Interview with Belinda Biscoe

The academic and civil rights crusader talks about a mother who showed her how to stand up for herself and for others

August 4, 2022
Source: Belinda Biscoe
Belinda Biscoe

Belinda Biscoe is the senior associate vice-president for outreach and the College of Continuing Education at the University of Oklahoma, and head organiser of NCORE, the National Conference on Race and Ethnicity in American Higher Education, the leading US forum on race and ethnicity in higher education. Her life’s work includes creating an elementary school for homeless children in Oklahoma City and, now, helping disadvantaged youth succeed through college.

Where were you born?
I was born in Atlanta, and my family and I lived under Jim Crow laws.

How has this shaped who you are?
It caused me to become a social justice warrior at a very young age. I was involved in voter registration as a teenager when the Voting Rights Act was passed by Congress. As a teen, I also worked in inner-city neighbourhoods with poor black children and their families, as a teaching assistant, when the first Head Start programmes were launched nationally.

Please tell us about someone you admire.
My Southern mama, who died in November at age 90. She was one of the strongest women I know, and taught me the most important lessons I learned in life. These continue to be my North Star to this day.

An example of that?
I grew up in black middle/upper-middle-class suburbia in Atlanta. One day in the late 1950s, my mom got on the bus downtown with the three of us – my sister, brother and me. The bus driver was white, as there were no black bus drivers at that time. I still remember his face to this day. My mom put the money in the coin slot and the driver accused her of not paying for her kids. My mom protested; the driver argued. The riders, all black, take her side. There’s darn near a riot on the bus. I think the bus driver got so afraid that he backed down. As soon as we got home, my mom took out pen and paper and wrote to the Atlanta newspaper. It was published, and the city’s transportation director contacted her, expressed concern and invited her to a meeting, where the driver was also called in. The director offered to fire the driver if my mom wanted, but she told the driver she expected his job was likely important to his family, and that he could remain, as long as he never behaved that way again. My mom told us of the bus driver crying and thanking her. I have never forgotten that story.

You learned from that, clearly.
Yes. When I was a junior in high school, the amusement park Six Flags over Georgia opened, and my friends and I applied for summer jobs. The Beatles were big then, and kids were wearing their hair long. But we got a letter from Six Flags saying black kids with Afros will be fired. So I sat down with the black kids and crafted a letter telling the Six Flags administration that all black kids will quit if anyone is fired for wearing an Afro. Having learned from my mom, I also noted they probably did not want this appearing in the Atlanta newspaper, or getting the attention of Martin Luther King Jr. Next thing we know, a notice comes out, and it’s no longer a big deal for black kids to have Afros at Six Flags. Another time, I worked at Rich’s, the largest department store in the South. Every year, they gave a Christmas present to all employees. I went during a break with two friends to get ours, and the two white women behind the counter played a cat-and-mouse game of repeatedly handing us our present, then pulling it back as we reached for it. My friends were frightened, but I went upstairs to the manager’s office. She called in these women, with me standing there, and read them the riot act. Not because she loved us black girls, but because she didn’t want any visibility…One day, one of the young white girls that I used to work with there – she just looked at me and said: “Belinda, I’m never going to believe my uncle any more; I’m never going to believe anything he’s told me about Negroes.” And I said: “What in the world are you talking about?” She said: “You haven’t known this all this time that you’ve known me, but my uncle is the grand dragon of the Ku Klux Klan in Georgia.”

Tell us about your encounter with Dr King.
At the airport in Atlanta, as I was coming home from Fisk [University in Tennessee]. I went up to him – a little freshman in college – and reached out my hand…I thanked him for everything he was doing for the benefit not only for those of us who were then called “Negroes” but for the world. I still remember how shocked he seemed to see that a kid as young as I was so aware of what he was doing. He thanked me for what I said, his eyes kind of seemed down, and I just remember feeling this humility about him. The same thing happened with Bobby Kennedy. The day he spoke on our campus, he was standing in front of Jubilee Hall, and I was right by, and got to reach up and touch his hand. And months later, he was assassinated as well. It is probably silly on my part, but I’ve always felt that there were some reasons that my little young life at that time intersected with these people who were such powerful forces in the fight for social justice.

Would you decide again to go to university, facing $20,000 (£17,000) or more in tuition costs?
Without hesitation. Learning to think critically, engaging with diverse students from around the country and having other experiences of a college education have forever shaped who I am, allowing me to give back to society in more significant ways. Several years ago, an African American doctoral student came to me literally in tears, having some tremendous problems with her dissertation committee. She poured her soul out to me, just beside herself. I listened, and we talked about strategies for navigating this. She began to understand how she could not only navigate it, but navigate it successfully, and not end up losing her soul. About two years ago, she came up to me at NCORE, saying she finished her PhD, and that my intervention made all the difference. I can’t tell you how much that warmed my heart.

What advice do you give to your students?
I tell them to think about what happens after the protest – “The protest is the beginning, not the end.”

paul.basken@timeshighereducation.com

CV

1967-71 Bachelor’s degree in sociology, Fisk University

1971-73 Master’s degree in sociology, Fisk University

1977-82 PhD in psychology, University of Oklahoma

1983-91 director and senior research associate, Oklahoma City Public Schools

1989 founder of Positive Tomorrows, an elementary school serving homeless students and their families

2017- senior associate vice-president for outreach and the College of Continuing Education, University of Oklahoma


Appointments

The University of Michigan has hired Santa Ono as its new president, six months after firing Mark Schlissel from the presidency over allegations that he had an affair with an employee. Professor Ono will become Michigan’s first leader of Asian descent when he takes office in October, after six years as president and vice-chancellor at the University of British Columbia. A leading academic voice in areas including race relations and climate action, Professor Ono said it was a “singular honour to be chosen to lead such an extraordinary institution”.

Darnell Hunt has been appointed as the University of California, Los Angeles’ next executive vice-chancellor and provost, replacing Emily Carter, who returned to Princeton University to focus on her work on climate change mitigation. Having been at UCLA since 2001, Professor Hunt is currently the dean of social sciences and a professor of sociology and African American studies, and will begin his new role in September. Chancellor Gene Block said the “long-time campus leader” will “bring considerable skills, knowledge and experience” to the position.

Dame Jessica Corner has been named the next executive chair of Research England. Currently pro vice-chancellor for research and knowledge exchange at the University of Nottingham, she is expected to join the funder in October.

The University of Bangor has appointed Edmund Burke its next vice-chancellor, replacing Iwan Davies, who is retiring in September. Professor Burke joins from the University of Leicester, where he spent the past four years as deputy vice-chancellor.

Biochemist Suzanne Barbour will be the next dean of Duke University’s graduate school and its vice-provost for graduate education. She joins from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she is dean of the graduate school.

The University of Exeter has named Martin Siegert its next deputy vice-chancellor, with responsibility for its Cornwall campus. He joins from Imperial College London, where he is co-director of the Grantham Institute for climate change and environment.

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