Sam Oni
Black Students
White Students

Mercer's Administration and Integration

by Cameron Kunzelman, Mark Benfield, Sarah Clifton, Krystle Waters, and Drew Wilson

Oral history with Senior Vice Provost Peter Brown

Any analysis of Mercer University’s history will be incomplete.  There will be holes, perspectives that have been lost, and a lack of information in some areas. However, this project on the memory of Mercer University itself, as an institution, attempts to move away from that.  Throughout this research project there is an exploration of not only the integration Mercer University itself but also of the community of Bibb County and Macon. These institutions, of course, could not exist without people to operate them.  By including a discussion of local anti-segregationist “Papa” Joe Hendricks, we learn a little bit more about the connections of Mercer itself to the community at large. In contrast, we also present a perspective of his much lesser-known sister, Dr. Jean Hendricks, an equal force in the integration struggle who is simply left out of the larger history of the integration of Mercer University.

Mercer University: Segregation to Integration
Mercer University often celebrates its diversity. The institution is very proud to say that it is the first white private school in Georgia to voluntarily integrate. This fact in and of itself sums up the overall cordial attitude that both the faculty and administrators portray on campus. One of the main appeals of Mercer University is the friendly and accepting environment that surrounds students around campus. This atmosphere is ideal for anyone seeking an education. However, this warm and accepting environment was not always present on this campus--at least for a certain group of students. It turns out that while compared to the integration of other Southern colleges, the desegregation of Mercer was smooth. However, the overall process through which Mercer University began to accept students of color was not easy.

In order for a person to understand the difficulties that were involved with the desegregation of Mercer, they must understand the origins of the campus.  The Georgia Baptist Convention founded Mercer University in 1833 as a way to educate the rich white sons of crop growers (Campbell). To this day, while walking around campus, students can still see the portraits of the aristocratic students hanging in various buildings on campus that are named after such men.  The university was created in a time when only privileged white men were expected to receive an education.

After the Supreme Court ordered the integration of educational institutions in 1954 the possibility of educating African Americans truly became a potential reality on Mercer's campus. Before the integration issue at Mercer became controversial, the overall opinion that the campus should stay segregated was the majority. Students even went as far as to campaign their pro-segregation agenda around college campuses across the country. Two Mercer students, Marty Layfield and Beverly Bates, who labeled themselves “Southern Liberals,” argued the affirmative position on the debate, “ Resolved: That Racial Segregation in the South Should Be Maintained” (Campbell). The majority of these demonstrations were held on liberal Northern college campuses. These “liberals” also went to African American colleges to argue their point. The motto in their campaign was “never in a thousand years.” However, while the two students claimed that their opinion was the majority, their classmates at Mercer held a different opinion on race relations.

The other students' disagreement stemmed over Mercer dedication of a portrait of Lee Battle, a janitor (Campbell). Mercer announced with pride how they viewed Battle as the school's unofficial mascot, and honored him by holding his funeral in Willingham Chapel. This kind of ceremony was usually reserved for Mercer administrators held in high esteem. However, when looking at the situation in retrospect, this seems to uncover the mentality of most Southerners at the time. It appears that a black person would not have had the opportunity to be educated at Mercer, but they would be honored at the institution only if they were in a position of servitude. It seems as though this was the only way for a black person to receive any form of recognition on Mercer's campus. During this time, if a person of color wanted to attend Mercer they would have to do it with a broom in their hand.

Nearly ten years after the Supreme Court’s decision, President Rufus Harris integrated Mercer. The idea of a desegregated campus was met with much opposition. Harris faced Rufus Harrisresistance from every angle including the students, alumni, trustees, key administrators, and the Georgia Baptist Convention (Campbell). Mercer's affiliation with the Georgia Baptist Convention proved especially troublesome. Leaders in the church opposed integrating the University, so President Harris’s decision incited a fierce debate.

