseball’s color barrier by playing second base for the then-Brooklyn Dodgers. Robinson’s courageous actions spurred the racial integration of the sport, ending decades of segregated baseball. In 1956, Robinson’s last year in the majors, Indiana University’s baseball team welcomed its first African American player, catcher Eddie Whitehead. Whitehead, a native of Madison, Indiana, joined as a sophomore and was one of five catchers on the team that year.

Though Whitehead made his debut nearly ten years after Robinson’s debut, a spring break trip through Florida and Georgia from March 26-31, 1956, illustrated the racial disharmony that was still prevalent throughout the country. At the major league level, professional baseball would not be fully integrated until 1959, when the Boston Red Sox became the last team to welcome an African American player on its roster. At the collegiate level, a strict “gentleman’s agreement” prohibiting non-professional contests between African Americans and whites was in force in the South, meaning if Whitehead played, the other teams would not play I.U. According to a March 22, 1956 press release, I.U. entered into the six games without knowledge of this agreement, thereby hindering the team’s ability to pull out of the games. After speaking with I.U. President Herman B Wells, Whitehead decided he did not want to ruin the trip for his teammates by not going, so he decided to make the journey, though he did not play as per the agreement.

In a 2017 Indiana University Bicentennial oral history interview, Whitehead’s daughter, Dr. Dawn Whitehead, recalled the stories her father told her about the trip. Traveling through the Jim Crow south was “a profound experience for him,” she said. “He often didn’t get to eat in restaurants with his teammates, and they would bring food out to the bus.” “He would also sometimes not be able to stay in the same hotels where his teammates stayed,” Whitehead recalled.

Listen to Dawn Whitehead share more memories of her father in this clip from her IU Bicentennial Oral History interview:

In a March 27, 1956, Indianapolis Times article, Eddie stated he had to eat in the hotel kitchen in Harriman, Tennessee. In Cedartown, Georgia, he ate in the car. Both times I.U. baseball coach Ernie Andres joined him. “I stayed with Eddie everywhere we went,” Andres said in an April 18, 1997 article in the Indiana Daily Student. “My only fear was that he would get hurt.”

While I.U. played Florida State, Eddie stayed at Florida A & M, a historically black college. While there, he trained with their baseball team and stayed in a dorm room. Dawn Whitehead stated staying at Florida A & M was the fondest memory of the trip for her father. Coach Andres made arrangements for Eddie to stay with African American families while the team played Florida University and Georgia Teachers. “I don’t think I could ever live down here,” Eddie said in the March 27, 1956, Indianapolis Times article. “I just couldn’t. It seems so different. Too many drawbacks.” “People look at you so cold,” Whitehead said in another Indianapolis Times article from March 28, 1956. “Like you’re something different. Like you were inferior.”

Upon the team’s return to Bloomington, Wells expressed outrage at the treatment of Whitehead. “It’s outrageous the indignities now being suffered in the South by Eddie Whitehead,” Wells stated in a March 28, 1956, Louisville Times article. “This is very distasteful to me. I’m opposed to segregation in any form. Indiana is the leader in the nation against segregation in schools as well as in athletics.” Wells received numerous letters regarding the incident. Some came from supporters, while others came from those questioning his reasoning for allowing Whitehead to go when the team knew he wouldn’t be able to play.

Scorecard from the April 24, 1956 game against Butler. Whitehead went 1-for-2 with a run scored and a triple. (Accn. # 2015/027, Box 306, “Baseball 1956.”)

Whitehead played in 12 games during the 1956 campaign. His most notable game that year occurred on April 24 against Butler. He went 1 for 2, with a triple, one base-on-balls, and two RBIs. I.U. defeated the Bulldogs in an 18-5 thrashing. At the conclusion of the season, he was awarded a varsity letter.

Whitehead graduated with a Bachelor’s of Science in 1958. He became a banker, a profession in which he remained for thirty years; he also worked on the statistics crews for the Indiana Pacers and the Indianapolis Colts. Whitehead passed away on September 10, 2014, at the age of 77.

