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Miami celebrates Black history with renaming ceremonies

<p>In 1964, the Western College for Women (now part of Miami University) in Oxford hosted hundreds of student volunteers to train them on how to register voters in the South as part of the Civil Rights Movement. The event was called Freedom Summer.</p>

In 1964, the Western College for Women (now part of Miami University) in Oxford hosted hundreds of student volunteers to train them on how to register voters in the South as part of the Civil Rights Movement. The event was called Freedom Summer.

As Black History Month comes to a close, Miami University published two virtual renaming ceremonies honoring its own Black history. 

The ceremonies were both published on Miami’s website at 10 a.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 22. Both were pre-recorded videos featuring Miami President Greg Crawford, members of Associated Student Government (ASG) and family members of those being honored..

“Black history is American history,” Crawford said. “It is punctuated with the stories of Nellie Craig Walker and the Freedom Summer volunteers.”

One ceremony focused on the renaming of the Campus Avenue Building in honor of Nellie Craig Walker. Walker was Miami’s first Black graduate.

Walker became an elementary school teacher after graduating in 1905. She was the first Black school teacher to teach in the Oxford Public School system. 

Miami’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) Taskforce, created in the summer of 2020, recommended renaming the building after Walker. 

During the ceremony, Walker’s numerous descendants spoke about her life as well as what her story meant to them. 

“Every generation of our family has gone on to become college graduates after she obtained this groundbreaking achievement,” Walker’s great granddaughter Melanie Walker said. 

Another ceremony focused on three Western campus residence halls’ lounge spaces that were named after three Freedom Summer activists who were murdered in 1964. The lobbies of Beechwoods, Hillcrest and Stonebridge will be named for activists James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner.

ASG began advocating to rename the lounges in 2019. The change then gained approval by the Board of Trustees. 

In 1964, during the height of the Civil Rights Movement, the Western College for Women hosted the Mississippi Freedom Summer Training. The training took place on what is now Miami’s Western Campus. 

The goal of the training was to show volunteers how to register Black voters in Mississippi. More than 800 people volunteered.

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Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner were participants in the training. After leaving Freedom Summer in Oxford, they traveled south where they were ultimately murdered by Klansmen.

“The work is unfinished,” Crawford said. “We have unprecedented opportunities in our time to advance truth and reconciliation, equality, justice and unity.”

Reena Murphy, Andrew Goodman Foundation Vote Everywhere ambassador, said there is still work to be done. 

“Voter suppression and intimidation are still widely used to marginalize Black voters and Black voices today,” Murphy said.  

Murphy said she is glad to see students advocating for voting rights and proud that students helped register 300 new voters on Miami’s campus over the summer. 

“It is my hope that as students spend time in these lobbies, that we remember not only their namesakes, but that yesterday, today and tomorrow, Black voters and Black lives matter.”

Angela Lewis, James Chaney’s daughter, said she hopes students will be able to learn about her father and be inspired by his life of service. 

“I think that the greatest way to honor those that have gone before us and that have worked for justice and equality is to continue the work that they began,” Lewis said. 

Speaker Rita Schwerner Bender, Michael Schwerner's widow, attended Freedom Summer with Schwerner. She said she believes her husband and Chaney were specifically targeted for their activism. 

“Mickey and James were murdered because of their ability to work with local people without taking over,” Bender said. “So that the effort belonged to the community. The Klan could not tolerate this developing Black strength.”

David Goodman, Andrew Goodman’s brother, spoke during the ceremony and remarked on how brave it was for Western College to host the training. At the time, Berea College turned down the opportunity to host Freedom Summer.

“I’d like to say that the idea of social justice and civil and human rights is much broader than just a legal concept, or even a moral concept,” Goodman said. “But it reaches to every aspect of our life.”