When Harris became President, he brought the idea of a campus without racial bias. However, when the topic of integration was first introduced, everyone voiced a different opinion. The bureaucracy regarding the integration of Mercer's campus when an article titled, “Mercer's Head Okays Negroes,” was published in the Atlanta Journal Constitution in July of 1962 (Campbell)In the article, Harris angered the Georgia Baptist Convention when he reported that he had “supported integration before the trustees” and left the Convention out of the process by saying that in his opinion “their decision [would] be final.” The article infuriated many members of the Convention who took their part ownership of Mercer seriously. In their opinion, since they owned Mercer University, they had a right to be included in the decisions on who was allowed on campus. When Harris became aware of this fact, the board of trustees voted to appoint a special committee to study and discuss the matter of Mercer's integration (Hardie).

Before the Committee was selected to discuss the matter of integration, the admissions committee of Mercer made a very startling decision. In July of 1962, the very month that Harris voiced his support of integration, the board of admissions rejected two African American applicants to the University (Hardie). To some, this decision seemed counterproductive in the terms of Harris' mission to integrate the school. When asked about the students' rejection, Dr. Harris reported that the applicants lacked the appropriate qualifications to be accepted to the University, stating that “we would have not accepted the students if they were white” (Hardie). It seems that recruiting Africans Americans solely based on their color was of no interest to President Harris. He wanted only those he felt deserved admission to the school to be admitted. Once the student body of Mercer became aware of the possibility of integration, a poll was taken to see how the majority of the students felt about the issue. At the time the poll was taken, the majority of the 1,250 students that were surveyed supported the desegregation of Mercer’s campus and would not leave Mercer if it was integrated. Now, with the Committee selected and the majority of the Mercer campus in favored, the only thing that stood in between the integration of Mercer was to find the right student.

On December 20, 1962, the assigned Committee received a letter from John Mitchell informing them of an application submitted by a student from Ghana (Campbell). Sam Oni, a 22 year old applicant, was a religious convert. In this letter, Mitchell begged the committee to consider the Ghanan student for admission regardless of his color. Once the letter was received, it created another heated debate amongst the members of the committee. In the initial meeting on January 4, 1963, the Special committee of the Board of Trustees decided to uphold Mercer's segregation policy “no action should be taken in order to change Mercer's admission policies” (Campbell). Harris and Hendricks considered the decision a startling defeat. However, the battle had just begun to integrate Mercer University.

After the first decision regarding Mercer's admissions policy, the committee chose to view Sam Oni's application in a different way. They could consider the application as either an application for an African American student or a foreign student. Some members voted to view the application as one from foreign student because the decision would separate the application from the integration debate altogether, buying the committee more time to deliberate on the issue (Hardie). Some however, preferred not to stall the issue of integration any longer. John J. Hurt, the editor of The Christian Index at the time of the debate claimed in an editorial, “we either admit him or we are in greater need of missionary preaching than Ghana.” Once the editorial was published, The Christian Index received 23 letters regarding the issue Mercer's impending integration. Of the 23 received, 21 favored the acceptance of Sam Oni. cer administrators Joe Hendricks and Dr. Robert Shapiro wrote a letter thanking the editor for his support in urging the Baptist Convention to “demonstrate the love of Christ we see to proclaim here and to the ends of the Earth” (Gorham). The support from both the school and community regarding the integration of Mercer was overwhelming for the committee.

The committee decided to admit Sam Oni into Mercer University on April 12, 1963 (Campbell). The decision sent shock waves throughout Macon and Mercer alike. The students, however, were mostly enthusiastic about the arrival of their new classmate. When students of the university heard of the acceptance of Sam Oni, The Cluster took an opinion poll from various students regarding their attitude toward the integration of the campus. Most were proud of how Mercer did the “popular thing” and solved the issue democratically, adding how it was “reassuring to know that Mercer can make a social change without coercion.” Others criticized the committee by saying Mercer is a private school and therefore should “have the right to hold onto past traditions” without being forced to follow the path of integration by force like public institution.

