Carl Griffin first stepped onto the Moorhead State College campus 49 years ago. He was one of just seven students who happened to be black.
That was a very different time in Moorhead and Fargo, before Project E-Quality and other recruitment efforts introduced a substantial contingent of students of color into cities as predictably white and unruffled as homogenized milk.
Carl returned last week to a much-changed campus and community intent on a personal mission he never anticipated in those days: to introduce his teenage grandnephew Juron, a high school senior, to the alma mater where he himself was once an African American pioneer.
“What’s different on campus now? We weren’t stared at, not once,” he reports. “MSUM us a very beautiful campus, and I was proud to feel a part of it.” He adds, “Downtown, nobody even noticed us.”
That’s not the way it was when an 18-year-old raised in St. Paul’s old Rondo neighborhood went west to get an education. Unlike his friends from Central High School, most of whom enrolled at the University of Minnesota, he knew he wanted a smaller school.
“What brought me here? The railroad,” he says with a smile. “My father worked for the Great Northern his entire life. That meant I had a pass, too, and a way to get home if I wanted.”
He spent his first quarters as a college student at Willmar (now Ridgewater) Community College, where he was the only — the only — black student on campus … at least until his second year, when the coach recruited a basketball player from Detroit.
“I was just 100 miles from home, but it was a whole different world,” he recalls. The former president of his high school’s Civil Rights Club found himself looking for off-campus lodging in a community that wouldn’t rent a room to a young black man. The college administration finally found him lodging with a family with adopted Asian children.
“I was an oddity on that campus,” he concedes. Yet he became involved in most everything, including the newspaper, the Hilltop. He’d been a student journalist back in St. Paul, too, and had written a teen column for one of its black community newspapers. Even though he intended to be a music educator, the itch to write stayed with him. After less than two years, it seemed time to move on.
“There was something about Moorhead State — excuse me, Minnesota State University Moorhead — that drew me,” he recalls. “I’d worked summers on the railroad, and I’d always thought Fargo-Moorhead looked interesting when we passed through. With three colleges, I thought it was bound to be more open-minded.” The college’s thriving arts programs seemed tailored to his tastes. He didn’t know it yet, but MSC’s soon-to-be-inaugurated program in mass communications would be a perfect fit.
In the spring of 1967, Carl arrived on a campus of just under 4,000 students that, while overwhelmingly white, welcomed another politically active Dragon. The consuming issue of the times was the anti-war movement. Already deeply committed to young people’s efforts to end the war in Vietnam, he quickly found his place among antiwar activists from MSC, Concordia and North Dakota State University who shared his point of view.
“I wasn’t accustomed to barbs and hostility in the community. If there was some, I didn’t feel much of it,” he muses. “People who didn’t like me were more upset about the antiwar movement, if anything. After all, it’s a very conservative area — and at home, my own father was just as appalled at what I believed was right.”
As a reporter and editor for the campus paper, The Mistic, Carl found himself in the middle of many campus controversies of the time. He morphed into an organizer, too. Along with students from the other two colleges, he formed the Afro American Friendship Organization.
He reminisces about long-forgotten episodes on campus in those edgy, unsettled days — the rally on the campus quad after the shootings at Kent State University, for example, and the short-lived Free University, where young faculty members and students taught free-form classes on such topics as the military-industrial complex and the history of U.S. involvement in the Vietnamese conflict. He especially remembers a student-led class called “Primer for Honkies” — “I shudder at that now,” he grimaces — that focused on the writings of contemporary black authors like James Baldwin, Franz Fanon and W.E.B. DuBois.
By the time of another legendary protest, Carl was majoring in mass communications and working on the other side of the fence, the first black man in the newsroom at The Forum. Protest erupted at MSC over military recruiters on campus. It climaxed with students pummeling the recruiters (and ultimately President Roland Dille himself) with marshmallows.
Carl witnessed the legendary scene as a reporter. The marshmallow protest, in fact, won him his first by-lined story on The Associated Press wire.
After college, he moved to Washington, D.C., to work for the U.S. Student Press Association, then the Washington Post, where he was a copy aide during the run-up to the Watergate affair. In 1972 he returned to the Twin Cities as a police reporter and columnist at the Minneapolis Tribune.
He took a common turn for journalists in 1980, launching a career in fund-raising, communication and volunteer leadership in North Minneapolis. Eventually, he’d logged a decade with the American Red Cross and consulting roles with the Minnesota Valley Humane Society and Phyllis Wheatley Community Center.
One of his grant-writing clients, the Plymouth Christian Youth Center, became his final full-time mission. Among other programs, he was deeply involved in the renaissance of the classic Capri Theater.
Now retired, the once-music major has rediscovered his love for the piano. And he’s deeply involved in the lives of his extended family, including the grandnephew whom he accompanied on his campus visit to MSUM.
“It’s a whole other world,” he marvels. “There was nothing distinctive about our visit at all. It was relaxed and friendly — no stares or remarks. We saw students with all kinds of backgrounds socializing together everywhere we went.
“And the cafeteria food was absolutely amazing! I could hardly believe it — nothing like I remember from my days in Snarr and Nelson Halls. All kinds of healthy choices, whatever you can think of — and an omelet bar? How times do change.”
Looking back, Carl remembers more curiosity than malice among the townspeople who stared at him and his scarce African American peers. “I think Fargo-Moorhead was mostly just innocent,” he says. “It wasn’t deliberate. We got through it together.
“Now it makes me feel good to realize we really did make a difference. I could bring my young grandnephew back to my alma mater this week and feel real pride. If Juron decides on MSUM, he won’t have to go through the same crap we did — at least, not much of it.
“No one he met on campus treated him like a, quote, black student, quote. They welcomed a promising young man, an honor student, and could recognize his potential. I like that.
“It all was worth it.”