During the 1950s, when less than 20 percent of American high school graduates attended college, a group of ambitious young African Americans enrolled at Ohio University, a predominantly white school in Athens, Ohio. Because they were a tiny, barely tolerated minority, they banded together, supported each other, and formed lasting bonds. Years later, at a series of “Soulful Reunions,” they recalled the joys and challenges of living on a white campus before the civil rights era, and eighteen of them decided to share their stories.
The authors of the eighteen autobiographical sketches in Soulful Bobcats were a diverse group. They were athletes, rhetoricians, musicians, and actresses; they aspired to professions in the military, business, education, government, architecture, and the arts. Some grew up in poor families, while others enjoyed the comforts of the middle class. But they had several things in common. They all came from families that believed education was important. They had been taught to avoid trouble, to persist despite setbacks, and to expect to encounter prejudice and even discrimination.
The authors vividly describe instances in which they were humiliated—by other students, by professors, or by townspeople—as well as the few occasions when violence seemed inevitable. In addition, they describe their “first,” including becoming the first African American students at Ohio University to be awarded scholarships for their prowess in football, basketball, track, and tennis; the first to compete for titles such as “Mr. Fraternity” or “Queen of the Military Ball”; the first to appear in theatrical performances alongside their white schoolmates. They also tell of their success in providing a social life for themselves by organizing two Greek letter fraternities and one sorority, holding their own off-campus dances, and joining the few campus organizations that were open to them. Above all, their stories speak to a resilience that allowed these “Soulful Bobcats” to learn from their experiences at Ohio University, to engage in meaningful careers, and to lead rich, fulfilling lives.