With the support of the majority of faculty and students, more African American students followed Sam Oni's footsteps and were admitted to Mercer University. With the racial barrier demolished, it made it possible for any student to receive a quality education regardless of color as long as they were qualified.

Bibb County and Mercer: Friends or Foes?
Macon’s integration was much smoother than many of its sister cities in the South. However, it was not free of its problems and difficulties. There were certainly demonstrations, boycotts, and hard feelings. Sadly, change is always difficult. Through it all, Macon experienced no fatalities, which is very impressive. The Wall Street Journal even commented that Macon was possibly the fastest city in the South to integrate (Manis 209). The most contentious points of Macon’s integration were the bus boycott and the desegregation of the polls.

Macon’s fight for desegregation began in the early 1960’s. The first major accomplishment was the integration of the busses. The bus boycott went on for three weeks (Telegraph March 1962) before it was ended by a mutual decision by both black and white Maconites. The community decided that it was going to be hurt too much if the situation continued. Surprisingly, the end of the boycott on March 5, 1962 was completely peaceful with no mass demonstrations (Telegraph March 1962).  The fairly uncomplicated and simple process of desegregating the transportation system would be followed by a battle much more difficult to win.

After the busses became integrated the polling stations followed.  Macon officials did not want the black population to vote at all. It took a note from the U.S. Justice Department asking the city clerk to “comply with federal laws which forbids segregated voting practices” for them to integrate (Telegraph May 1962). However, the rest of Bibb County ignored the similar note that the received from the Justice Department. The fact that Macon decided to comply gives them a more favorable standpoint historically, though it casts a harsh light on the county as a whole. Even after the polls were integrated there was a problem with bloc voting. Blacks and whites alike would decide together who they wanted to vote for, and it became a major problem for political groups in the Macon area (Manis 205-207). The Macon Telegraph covered the investigation of bloc votes and spoke against it. Eventually, with the increase of black voters in Macon and the fact that investigations made the public aware of it, it started to subside.

The chronology of Macon’s integration from the registry of Telegraph issues provides an astounding amount of information:

The process is quite fascinating. The question arises as to why the golf course would be the first thing blacks would want integrated. Was it just easier? The fact that jails were integrated so much later than much of the rest of Macon shows what I believe to be the local society’s bigoted distrust of black population. Blacks were irrationally feared and people were afraid to put black criminals with the white criminals. Another improbable place for integration to come so late was the Laundromat, which was one of the last places to be desegregated. Blacks could live in the same neighborhood as whites, which had come to be a huge issue due to white flight in Macon, but they could not wash their clothes at the same place (Brown O.H.). It shows priorities. The fact that voting was so early and quickly desegregated is a really good sign because it enabled blacks to no longer be disenfranchised. However, that was forced. The fact that courts and juries integrated much later shows that Macon really did not want to give blacks legal rights and legal equality.

The church played an important part in the integration of Macon as well. There was quite a push and pull from the religious people. Churches are very prevalent, and Macon is in the Bible Belt of the South. The church possibly helped and possibly hindered the process. Pastors joined together to help with the bus boycott and were arrested for it (Telegraph March 1962). Some showed great passion for the movement and supported civil rights wholeheartedly, even risking their churches to do what they thought was right. Because religion is so important, pastors had a great influence on their congregations. However, there were other churches, like Tattnall Square Baptist Church, that hindered the movement. The congregation refused to integrate and refused to allow Mercer student Sam Oni into the church. It can be argued that the religious convictions in Macon helped the cause or prevented it from going more smoothly.

The newspaper in Macon also helped the process flow more smoothly. The Macon Telegraph was quite moderate, especially for media at the time. The paper was anti-Klan and anti-lynching, which says quite a lot (Manis 203). The media, and the way that it frames events, affects the attitude of the people. In the 1960s and 70s, the newspaper was the main form of media and helped to shape the minds and attitudes of the people, especially in the area of civil rights.

