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Photo Friday: Messiah College’s First African American Student

Today’s Photo Friday installment focuses on Messiah College’s first African American student, Rachel Flowers (Class of 1918).

Research conducted during Messiah College’s centennial year (1909-1910) revealed that the school’s first African American student matriculated during Messiah’s first decade of existence. According to the College’s website,

Rachel [Flowers] relocated from Florida to Boiling Springs, Pa., with her father, Harry E. Flowers, and her three siblings in the early twentieth century. She enrolled at Messiah Academy in 1916, the first African American to attend Messiah. Her brother, Vincent, would also attend seven years later. She went on to graduate in 1918. In the 1950s, Rachel likely held a civil service position, based on a letter of inquiry received by Messiah from the U.S. Civil Service Commission. Although there is much unknown about Rachel, our hope is that her presence will be remembered and that in the future her full story may be told.

That predictive “future” is here now, thanks to the pioneering work of one Messiah College history student, Christina Thomas. Thomas is undertaking an extensive research project about Flowers and documenting her findings at her blog, Diary of a (Future) Historian. Up until now, it appears that Thomas has pursued her research questions using materials available to her in the Murray Library and the College archives. Now, thanks to a generous research grant from Messiah College’s Friends of the Murray Library, Thomas will be able to travel to the Mississippi State Archives in Jackson, to conduct research in the papers of Rachel’s younger sister, Hilda Flowers. You can learn more about the kinds of materials that Thomas will be working with here.

Thomas’ research into Rachel specifically is interesting enough, but the project has unfolded so as to give a portrait of the Flowers family as a whole. Check out the blog’s “Topics” listing (on the left-hand side of the homepage) to read material about Vincent, Gladys, Chauncey, and other members of the Flowers family.

I’m looking forward to hearing more about Thomas’ research in the near future. I think she’s pursuing some questions and themes that will significantly flesh out the early years of Messiah College.

3 responses to “Photo Friday: Messiah College’s First African American Student

  1. I will be very interested to read this research of the early 1900’s at Messiah.

    I remember that back in the early 70’s when I was a student at Messiah, there was a small group of African American students, and it was definitely a minority. Through some personal friendships I saw and heard racial injustices that surprised me in that setting.

    I was once called on as a witness to answer questions from the Judiciary (or whatever that body was called that was made up of some faculty, staff and a few student representatives from Student Council) over an incident of name-calling from the parking lot below, aimed up at some African American girls in my dorm. It was a warm spring evening, the girls were locked up in the dorms (curfew) and the boys were roaming around (guys didn’t have curfew). I happened to be looking out my ground floor window when I witnessed the incident. I was doubly shocked because I personally knew the guys involved.

    That memory is still painful and I could still quote the racial taunts, but I won’t. One of the girls, who was a close friend, came down to my room after this and we talked for hours. It helped me see how painful it is to be the focus of racial prejudice.

    I hope it will turn out that when the college was in the early years and the student body was much smaller, and (my perception) more spiritually grounded, that Rachel Flowers did not experience the painful taunts and other prejudice that I saw in the 70’s.

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