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'Fraternity' inspired racial equality at Holy Cross

Caitlin Yoshiko Kandil | 4/4/2012, 7:42 a.m.

“It is about the influence on many can have,” said Brady, “but it’s also about a group of men who seized an opportunity and changed Holy Cross for the better.”

“One thing you notice is that they were hard workers,” the author continued, “especially Wells and Thomas — they were in the library every night until the lights went off. So whatever opportunity they got, they certainly made the most of it. It wasn’t about getting handouts.”

Eddie Jenkins, who graduated from Suffolk Law School in Boston after his stint in the NFL, explained that the “relationships that were built” at Holy Cross aided his professional success.

Jenkins is now the chief of diversity and civil rights officer for the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, and lives in Roxbury.

“Within the isolated campus, we were able to build what I thought was a pretty strong black community of people who shared the same principles, shared the same ideas, shared the same dreams,” he said. “It allowed me to make the adjustment into this powerful America that I was trying to bridge in to.”

Holy Cross launched many of these men into successful careers, but Brady also shows how the men influenced their college.

By the end of 1969, anti-war protests were erupting across the country, and Worcester was no different. When General Electric came to Holy Cross for a recruitment visit, black and white students organized a protest of the company’s role as a weapons manufacturer and interrupted on-campus job interviews.

The administration cracked down, and suspended 16 students for the rest of the academic year. Four of the five black students at the protest were suspended, even though none of them were organizers.

Black students saw racism in the suspension — they had only been targeted because they were easily identified, and while only 20 percent of the white students had been penalized, 80 percent of the black students were. In protest, all of the black students decided to walk out of Holy Cross — permanently.

Even Thomas, who had his sights set on law school, packed his bags, expecting to leave campus forever. But after a few days, the administration gave in, and reversed the suspensions of all 16 students, black and white.

“Holy Cross was richer for having had these men there,” Brady said.

Today, the college is co-ed and boasts a student body in which 25 percent are African American, Latino, Asian American or Native American.

“The environment and commitment that was brought to bear by Father Brooks certainly continues throughout the college’s existence,” said Mable Millner, assistant dean of students and director of multicultural education at Holy Cross. “We’re hoping that diversity and inclusiveness become a natural part of who we are.”

For Jenkins, “Fraternity” goes beyond Holy Cross. “It has energized not only me, but a lot of my classmates and contemporaries who were part of the struggle for civil rights back in the 1970s,” he said. “It has allowed us to take a measure of how far we have come in that struggle — so it’s a new dialogue between people of that era and people of today.

Jenkins went on, “Our message to them is that we don’t want to be a monument of success — we actually have a living message that you can adopt. Some of those things are the hard work and the discipline and coming together as community in order to forge a powerful union together.”