Macon’s desegregation was more peaceful than most because of the massive involvement of the local NAACP. This organization was the sole one in the entire city. They pride themselves on the fact that they made such an impact without the help of other, larger organizations such as the SCLC. They got right down to business and did what they needed to do. Obviously they did it very well too (Manis 202-203).

Macon also had the push from its local university, Mercer, which was the first private university in Georgia to voluntarily integrate. Mercer’s president, Rufus Harris and a few institutional leaders had very strong convictions about racism and segregation. Their stubbornness and religious convictions led them to not give up until Mercer was desegregated. That impacted the community, which went through the integration process with Mercer. Mercer’s strong religious convictions eventually seeped into the community and helped push them towards integration before other cities were ready to (Brown O.H.). Mercer also helped to influence the community’s students. Teenagers and young adults generally have a significant influence in politics as well. Mercer students helped a great deal with sit-ins and boycotts.

The process of racial tolerance bleeding into the community is like a river, with tiny streams coming from every direction, and the rivulet from Mercer University became part of the growing swell.  Faculty and administration such as Rufus Harris, Mary Wilder, and Joe Hendricks influenced their students. Mercer students in turn went out and influenced the community. Therefore, the community becomes more accustomed to the idea of equality and sees its teenagers and young adults fighting for something. The community then becomes much more receptive. It could not have been planned better if anyone had tried.

Mercer has always had an interesting relationship with its community. Because the area is so small, the two became very connected. The integration of Mercer caused quite a few problems and strained that relationship for a time. There was stress within Mercer, and there was tension between the school and the community. Macon was at the very beginning of its integration process when Mercer allowed Sam Oni admission. Much of the community was not very supportive because they did not believe Mercer had the right to integrate and violate tradition. Churches denied Sam admission, and numerous articles show that the community felt like school and education should not make these types of decisions. Dr. Martin, a Mercer supporter, had a cross burned into his yard (Brown O.H.). All these signs show some white Maconite’s great distaste for integration as a whole. Mercer’s integration affected the community, and the people in Bibb County knew that once Mercer integrated, they would have more pressure to do the same (Telegraph May 1962).

As far as Mercer’s opinion goes, it was split. The faculty and the students had differing opinions. A small majority of both, including President Harris on the faculty side, supported the admission of blacks. However, there was strife within the faculty because it took quite some time for Sam Oni to be admitted. Overall, the institution was supportive of integration. A major issue when the process started though was the fact that the community would not be agreeable. The institution would have to unite under its views to be able to convince the community that it was the right decision. Mercer worried for its relationship with surrounding Macon. However, the faculty thought it was a worthy enough cause to risk that relationship and continue to pursue the admission of black students.

Obviously, the relationship, though strained at times, held fast. Mercer and Macon now have that tight relationship once again. The bonding experience of a cooperative struggle for civil rights only tightened the bond between University and Bibb County. Both parties have been able to benefit from the experience. Mercer is to be commended for doing what they knew was right, and still managing to not damage its vital relationship with the community.

“Papa” Joe Hendricks and Dr. Jean Hendricks: Two Perspectives of Integration
Joe Hendricks, known more informally as “Papa Joe,” grew up in Talbot County, Georgia. He attended Mercer University in 1951, majoring in English and minoring in History. After graduating in 1955, Joe took up graduate studies at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.  Papa Joe returned to Mercer as Director of Religious Activities. In this position, he “advised Baptist Student Union, brought in speakers, and so on” (Hyde 1). Soon after, he was made the Dean of Men, then Dean of Students, and he would later go on to become the General Assistant to President Rufus Carrollton Harris and Acting Vice President of Affairs.

