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Alumni and students discuss race issues at CMU, renaming buildings

Georgia senior starts petition to remove Foust, Kelly from campus facilities

Billy Kelly and Judson Foust both worked at Central Michigan University in 1965.

Cecil Rice showed up to football practice late one afternoon after taking a make-up exam. His teammates had taken a knee and were listening to Bill Kelly, Central Michigan University’s Head Football Coach from 1951 until 1966. Rice quietly walked onto the field behind him.

“(Kelly) was telling the team a joke,” Rice remembered. “(Teammates) were waving at him, trying to tell him to stop, but he didn’t know I was behind him.

“The joke was something like, ‘You know why we still have n*****s in America?’ He said, ‘Because we haven’t started playing cowboys and n*****s yet.’”

Rice stopped. In his mind, there was no way he could continue to play for Kelly. He walked back to the locker room. He left his uniform and equipment there and went back to his apartment. Rice only agreed to return to the team after assistant coach Bill Ouderkirk went to his apartment and asked him to come back.

According to Rice, the players all knew Kelly's thoughts and opinions about having Black players on his team. They understood why there were few men of color playing for the Chippewas. 

“It seemed that every year, at the end of the year, I was the only one left because they kept quitting and transferring to other colleges because of the racial situation and isolation,” Rice said.

That is the CMU that Rice and alumnus Gene Ragland attended in the 1960s. Experiences like Rice's were the reasons they agreed to help Central Michigan Life investigate the discrimination that students of color were experiencing from off-campus housing landlords. It was a story that President Judson Foust publicly criticized stating, “there wasn’t any problem here and someone is just trying to start one.”

With the death of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement drawing national attention to racism and inequality, alumni and students have been working to solve racial discrimination issues at CMU. Rice and Ragland have joined a conversation about whether having the names Kelly and Foust on university buildings is an accurate and acceptable reflection of CMU history.

Discrimination in off-campus housing survey

In January 1965, CM Life Managing Editor Tom Needels approached Rice and Ragland recruiting them both to take part in a survey to prove or disprove a rumor that Black students "were being discriminated against by the householders.”

The students took a copy of the approved off-campus housing list and went to 30 out of the 34 available houses for students under 21. No one was home at seven of the homes and another eight were already filled with both Black and white students. That left fifteen housing locations for them to survey.

During a July 1 Zoom interview, Rice and Ragland reunited to discuss the story. They recalled one memorable visit. Rice went to the house first and remembered it as the nicest experience by far. A family greeted him and invited him in for breakfast. Before he left they even introduced him to their daughter. Rice was surprised when they later rejected his application. 

Ragland visited the same family after Rice and remembered them encouraging him to rent the place so they didn't have to rent the room to a Black student.

After finishing their survey, the three students discovered that all 15 of the off-campus homes accepted Ragland's application. Rice was rejected by 10 of the 15.

"(Rice) was good enough when he played football for Central Michigan. Good enough to be cheered--but not good enough to live within the same house,” the article said. “At least that's what 10 out of 15 householders that had openings thought."

After the story was published, it caught the attention of both on and off campus readers. Due to his involvement in the story, Ragland's parents received a note threatening his life and the lives of his family.

"If your son wants to be with a colored boy, that's okay. But we in this community don't appreciate his kind, and if he wants to come here and stir up trouble, he may find that that's exactly what he'll get," the letter read.

The story also prompted a response from the university president. 

"My attitude is there wasn't any problem here and someone is just trying to start one," Foust commented in a Feb. 19, 1965 CM Life article. "The survey simply emphasized the fact that certain people didn't have any rooms open and should have emphasized the point that some people did... Why talk about something if there isn't any problem."

Before the story was published, Rice said he and Foust were “almost like buddy-buddy” due to interactions on bus rides to football games. Rice and Foust could often be found sitting by one another at the front of the bus. The two would had many conversations on a wide variety of topics.

“I should have but I didn’t realize his personal feelings," Rice said. "Being a Black man, you are always leery of people you come in contact with and it takes a while before you know them enough to relax your guard. I never relaxed with him, but I did talk to him and was amicable with him.”

After Rice read Foust's response to the CM Life story he never talked to him again. However, Kelly confronted Rice after the story was published. 

“(Kelly) called me in and said I had no business doing that and what was I trying to do, stir up trouble and a problem,” Rice said. “At the end of the conversation, he told me he wouldn’t have rented to me either.”

Petition to rename Foust Hall and Kelly-Shorts Stadium

Anthony Wilson said he chose to attend CMU to escape racism. But when the senior from Lake Spivey Estates, Georgia began his degree program he said he faced discrimination in the meteorology department from both students and faculty.

Now the Multicultural and Advancement Cofer Scholar is helping lead a new generation of students who are advocating for change at CMU. One of the things Wilson did this summer is create a petition to get Foust Hall renamed.

“Foust openly fostered an environment that promoted racism by not actively addressing it,” Wilson said. “Beyond some of his views towards his minority students his treatment of faculty and staff remains in question as he often overstepped the rights of faculty and staff.”

The building was named in honor of Foust by the Board of Trustees in 1973. In June, Wilson submitted a statement to the Board of Trustees asking them to remove Foust's name. 

President Bob Davies responded to an email from Wilson before the meeting. Wilson posted the response from Davies as an update to the petition.

“While they will likely not take action on Foust Hall during the meeting this week, know that your thoughts and words are heard and will not gone unnoticed,” Davies wrote to Wilson. “I expect the Trustees will direct me to present a complete and comprehensive plan and process for addressing a variety of issues, including the issues you raise with Foust Hall, rather than managing each individual item piecemeal.”

After talking with Rice a few days after his petition was posted, Wilson amended the petition to request that Kelly-Shorts Stadium also be renamed. 

The facility was originally called Perry Shorts Stadium in 1972, named after alumnus and generous donor R. Perry Shorts of Saginaw. In 1983, the Board of Trustees voted to rename the building to include Kelly, who was the university's winningest football coach. Kelly died in 1984 and was inducted in the CMU Athletics Hall of Fame in 1985. 

In his petition, Wilson asked if the CMU community wants students congregating in a stadium named after someone who didn't want Black students on campus.

Wilson said that although renaming a building and football stadium isn't enough to fix inequities on campus, he believes it is a good place to start.

“I think that as a campus community we are looking for unity and a campus that is representative of all students,” Wilson said. “African American students on this campus continue to deal with systemic inequities that exist within our society.”