‘Freedom Walk’ Addresses Historical Injustices

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Eileen Houston-Stewart is a 1979 Jewell graduate and the first African American woman to join a Jewell sorority. She is a Jewell trustee emerita, a Racial Reconciliation Commissioner, and received a Citation for Achievement given to distinguished alumna. Houston-Stewart’s father and aunt are named on a plaque as having worked at William Jewell College at a time when neither they nor their families were allowed to enroll as students.

William Jewell College created a series of commemorative plaques this spring as part of a broader initiative — led by the school’s Racial Reconciliation Commission.— to acknowledge and rectify the school’s historical ties to slavery and segregation.

The Freedom Walk, consisting of four bronze plaques placed throughout the campus quad, highlights different eras in the college’s 175-year history.

Each plaque serves a distinct purpose: honoring the enslaved Africans whose labor from 1848 to 1865 contributed to the college’s establishment; remembering by name the 25 African Americans who worked at the college between 1868 and 1962 but were not permitted to enroll; commending the first 75 African American graduates, who began attending in 1962; and supporting the ongoing journey toward inclusion and freedom for current and future students and faculty.

Descendants of the African Americans honored on the memorials took part in the Freedom Walk dedication. Extensive research has been completed on the enslaved people known to have worked on the building of Jewell Hall, as well as those who were employed at the college before African Americans were permitted to be enrolled as students. QR codes will be added to the sign with a link to the research, and it will be provided to the Black Archives Mid America located in Kansas City.

Rodney Smith, PhD, vice president for access and engagement and chair of the Racial Reconciliation Commission, emphasized the importance of the Freedom Walk in a statement to KSHB Kansas City. “Our goals are to remedy a glaring absence in the physical memorialization of the earliest period in the College’s history, addressing historical inaccuracy, commemoration, repair and restoration as well as creating a better future.”

The dedication ceremony included a poignant moment as some of the first African American graduates were named and honored. A.J. Byrd, a 1969 graduate, reflected on his time at the college. “We weren’t being invited or encouraged to participate in the various organizations or societies,” he told KSHB Kansas City. “It was a lonesome experience.”

Byrd and other graduates, former employees and their families, along with the college’s first African American faculty — Pauline Oliver, Robert Parker, and Cecelia Robinson.— are now permanently recognized on the plaques.

This not only sheds light on the unacknowledged contributions of African Americans to the college, but also sets an example for other institutions grappling with similar historical injustices.

Smith has received an outpouring of messages supporting the Freedom Walk. “While I understand and appreciate the significance of this work, I did not anticipate the overwhelmingly positive response from alumni and the community at large,” he says. “I believe that there is a shared agreement that we cannot heal as a country without acknowledging our past. There seems to be a collective understanding that our nation will emerge stronger as a result of remembering.”