When Joe Hendrix was a student at Mercer, Joe Hendrickshe was very involved on campus. He was the Student Body President as an undergraduate. During his time in office, he laid the platform for the Honor Council because the students “felt we could monitor our own academic honesty in the classroom during testing situations” (Hyde 2). All students would have to sign the honor code before beginning each examination, ensuring the university that they will not be dishonest in their test taking and will report any acts of academic dishonesty that they may witness. Papa Joe created this system in 1954, and it is still in use today.

As an administrator, Hendricks was one of the front line troops fighting segregation in the 1960's. He was full of Mercer spirit and wanted to create a place with a great sense of community, where everyone was equal. Papa Joe, along with President Rufus Harris, was responsible for bringing the first black student, Sam Oni, to Mercer. This was not an easy goal to attain, but that never stopped Papa Joe. His college Peter Brown recalls:
Joe was just a force of nature, for one thing an immensely powerful, strong man who never neglected human relationships, physical presence is part of what shapes responses, directions, and opinions. I mean immensely powerful man a consummate politician, Joe never wanted to be out front, he never wanted his name on it or his face on it, but he would spend countless hours in people’s offices, over a cup of coffee, out in the quadrangle, and he was relentless I mean called it Chinese water torture. If he told you something once he told you a hundred times, I kept trying to say “Joe I got it the first time”, but the truth was by about the fiftieth time you start to sort of think that way yourself, it becomes common sense, it’s no longer a proposition you have to debate it’s become part and parcel of your thinking. (Brown, O.H)

Things were incredibly unstable when the decision to integrate was made. Mercer received a great amount of resistance from the Georgia Baptist Convention, one of the main stakeholders in the university. There was a lot of difficulty in finding a white male Mercerian that would be the roommate of Sam Oni. Yet again, “Joseph Hendricks was back at work. He had covered many miles, rung many doorbells, and lobbied many gatherings to effect the admission of Mr. Oni. Now he would not have it that the first racist slur to Mr. Oni would be that not one of his American male schoolmates would agree to room with him” (Campbell 88). Dan Bradley, a friend and colleague of Dean Hendricks', found a young man named Don Baxter to room with Sam Oni. Dean Hendricks was really ecstatic to have this problem solved and saw these two as a good match.  

On September 7, 1963, Papa Joe and John Mitchell waited outside, next to the railroad, in order not to allow for Sam Oni to be “exposed to the ‘white’ and ‘black’ waiting rooms” (Campbell 88). One thing that surprised Dean Hendricks the most about Sam was is British accent. He was used to hearing the “soft southern drawl of most new Mercerians” and did not know that Nigeria was an English speaking country (Campbell 89). Once they had made their introductions, they went to the baggage area, then to campus. After Sam was moved in, Papa Joe would not move from his side. “Dean Hendricks hovered, like a mother hen, not quite ready to trust her brood” (Campbell 90). After they had moved in all of Sam's things, Dean Hendricks took Sam to the snack bar. He was so very proud of what had been accomplished. It was still but custom for white people to eat with black people, “but on this day Dean Hendricks would defy the sacred custom. He would sit, eat, and drink in the most public and most popular place on campus with a very black man and his white roommate” (Campbell 92).

 “Papa” Joe Hendricks was one of the biggest champions of the integration of Mercer University, in putting the Mr. Hendricks on a pedestal, it is easy to miss the other Hendricks that may have been just as influential to the integration of Mercer. Jean Hendricks was the older sister of Joe Hendricks, and she is largely overshadowed by the image of a larger-than-life man who could not be stopped from taking down the injustices that he saw.  In part, we have to sweep aside the idea that we have of Joe Hendricks, and look at the root of what seems like his social obligation.  In what information we can gather, there is a definite hint that “Papa” Joe would not have been the man that he grew into without the sister he grew up with (Brown O.H.).

When the Hendricks children were fairly young, their parents were tragically taken from them.  Though there were five Hendricks kids, Jean practically raised Joe.  In our interview with Dr. Peter Brown, there was a definite link between the ability of Joe to be an advocate for Civil Rights and Jean’s influence on him.  “[Jean was a] tremendous crusader, and Joe was very much shaped by his sister in that respect,” said Dr. Brown, following with, “Joe was just a force of nature.” (Brown O.H.).  The inextricable connection between brother and sister is impossible to ignore.

