Why I’m Leaving UT-Brownsville
This is, I assure everyone, a true story. Unfolding right now in 1999 and not 100 years ago. I offer it in order to illustrate race relations at the end of the millennium, lest anyone think everything is just fine.
The place is Brownsville, Texas. The same place where 93 years ago a company of Black soldiers was falsely accused of “shooting up the town.”
Shortly before the 25th Infantry of the United States Army arrived in Brownsville in 1906, the town’s populace talked of little else. Mostly they acted as if something worse than the plague was coming to town. The post’s surgeon, Captain Benjamin J. Edger Jr., reported at the time that of the many townspeople who approached him on the subject of the arrival of the Black battalion “there was not one who said the colored troops would be welcome.”
So when shots were fired one night close to Fort Brown, where the Black soldiers were posted, the local people assumed that the soldiers had done the shooting.
The hysterical tone of accusation grew by the hour, was adopted as true by “investigators,” and eventually reported as fact to President Theodore Roosevelt, who believed it and ordered the entire battalion, 167 men, dishonorably discharged from the U. S. Army.
In 1972, the charges were reversed and on February 11, 1973, Major General De Witt Smith Jr. apologized on behalf of the U.S. Army. By then, only one soldier, Pvt. Dorsie W. Willis, was alive to see his honor restored.
Ninety-three years is a long time for a community to learn nothing. But it seems to have happened to Brownsville.
This is my Brownsville story: I moved here in 1994 to teach political science at the University of Texas-Brownsville. During the second semester after I arrived, a student called me “[n-word]” and threatened to kill me. I reported this to the dean who told me to calm down and finish the semester.
A few months later, the same student insulted another professor visiting from another university. The professor, a White male, reported the incident to the dean. The student was expelled from UTB.
The same student, similar offense; different color and gender of reporting professor; different response by administrator.
The second episode: My husband (an adjunct professor at the university) and I were members of a faculty dinner club for two years. During one dinner, one of the White couples engaged in making racist comments openly and without self-censure. The husband walked over to us and told us that the nuts we were eating were called “[n-word] toes” where he comes from. The wife told the group about her recent trip to Zimbabwe. There, she explained to us, she kept her purse close to her body at all times because she “was afraid of Black people.” Some months later, we finally decided that a token social life was less important than our principles. I informed the other members that we felt it necessary to quit the dinner club. I told them why, hoping that at least some of them would speak out on our behalf, perhaps ask the racist couple to apologize — something. To my astonishment, they all accepted our resignation.
Since some of those people might have, one day, voted on my request for tenure, I felt not only personally offended, but also professionally threatened.
Some months later, I prepared a curriculum guide for the inclusion of diversity issues in introductory courses to the U.S. government. When I proudly presented to my White chairperson, he told me that he “could have done this in 20 minutes.”
I was stunned. His harsh comment caused me to doubt myself, so I sent a copy of the report to several academics across the country, including prominent historian Howard Zinn who said that the guide “should be distributed to every political science teacher in the country.”
By that time two important departmental events had taken place of which I was not notified. So I wrote to all pertinent administrators asking for help. I described the “20 minutes” comment and being excluded from departmental matters. I received absolutely no response from anyone for months.
Again, I was stunned. Finally, I asked the Texas Faculty Association to help me. They wrote a letter to the administration. A meeting was arranged between the liberal arts dean, my chairperson, and myself. The meeting consisted of my being asked to “prove” that the motive behind these events was racism.
I was speechless. Actually, I am speechless. I have no voice.
In case I, or anyone else, had not gotten the message of what life is like for Black people in Brownsville, my son was recently assaulted and beaten at a homecoming dance by 20 of his private high school “classmates,” who called him “[n-word]” and “pinche negro” as they beat him. The principal of the school said “this was just a case of boys fighting.”
When I read the account of the 1906 “Brownsville Raid,” I see the racist and hateful comments made in 1906 by the local population about the Black soldiers are not that different from what has happened to my family here in 1999, deep in the heart of Texas.
— Dr. Eliana Guerreiro Ramos Bennett, a political science professor at the University of Texas-Brownsville, is happy to report that she and her family will move to Greensboro, N.C. where she will teach at Bennett College this fall.
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