Diversity in the Historical Record – The Dean of Faculties records

African Americans are often underrepresented in American archival collections, a fact which the archival profession acknowledges. In her 2012 article “The Heart of the Matter: The Development of African American Archives” in The American Archivist, Rabia Gibbs states:

“To develop authentic, sustainable, and meaningful initiatives, we must set aside our assumptions, examine the diversity within diverse groups, and modify our objectives to incorporate the full range of perspectives available within these respective communities. Diverse and comprehensive representation in different types of collections is a luxury taken for granted by the social majority represented in mainstream archives; it is a right that should be afforded to the groups to which we, as a profession, aspire to give a broader voice.”

Camilla Williams, late 1980’s or early 1990’s

While the Indiana University Archives holds records from the Office of African American AffairsOmega Psi Phi Fraternity, and faculty members such as Camilla Williams of the Jacobs School of Music, documentation about the African American experience at Indiana University is often sparse. It is through broad administrative collections such as the President’s Office and the Dean of the Faculties records that researchers are sometimes able to fill in some of the gaps.

Recently processed, one of the Dean of Faculties collections has a plethora of information ranging from 1946-1982 (in particular from the late 1960s to the 1970s). It includes records predominantly from the tenure of Ralph C. Collins (1959-1963), Ray L. Heffner, Jr. (1964-1966), Joseph L. Sutton (1966-1968), Joseph R. Hartley (1968-1969), and Henry H. H. Remak (1969-1974) and consists of correspondence, reports, committee files, minutes, and memos which document the development of new departments and policies, administrative policies and procedures concerning faculty members, and curriculum development. Of particular relevance to African American history at IU are records related to the development of academic and cultural programs in response to the implementation of diversity and affirmative action policies at the university.

African American Soul Revue , 1982.

As an example, files within the Dean of Faculties records document the development of Afro-American Affairs at Indiana University including courses and student organizations. As affirmative action policies were introduced, Indiana University sought to attract more black faculty and increase student enrollment, while at the same time ensuring that they felt comfortable and engaged within the campus community. As outlined by a pamphlet from 1973, this emerged through the development of the Black Culture Center, the Afro-American Tutorial Program, and student organizations such

African American Dance Company, 1982.

as the Soul Revue which became one of the three student groups to make up the African American Arts Institute. The institute now includes the African American Dance Company and the African American Choral Ensemble. Today these three accomplished ensembles continue to perform in the community, and travel regionally and even abroad.

As archivists we are always trying to diversify our collections. If you happen to know of any manuscripts that relate to student life (in particular to the life of minorities) at Indiana University please do not hesitate to contact the University Archives and consider donating!

Sincerely Yours: Byron Armstrong Denounces Labeling

“Any practice which tends to divide off American citizens is certainly inconsistent with progressive democratic ideals, and must pass.”

It’s been a little over a hundred years since the founding of Kappa Alpha Psi, one of the first fraternities for African Americans, and the organization is still thriving today. Since its founding, the fraternity has been known for its acceptance of all members, no matter their race, religious affiliation, or national origins. Many people might not know that a few dedicated young men of color founded the first chapter of Kappa Alpha Psi right here at Indiana University in 1911. Founder Byron K. Armstrong, among others, sought out a welcoming, friendly environment for the organization of African Americans on campus.

Armstrong was originally from Westfield, Indiana, but attended Howard University in Washington D.C. until around 1910 when he visited his cousin, Irven Armstrong, at the IU campus. Impressed with the educational opportunities given by IU, he and a friend he met at Howard, Elder Watson Diggs, transferred. The two of them were among only ten African American students at IU at the time. White students mostly ignored their presence, and they had few opportunities to gather in recreational groups or sports (any sport that involved physical contact was off-limits). Thus, the concept of a fraternity of their own easily caught interest. They organized Kappa Alpha Nu (a forerunner of Kappa Alpha Psi) in 1911 with Diggs as the permanent chairman (Polemarch), Armstrong the sergeant at arms (Keeper of the Records), and John Lee as the secretary (Strategus). Other founders were Guy Levis Grant, Ezra D. Alexander, Edward G. Irvin, Paul W. Caine, Marcus Peter Blakemore, Henry T. Asher, and George Edmunds. Many of the founders went on to have illustrious careers.

Byron, in particular, completed his Master’s degree at Columbia University by 1914, served as the Dean of Education for Langston University from 1921-1927 and 1931-1935, and continued the spread of new chapters of Kappa Alpha Psi to other campuses. However, there comes a time when every alumni has to order up a copy of their transcript in order to continue with their professional career. Byron ordered his in 1935– the same year he received the Laurel Wreath award, the highest honor given by the fraternity– only to be unpleasantly taken aback by the words “colored student” printed onto it.