Jean Hendricks’ story has more to tell us about how institutional memory works than anyone else’s.  Through her work here at Mercer and in other places, she was able to fundamentally alter the way that the mental health system works within the state of Georgia (Brown O.H.).  However, that is not documented whatsoever in any of our collections within the Tarver Library Special Collections.  Dr. Brown, through his interview, gave us so much more information than has been collected about Ms. Hendricks by the institution that she was such a part of.  How is it that someone so close to an institution, and in such a radical time, could be summed up in a folder that has less than thirty pages of information in it?

The answer is simple:  Jean Hendricks does not fit within the mythology the Mercer University has accepted.  Though there are several small references within works about Mercer, like Ernestine Cole’s crediting both the Hendrickses with stopping racial violence, she is mostly excluded from the accepted idea of integration workers at Mercer (Campbell 129).  Ms. Hendricks did not blow up, or push petitions, but more importantly she did not have power.   Dr. Brown said that “Daddy Randall and Joe Hendricks could get together and say we need to do this, and the word would go out, and it would get done.” (Brown O.H.)  I think that this also has a lot to do with why “Papa” Joe is a mythical character in Mercer’s past: he was a powerful figure.  By exercising his power for something that is a purely good thing, he has entered the canon as a great man.  How different was he from his sister, though?  I would not say that he was very different at all.  Both championed minority causes, and were ultimately victorious.  The problem is that one person has a two-inch thick file in Special Collections, and the other has been relegated to being remembered as a lifetime member of the Mercer Presidents Club (“Jean Hendricks”).          

In evaluating the institutional memory of Mercer University, we have to think of how the idea of memory works.  It does not matter if hind sight is 20/20 or if you’re wearing rose colored glasses; the purpose of looking into the history of Mercer is to remove the clouding.  By interrogating the past of Mercer, we can find the heart of the institution itself.  In interviewing the people that were there, such as Dr. Peter Brown, we can understand the motives of the people who were involved.  Books like Stem of Jesse, no matter how well researched, create a hegemonic system of thought about Mercer.  By moving away from that, and finding our own perspectives hidden by time, we can create a much firmer grasp in the very idea of what integration was at Mercer.

It was not some small radical group.  It was not a revolution.  It was not easy.  It was something that involved the whole community, and allowed for a push in the only direction that could have been right.  Mercer University, and the community itself, participated in its own nonviolent revolt against mores, values, and oppressive systems.  Sometimes we like to forget that.  Sometimes we need to be forced to remember.

Works Cited:
Manis, Andrew Michael. Macon Black and White: an Unutterable Separation in the American Century. Macon: Mercer University Press, 2004.

Hyde, Emily. "Dr. Joe Hendricks: The Ultimate Challenger."  Mercer Student Report, Date Unknown

Gorham, Lisa. “Decision Awaited At Mercer On Ghanan's Admission.” The Macon Telegraph 3. Mar. 1963: A2.

Hardie, Lisa. “Mercer Denies Negroes Entry.” The Macon Telegraph 24. July 1962: A1.

Hardie, Lisa. “Mercer Officials Ponder Admission of Ghana Negro.” The Macon Telegraph 2. Feb. 1963: A3.

Brown, Dr. Peter. Oral History. (date)

Campbell, Will D. The Stem of Jesse: The Costs of Community at a 1960s Southern School. Macon, GA: Mercer UP, 2005.

"Macon Polls Desegregated Today." The Macon Telegraph. 5 May 1962. Tel 01A.

"Bus Segregation Ends.” The Macon Telegraph. 5 March 1962. Tel 01A.

“Jean Hendricks.” Atlanta Journal-Constitution. 5-31-2006.