The Weekly Ringer

The University of Mary Washington Student Newspaper

NAACP hosts Black Mary Washington: Past, Present and Future discussion panel of Black students and alumni

5 min read

Maya Jenkins speaking at Black Mary Washington: Past, Present and Future, a panel discussion led by UMW’s NAACP | Abbey Magnet, The Weekly Ringer


Associate Editor

During his first year at UMW, class of 1996 alum Sye Smith had his first class taught by a Black professor: James Farmer. 

“One of the last questions that he asked at the end of the semester was … ‘Who in this classroom would say they would never practice racism?’” Sye said. “When I looked around the room at hands that didn’t look like mine, you saw every hand fly up in the room. And Dr. Farmer looked and told most of them, ‘Congratulations, you’ve just told your first lie.’” 

Smith’s story was part of Black Mary Washington: Past, Present and Future, a panel discussion led by UMW’s NAACP on Feb. 6. The event consisted of Black UMW alumni and current students, ranging from the class of 1984 to the class of 2025, answering and asking questions about their experiences at UMW.

Maya Jenkins, a senior political science major and president of UMW NAACP, presented questions to the panel. 

“I was seeing all these stories about people talking about Black people who exist at Mary Washington. I know when we come here, we be thinking like, ‘Am I the only person who’s experiencing these things? Like do these problems just happen to me?’ and it can be isolating,” she said. “These stories need to be told, not just for us, but so that future generations at Mary Washington know that there’s a playbook.”

After touring the university, Jenkins came to UMW with idealized expectations of what college would be like. 

“Then when I came here there was this shift in my mind, where an extremely traumatic racial incident happened before I even started my classes,” she said. “And then another thing happened during my classes and this kind of reality that I had, about how good Mary Washington is, kind of shifted. That doesn’t mean that I didn’t find joy—that I didn’t find beauty.” She credited the Black community at UMW that came before her for creating this beauty.

Multiple speakers recalled times in which they had experienced a hate crime.  

“My four years at Mary Washington, I can give you the rosy picture and I can give you the dark picture,” said Smith. “Myself, I was the victim of a hate crime.” If he had retaliated, he said, he probably would have ended up in prison instead of finishing college.

Smith found support and solidarity through his membership with Brothers of a New Direction, a student organization at UMW that he played a role in establishing. The organization works to provide a support system for men of color.

Myca Lester, a sophomore sociology major and chair of the Radical Students’ Union, recalled a similar experience.

“I have had multiple challenges being here. In the middle of my freshman year I was the victim of a hate crime on campus,” she said. “There wasn’t necessarily a lot of support from administration regarding that, but then Dr. Shorter came along, love her. And she sort of helped be, not just administration support, but support as a Black woman.” Shavonne Shorter is the associate provost for equity and inclusion and the chief diversity officer.

Kianna Davis, a class of 2013 alum with a degree in business, came to UMW with a full scholarship, which she tried to hide to avoid racist remarks from her peers.

“A lot of people would come up to me like, ‘Oh you only got that scholarship because you’re Black,’” she said. “That was really rough for me because it was like people diminishing my accomplishments to my skin color.”

Jason Ford graduated in 2020 with a degree in political science. During the summer after his sophomore year, he received an email saying he had violated the honor code by cheating. 

“There were three Black students in this sociology class … and somehow all three of us got accused of cheating,” he said. 

The basis for the allegation was that their grades had improved “too much” between the midterm and final exams. Though Ford spoke about the situation with administrators and the accusations were ultimately dropped, the fact that the accused students were Black—the only Black students in the class—troubled him.

“It was a weak argument, but what kind of shook me was the potential outcome of suspension or expulsion from the university,” he said. “It was definitely one of those times where I was like, ‘Why is this the accusations you’re making?’ And all three of the Black students got accused, it didn’t make any sense, at least the three Black males.”

Lester spoke on what helped her feel more comfortable at a predominantly white institution.

“I was a peer mentor and that really helped me, especially because three or four of my mentees, they were Black,” she said. “I started helping them navigate being a Black person at a PWI.”

Greta Franklin Okomo, a class of 2000 alum with a degree in art history, said she was greatly impacted by the Women of Color organization at UMW. 

“I was so mentored and cared for by the women, the students, but also the faculty advisors in Women of Color,” said Okomo. “I was so awed by them.”

Jenkins also noted the positive impact of Black women at UMW.

“We have this community of Black women who’s been here … that existed for generations,” she said. 

Ford enjoyed the community he found within the James Farmer Multicultural Center.

“That was the reason that I really enjoyed my time on campus there,” he said of the center. “It was the people you meet at that center, who come into that office, are truly the reason why I loved that school so much.”

Jenkins said that though the survival tips the panel members shared are helpful, students should not have to employ them.

“I’m seeing multiple generations, multiple decades of people saying that they were hate crimed, that they went through these things,” said Jenkins. “It’s beautiful to see all these tips and stuff like that about how we can survive but, like it was said, I’m not in the business of surviving.”

Jenkins continued, “In 20 years if a program like this is done again, I don’t want those kids to be like ‘Oh I experienced a hate crime, someone called me this,’ because that’s not how it’s supposed to be!”

Okomo shared advice for current students, encouraging them to advocate for themselves to faculty and administration. 

“Have a voice,” she said. “This is the time to have a voice, to let university administrators, let faculty members, know what your experiences are because you are a student and you are there to thrive, not survive.”

Joy Griffin, a 1984 alum with a degree in biology and chemistry, also shared words of encouragement for current UMW students.

“For you to forget that there are those who don’t think like you do and don’t see life as you do, that would be a non-reality,” she said. “Part of the reason why I’m here tonight is to do my best to encourage you, and all those who are attending Mary Wash now, because what you gain in your education as you stay and you commit and you come away with that, no one can take that from you.”