The archives are in possession of the President’s Office correspondence from 1913-1937, which contains the exchange between Armstrong and the office.

 

It reads:

Your letter of the 17th has reached me. I note that the transcript of my work is slightly unlike the others that you have sent me in that it bears the word colored on it. I suppose this is for your own record, but such a label is a distinct handicap to me in many [cases]. I am therefore asking that in the future you please leave this notation off since it was not on the original.

While it has no connection with this matter I have recently learned that the University has shut colored students out of the Indiana Union. If this is true it is very unfair and certainly is not in keeping with a great University. As I am always loyal to Indiana I hope that the day will come when the University can once again return to the ideals of a great democratic University.

The response from the President’s Office indicated they believed they had good reason to keep “colored student” written on the transcript, but did not address his second concern at all.

I returned to my office this morning after several weeks illness at home. My secretary, Miss Dillman, showed me your letter of recent date. Our plan of marking the word ‘colored’ on the cards of colored people is merely for the purpose of giving us information as to who each person is. For instance we have had several cases where four persons have had the same name, still more where three have had the same name, and in a great many cases two have had the same name. It is important in issuing photostatic copies of records or giving recommendations that we have the right person in mind. It is no reflection whatever on colored people to have their cards designated ‘colored’. We try to treat everybody here the same way, regardless of color, politics, or religion.

Not entirely satisfied with that response, Armstrong wrote again:

Your letter of the 18th has reached me and I am sorry to bother you further concerning the matter, but since I am sure you do not fully understand my reasons for writing you concerning this matter, I beg to write to you again.

I may say that I have objections to your designation of ‘colored’ on your private transcript because I certainly do regard it as a label.

My reasons for objecting to this word on any copy used out of your office are as follows:

1. Many jobs will be closed to me because of such a designation, due to race prejudice.

2. I am sure you do not wish to be party to any such handicapping of one of your graduates, regardless of color.

3. This is not a common practice among the greater universities in the progressive sections of America.

4. There are other methods of identification of students without the use of such a stigma.

5. Any such practice is certainly not in keeping with the spirit of Indiana I once knew, and knowing you as I do, I am sure you would not approve of this matter.

6. Any practice which tends to divide off American citizens is certainly inconsistent with progressive democratic ideals, and must pass.

7. Finally, it seems to me Indiana in recent years has pursued many policies of segregation which may in part explain why our university rated as it did in the Educational Record for July, 1934; because no university is greater than its ideals.

Armstrong wouldn’t stand for being racially stereotyped by his future employers, although it is unclear whether IU granted him new transcripts without the “colored student” indicator or not. In my previous article about mathematician Elbert F. Cox, I mentioned that he had the same indicator on his transcripts, though he ordered his earlier than this one for Armstrong. We don’t know precisely when IU stopped including that on their transcripts; our guess would be around the student population boom following World War II.

But Armstrong couldn’t be held back from success. He went on to earn his doctorate in philosophy from the University of Michigan, and taught in several states around the country. Kappa Alpha Psi still thrives today, and credits Armstrong as a founder on its web site.

Remembering Elbert F. Cox: African American Excellence in Mathematics

Throughout IU’s history, there have been countless examples of greatness and outstanding achievement by its African American students. It is important to remember those students who, despite being faced with overwhelming social challenges due to their race, made ripples through academia that have lasted for years. For this year’s Black History Month, we remember one of those students whose accomplishments made it possible for others to strive towards the same goal: Elbert F. Cox. Cox was the first African American in the country, and allegedly the entire world, to receive his PhD in mathematics, but not before receiving his undergraduate degree from IU.

Racial Tensions in Evansville

Cox was born on December 5th, 1895 in Evansville, Indiana. Evansville, like a majority of the towns at the time, had a segregated school system that saw African American students receiving an inadequate, underfunded education. But Evansville may have been even more racially divided than many of the other towns in Indiana, and the tensions between black and white citizens would come to a violent head more than once during Cox’s lifetime. A four-day race riot in 1903 occurred when a mob of white citizens stormed the county jail after the murder of a white policeman, which resulted in 12 deaths and could only be stopped when the Indiana governor called in a militia of 300 men to subdue it. Later, in 1920, the Ku Klux Klan would make its Indiana headquarters in Evansville.

Still, Cox’s family was among those who did not flee the city after the riot in 1903. They lived in a racially mixed neighborhood called Baptistown, where a majority of African Americans lived in Evansville at the time. Despite the adversity they faced from the white community, Cox had positive role models in Evansville. He could look up to the black teachers in his school, who promoted literacy and education. It is also possible that his father (one of his most essential inspirations) was a key reason for them to remain there after the riot, as he served as principal and educator for schools in Evansville and would do so for up to 50 years.

Indiana University and the Euclidean Circle

From Evansville, Cox made his journey to Indiana University in 1913 to study physics and mathematics. The math department at IU had several noteworthy professors at the time who would shape his education and help with his later academic endeavors. Some of his most influential educators were mathematics instructors/professors Cora Hennel, Schuyler Davisson, and Tobias Dantzig, who were all involved in some way with IU’s Euclidean Circle.

The Euclidean Circle photo from the 1916 Arbutus. Cox, Hennel, Davisson, and Dantzig are all pictured here.

The purpose of the Euclidean Circle was to organize the faculty and students within the mathematics department, discuss mathematical questions, and share information. They initiated Cox on March 15th, 1915 as the first African American student to the group.

Cox also made his place within other organizations such as the Physics Club, where he acted as secretary in his senior year. That year his brother, Alvalon, also joined him in the club. The African American fraternity, Kappa Alpha Psi, accepted him in 1915. He truly had an abundance of positive influences here at IU—but he, and the other African American students, still faced unfair treatment in different aspects of their education. His transcripts would read “colored student” across the top. He would be listed at the end of the graduates in the Arbutus in 1917, along with the other three African American graduates. And finally, he would be denied membership in the honor society Phi Beta Kappa despite his outstanding academic achievements. It is possible that they denied him purely because of his race. That being said, Cox (understandably) may have had mixed feelings about IU by the time he left.

Cornell’s Perfect Fit

Cox spent some of his time after IU as a math and physics teacher in the segregated schools of Henderson, Kentucky. In a letter to IU President William Lowe Bryan, he revealed that he had been inducted into military service and requested a letter of recommendation. This service would take him to Des Moines, Iowa and France for around nine months.

He later told his sons that he enjoyed being in the military and serving his country.

From there, he went to Shaw University in North Carolina for three years as a professor of the sciences and eventually became the head of the Department of Natural Science. However, by 1921, he was ready to further his education, and began the application process for a doctoral program at Cornell University.

Two of those professors from IU who had guided him during his time as an undergrad were happy to provide him with letters of recommendation during his application process. Davisson wrote in his letter, “[Cox] surpasses any colored man I have known as a student in mathematics.” Dantzig wrote two letters, worried that Cox would have “certain difficulties…because of the fact that he is of the colored race,” but that Cox would “develop into a man of whom the American mathematical world may be justly proud.” With these recommendations, Cox was able to gain acceptance after another candidate dropped from the competition.

The founder and the first president of Cornell University made sure that Cornell would be a perfect fit for Cox. Ezra Cornell (1807-1874) founded the university with hopes that it would provide equal opportunities for all who wished to be educated, and greatly opposed the practice of slavery. Andrew Dickson White (1832-1918), the first president of Cornell, promoted the admittance of both women and people of color into his university.

Cox was granted his PhD degree on September 26th, 1925. He completed a dissertation, which he published in the Tohoku Mathematical Journal in Sendai, Japan (after being declined by publishers in England and Germany) nine years after his graduation. One of his professors suggested publishing abroad to help legitimize his position as the first African-American in the world to receive his PhD in mathematics.

Life Beyond Cornell

Cox didn’t receive as much recognition during his life as he did after he passed away in 1969, but he was the first African American to be admitted into the American Mathematical Society. He worked as a professor at West Virginia State College (which was then an all-black institution) and then later Howard University in Washington D.C. Unfortunately, many scholars and professors refused to recognize his thesis as legitimate.

Regardless, he was said to be a popular professor who enjoyed his career. In 1954, he became the head of the mathematics department at Howard University. For many students, he would have acted as that same role model that his black teachers in Evansville were to him half a century earlier. After his death, he gained recognition as an African American pioneer of mathematics, and to this day is still thanked for the boundaries that he broke.